Natalie Rivera

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This oral history interview was conducted by Sophie Therber with interviewee Natalie Rivera via Zoom on August 5, 2021. Natalie is from rural North Carolina and has been working with immigrant communities since college. This interview follows her many roles in organizations dedicated to immigrant health and well-being. The main focus of this interview is Natalie’s involvement with the Farmworker Health Program and her experience helping farmworkers mitigate the COVID pandemic and extreme weather, as well as other challenges such as HIV education, Internet access, and emergency-related communication in Spanish. Natalie describes her experience addressing disasters such as COVID and hurricanes, discussing the need to set protocols to address disasters and explains how sometimes immigrant communities do not receive the help that they need in the face of these disasters. She emphasizes the way that communities can come together to accomplish amazing feats in the face of adversity.



Sophie Therber [00:00:02] My name is Sophie Therber, and I'm interviewing Natalie Rivera. Today is August 5th, 2021, and the time is 8:41 a.m. Natalie, thank you so much for agreeing to participate in this. And just to start, can you tell me where you're from and just a little bit about that area?

Natalie Rivera [00:00:26] I'll turn my video off, just to help us out a little bit. Where I'm from, as far as ...Give me a little more information on that.

Sophie Therber [00:00:35] Yeah, sure. So, where did you grow up? Where do you live now?

Natalie Rivera [00:00:40] Okay, yeah, so I was born and raised in North Carolina, primarily in the Piedmont region. I grew up in that area and then ended up going to university at UNC Wilmington and then lived in Wilmington about, gosh, like, 13 years, just recently moved back to Piedmont area, specifically to Mebane. But I've pretty much been in North Carolina my whole life.

Sophie Therber [00:01:14] And what has influenced your decision to stay and continue living in North Carolina?

Natalie Rivera [00:01:22] I think I always wanted to leave. Not even, maybe, permanently, but just, mainly I have family here and I think probably why I stick around. After college, I really got into outreach and farmworker health and really ended up just loving the work and staying for that reason. I really loved my job and everything. So, I mean, that's really the main reason I've stayed.

Sophie Therber [00:02:03] How did you first get involved in outreach and farmworker health?

Natalie Rivera [00:02:08] So I did my undergrad at UNC Wilmington, double-major Spanish and communication studies, so I was, you know, learning Spanish and I did an internship with this place in Wilmington called Centro Latino. Well, Centro Latino under a broader organization called Amigos Internacional. And they did that internship. I got to work with a lot of different people. And the main purpose was sort of a resource center for Latinos and for immigrants in the community would come, anything that was needed, paperwork, looking for jobs, reading through their mail, like refers to resources, everything. And I just kind of really enjoyed the work, ended up staying there for another year through an AmeriCorps access service program and got to dive a little bit deeper in understanding the immigrant community in North Carolina, especially Mexican and Central American immigrants, and kind of learning their stories. I realized all of the challenges with our broken immigration system and just wanted to continue doing that work. But I'm also, being from rural North Carolina, just kind of had a special interest in learning more about, I guess, sort of agriculture, farming and sort of where -- I didn't quite because, I was more of an urban area, so I didn't quite see where our immigrant community and agriculture sort of intersect. So I ended up, after I graduated, applying for a fellowship through Student Action with Farmworkers, based in Durham and the Fellowship basically gives students that are from North Carolina, from rural North Carolina. They choose, for the fellowship and for internship program, they choose kind of a mixed group, like rural North Carolina or farmworker families or had worked in farm work. So I got chosen for the fellowship and was placed at an organization called the Farmworkers Project, or we call it El Proyecto. That's in Benton, North Carolina. And that's when I really started to dive in and learn about farm workers. So in more of the context. I was looking and also learning about public health, kind of trying to find a way to also tie in the Spanish that had learned and also look for ways to better serve the community, and really fell in love with public and community health. So ended up doing that for a while. But I'll stop there. I can keep going with the whole story of life story until now, but yeah. I'll pause just for a second, if you have another question

Sophie Therber [00:05:17] Okay, yeah. And I'd love to hear more about what your journey has been like since then. But I do have a question. What was it like to learn Spanish and then be speaking another language in your professional life after having learned it?

Natalie Rivera [00:05:34] Yeah, it was. It was really challenging, I think. I don't think that I'm someone that was naturally good at another language, but I had done an exchange program and learned some there. And through getting to work at the Centro Latino. And definitely when I worked at the Farmworkers Project, all of my coworkers, my boss, everyone spoke Spanish so was very immersed and they were so nice and graceful to me. I think one thing that helped is focusing on certain topics and learning all the vocab. And so I got really good at learning specific topics and everything for it. Like I was a HIV educator at Farmworker's Project and it was nice, as I just said, one area to focus on and can really improve the Spanish that way. But eventually you get the hang of it and it gets more and more comfortable and it feels very natural. So there's definitely times where it was a struggle, though.

Sophie Therber [00:06:38] Yeah. Did you say that you were working with HIV in farmworkers?

Natalie Rivera [00:06:45] Yeah, it was an HIV educator.

Sophie Therber [00:06:47] Okay, HIV educator. What was that like? What kind of responsibilities did you have in that role?

Natalie Rivera [00:06:52] Yeah, so I basically, it was pretty easy. I was given a flip chart, so I was already kind of pre-prepared for me, and myself and another outreach worker, as we were called, really, we went out. And after we would do initial visits with farm workers where we do like health assessments and referred to the clinic and other resources, then my coworker and I would follow up and she would do a pesticide education series and then I would do the HIV. And I really liked [it] because I got trained on popular education, so I would do different things to be really interactive because, you know, it's a tough topic. And even coming from my background, that's pretty conservative and didn't even get a lot of -- any sex education in school at all, so it was it was like I also became really passionate about it at the same time. It's so important because I realized, like, maybe a lot of people aren't getting this. So we try to just, you know, didn't want to assume that no one knew what this was, but just use it as an opportunity to have a conversation and grow a relationship with farm workers that were there working. And it was fun and it was we would make it both of our conversations entertaining and interactive. Hopefully, folks could learn from it. But it also could be just something to do after work. It was overall a really good experience doing that. I kind of forgot, now, that part, but I'm glad that we're talking about it.

Sophie Therber [00:08:39] Right, that's so interesting in that you were able to take something that people don't normally talk [about], I mean, like you said, not having a lot of sex education in school, and kind of make it into a more fun conversation and learning experience for people.

Natalie Rivera [00:08:53] Yeah, absolutely.

Sophie Therber [00:08:56] Do you feel that there have been any similarities with your role working as an HIV educator to your role now because of the pandemic?

Natalie Rivera [00:09:10] I think I may have to...I may need to fast forward a little bit and tell you what I've done since then.

Sophie Therber [00:09:16] OK, that would be great.

Natalie Rivera [00:09:18] I wonder if that might help. So, I'm finishing my fellowship there. I just really fell in love with work, fell in love with community health in general. I also did a...I got to do a community health project, so I was there [and] ended up where I just went in to a farmworker camp and met with a small group of farm workers. And the idea was just to ask them, "Hey, what do you want to learn about? What do you need?" So, again, like using that popular education, using this community health model of really asking what's needed with no intentions in mind. And I remember just loving that concept of just asking, "Hey, I'm here, I'm a resource. I need to do this. So what do you need me to do for you?" And ended up, the group wanted to learn about, like contact dermatitis because they were working in tobacco and were getting a lot of, we get a lot of rashes and scabs. And I would say I got to learn about that and got to work with the medical provider at the time to develop some curriculum. So I feel like that in itself, that piece led me into wanting to pursue my master's in public health. And then it also made me want to continue just the work in general of outreach. So when I moved back to Wilmington, I had known that the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program, who partially funds the Farmworkers Project, was working. I knew that they had been looking for potentially opening a new site down in Pender County, which wasn't too far from where I was living in Wilmington. And I reached out to them and I said, "hey, if you guys are ever planning to open anything or want to do anything, like, I would just love to be a part of whatever I can do." And so that actually led to... that was kind of funny because I've done lots of internships, fellowships and everything at this point, but they came back and like, "well, would you want to intern for the summer?" And I'm like, "you know what? Fine, I'll do whatever it takes. I just want to get into this work." So [I] ended up interning for the summer at the local Pender County Health Department and working very closely with the cooperative extension, who at that time also had a pesticide educator, so I was kind of familiar with that work because I've worked with another pesticide person in another county. Worked closely with her and did that internship for the whole summer, it was full-time. And I went with her to visit some of the farms where she did pesticide education. So, I started mapping out where all the farms were, where the camps were, mapping out all the resources, all the clinics. I was thinking, like, "What does Farmworkers Project do? How do they do their outreach? I need to just replicate that model." So, by the end of it, I was like, "well, this was great. But, you know, I want to do more." Ended up, NC Farmworker Health said, "well, what if we offered you a position of the outreach coordinator role and we paid you for about eight months, and during that time you applied for our official grant and then you could start the program there?" That was in, I think it was 2012 or 2013, maybe. So, nine, or however many years ago. I don't know what year we're in, but it was a long time ago. That's really where it all started. I was there for about eight years, in that role. We grew tremendously, worked with the health department, ended up kind of outgrowing the health department and moved the program over to a community health center that was like down the street. That was here before I left. We were there for several years. And then we started a mobile clinic. We started, just all kinds of services. Dental services, worked with optometry services, just tried to, as much as we can, making a robust program. And right before I left, this incredible person started working with us -- she's a nurse -- and running our mobile clinic. And I just knew, I was -- oh, then we also extended and open another satellite site. But anyway, so I just knew that she...I was like, "I hope, I wish she could take the program for me" because I think I was just kind of ready. And I'd just finished my master's in public health. I did it online through UNC, and I was just kind of ready. It just felt like I'd done everything I needed to, and maybe somebody else could come in and have kind of a fresh look on it. So I got really lucky, and she took over my position. That was last year, in 2020 I left. And it was really hard and sad to leave, but it was felt really good in the moment to have her and have all the other staff that was there. But I think...going very back to your question and thinking about what about that initial position fellowship...I think I learned the most from that experience doing that community-based work where you just ask what's needed. You don't really have an intention. You don't really an agenda. Because sometimes, even with public health, we can get sort of tunnel vision. This is the project I need to do. This is what, like, "oh, I know. I have to do HIV education and you need education. But I really liked that freedom, that opportunity to be really open. And I feel like that's a theme we would keep throughout that new program, we ended up calling it Manos Unidas, was the outreach program that was created in Pender County. And it served 10 counties. Really, that was always a theme with everyone that was hired to work with. Our vision is that we don't need to exist. We're here to fill a gap and a barrier that exists right now. But we're just here to serve. And that's something I learned from AmeriCorps, too. It's just all about service. Empowering people is important. And so, yeah, I feel like that's where I really learned a lot from all that. And thinking about my role, and I'm going into [your] question about my role right now. But I guess I should pause because I'm telling you quite a bit with this story.

Sophie Therber [00:16:12] No, that's all really great. It sounds like your job has just changed so much from your first involvement with Manos Unidas and just asking people what they need, and now having kind of a more public health-focused role with the Farmworker Health Program. And I would love to hear more about what you're doing now. So go ahead, and you can continue.

Natalie Rivera [00:16:35] Yeah. I worked at the Farmworkers Project with the HIV project and then moved, and we started the Manos Unidas in in Pender County, and then from there -- and that was funded by the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program; actually, both of those sites are funded by them. It's just a different area. So, left that position and actually had some plans to take some time off and do some traveling. I was excited, you know. But unfortunately, the pandemic started and we were all stopped in our tracks, right? Any plans that anybody had, that was it. We needed to stay put. So, I was sitting there thinking, you know, this is going on, I have a degree in public health, I need to -- obviously, first of all, I'm going to find a job and I want to find a job at this point. And I didn't know quite what that was. And I just started looking around and something with the COVID response and found this position as the Internet Connectivity Project coordinator with the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program, who I had known for all these years and had funded different areas where I had worked and were great funders, very involved with each and any of the sites I worked with. I thought, "well, let me see what this is about," interviewed with them, got hired, and was super excited...supposed to be a six-month position. The idea is with COVID, everyone is at home. Everybody's grounded. Farm workers are more isolated than they had ever been. And outreach workers weren't really able to go out first and do what they do best, [which] is go out to the farms, into the camps and do outreach. NC Farmworker Health Program came up with the idea that we should try to make sure farm workers have Internet connectivity as a way to do phone calls and telemedicine and all that. And so that was my goal, coming in. We've done all kinds of different models to figure that out, and the first thing to do, going back to that incorporating community feedback, is been working closely with East Carolina University, who's doing the monitoring evaluation for the for the project and for the Internet connectivity project itself. And we just actually went out earlier this week, funny story, to the old site where I used to work. And we did qualitative interviews with farm workers to get their feedback on Internet connectivity and how some of these different projects are going, where we put Internet routers and different farms, different camps. And so trying to incorporate that into the project as we go, because it's also been an emergency. So it wasn't like we could just do an assessment, wait, and then implement. We did a process evaluation because we were in an emergency, and we had to just get things going to the best of our knowledge, which was somewhat...Because I had done outreach, I really understood farmworker housing, and kind of how isolated it can be, and different ways that we had even gotten the Internet going into doing our mobile clinics. So I wasn't totally off with with getting things started. But in understanding that relationship between outreach workers and farm workers is a close relationship. So one of our models is the lending program that the outreach workers actually bring hotspots out to the farm workers and borrow them. And it's -- not only it was a way to literally reconnect, like come out, we're going to bring this -- but also build that relationship. And it's like a whole ‘nother, and what I've heard and the feedback we've heard from outreach workers is that it offered another incentive for building that relationship, another resource, and that it has been helpful, so far, as we're getting that feedback. Yeah.

Sophie Therber [00:21:00] Yeah, I appreciate you taking the time to just tell me all the different positions that you've had and how your jobs and what you've been focusing on has changed so much throughout your whole career. That's really interesting. Can you tell me a little bit more about -- so, you were saying that you went and had qualitative interviews with the farm workers to discuss their experience with Internet connectivity. How were they reacting, and what was their experience with that?

Natalie Rivera [00:21:32] Yes, so are the students working with us, Paula. She's just awesome, got to meet her the other night. So she had so far only been doing because we started the project at the end of last semester or the end of last year. Last season, really, we weren't able to interview farmworker's before going left in the season was over. So we ended up our first goal was to interview the outreach workers because in general, the outreach workers can speak a little bit to some of farmworkers, some of the feedback they're getting. And so that gave us enough information to just continue what we're doing and adjust things as needed. When the season started back this year, we were ready to start interviewing farmworkers as soon as they arrived in the area. She had interviewed about seven or eight farm workers over the phone, and they met with her to see how it was going. And it was just very positive feedback. "This is great. We love it," you know? And I'm like, "Okay, give me some critical feedback. I mean, something." So, we ended up...I needed to do a site visit or this other model, so there's the lending program and there's another model we're calling the Internet hub. And this particular model, it was a very large camp: 80 farmworkers in one location, 40 in another, 40 in another. It was a little bit challenging to just provide hot spots to everyone. So, we did an Internet hub model where we put a really big router on this outdoor picnic shelter area. So it was a centralized location where anyone can go and get Internet. I wanted to see how that was going because it was done through more of a grower-crew leader relationship, versus the outreach workers and farm workers. Plus, since COVID had started, the local outreach program, Manos Unidas, had been having issues visiting that camp because there was a lot of fear around COVID still, and outbreaks. And I'm sure, talking to Gayle and Nicandro [other people interviewed for this project], you got a lot of this, but we planned to go together, and they talked about telemedicine. And so it would be with the crew that are coming with us, and it would be an opportunity to reopen the door. And then I could just get some more casual anecdotal conversations about Internet, and then Paula could do the official interview. It actually went really well. She said, "these are some of the best interviews I've had because it just so much more engaging in-person." I haven't gotten to talk to her yet about how what she learned in those interviews, because I myself just wanted to just walk around, and I talked to groups and heard different things. The feedback that I got just doing that, which is in our official IRB, it just helps me with the project, was the Internet hub...they didn't like that it didn't reach out to all the housing units. When they were inside, they couldn't get Internet because part of that is that those housing units are metal buildings, so it's just really not going to penetrate through the buildings, the signal. And we kind of knew that going on in, but just wanted to see what it would be like. So that was one of the good critical feedback. And then also that when everyone gets on the Internet, it slows down. Again, it was really good to get that feedback. And then everyone said, "It's nice. I had a data plan and I was able to get a smaller data plan because now I can go out there and I can connect to the Internet and I can make a phone call." So folks did really like having the Internet, but the quality wasn't as good as it could have been. And that was an interesting thing, because the grower had wanted to do a better Internet like the fiber, but the service provider wasn't available to that particular area, which is something we're learning about and finding out that really, most of these migrants do not have the option of, through the Internet service provider, to have...You know, we go to a residential home and the Internet has been there for years. You just move in and you call and you get your set up. But like with migrant housing, it's never been set up. They call it "the last mile," getting that line and it just hasn't happened, hasn't been talked about before. That's why we went with this Internet hub. And it's like a cellular network model, so it feeds off of cell towers. But, anyway. Any questions?

Sophie Therber [00:26:34] Yeah, that's really interesting, especially the part about how you had this idea to use the Internet hubs, and they enjoyed having access to the Internet, but it just wasn't really meeting their needs to have Internet inside of their homes and things like that. So, is this program something that's just a specific sites where farmworkers live, or is it in a certain county, or is it just at one sit hubs? What is the extent of this program?

Natalie Rivera [00:27:01] Yes, so we're statewide with it, anywhere that's interested in the state can can sign up. We have as far as the hotspot lending partners, as I call them, outreach programs that are the clinics that we're working with to distribute hot spots. We have about, about nine partners doing that and about a little over three hundred hot spots in their hands. And then I'm working on a report right now figuring out how many of those hot spots were distributed to farm workers and how many farmers had access to those hot spots. When we did our report back in April, it was it was pretty high the how many had been distributed. But we know we know that it's not going to be one hundred percent. So I'm waiting to see what that looks like. And then we have the Internet hubs. We've only done about 14 of those so far. But it's only on about six different farms across the state, so trying to work on that uptake. However, the process of getting those ordering and getting those installed is like...I mean, we're looking at an 11 week, like, lag time. It's pretty -- it's definitely slowing up, maybe, what I would have hoped we could have done. And, like I said, it's just one option. And then the other piece that is also a statewide option is we work closely with the North Carolina Institute of Agromedicine, who we contracted with to do a reimbursement program for farms, where if the farmer is interested in going through that process of talking with Internet service providers, getting it set up in their area, then they'll actually reimburse the farmer for the router and the services and installation of that. And that's then about five farms, too. But the only trick with that is...some of the farms that have wanted to do it actually found out and hit a wall and said, "The Internet service company is not coming out to the farm, and so what can we do?" So, when that happens, depending on the size of the pants, we refer them to either a local health clinic that has hotspots, or that's when we started the Internet hub because it was a couple -- this particular farm, it was so big that we were trying to find another solution that would not require, like, 20 hotspots. So, yes, it really is across the state, and then because you were running in all these infrastructure issues, we're working closely with the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office to talk about, well, how can we influence and promote digital inclusivity and that the last mile does get to migrant housing because that is the long-term solution, right? That's the long term solution because cellular network data isn't the best. It's not the gold standard, you know? So that's the, sort of, fourth thing that we're doing is trying to just overall work on infrastructure. But yeah, but it is statewide.

Sophie Therber [00:30:31] One thing that stands out to me is all the different partnerships that you have with places around the state, like you mentioned, NC Broadband, you're working directly with the growers at the places where the farm workers are living, agromedicine. So, what has it been like for you to create and maintain these partnerships with so many different stakeholders?

Natalie Rivera [00:30:52] Yeah, you know, it's one of the things you learn in your MPH school is doing that stakeholder matrix, so maybe I started out trying to do one, but it's more like -- I think they have you do that matrix over and over because they just want to get it in your head like a natural way that you keep in contact with everyone. Like what's their purpose? We knew the agromedicine's really good with growers and that relationship. So, that's why we ended up going with them for that contract. I check in with the health clinics. We do quarterly reports, so far we're going to go on the second time this year. So everyone's very busy. So I try not to do too much of a check in, but I also kind of regularly try to schedule meetings to keep myself available. I just did a meeting with one of our partners that's a little more focused on seasonal families that I wanted to know more about that because a lot of our work's been focused on migrant workers and living in migrant housing. And this partner happened to do more work with seasonal families and reached out and said, "Can we supply these hotspots to students that the schools aren't able to supply?" And so we had a whole conversation about it and they've been doing that. But, yeah, I just try to check in and then there is something else we're doing, which me and several partners are -- oh, yeah. So I held this series of meetings in February called Assessing the Digital Divide for Farmworkers. And I just invited all the partners that I've been working with to meet and talk more about what we can do to solve this problem, like what's needed, what the farmworkers need, that sort of things. And we did two meetings the result of that was that maybe we should keep meeting and maybe we need to sort of look and partner on the whole agricultural community and that be our approach to better broadband for agricultural communities, because there's so many benefits in the farms having better Internet -- from the technology they can use on the field, just everything, payroll systems, everything being online -- to the farmers and families themselves, maybe having better access to Internet for telemedicine, their overall health. And then the same thing with farm workers. With better access to telemedicine, better access resources, emotional well-being, being far from their family. So, right now, we're looking at an approach that brings everyone together. And so probably around October, we're going to start quarterly meetings called the North Carolina Agricultural Digital Alliance. And that's another way I'm thinking that partners will come together and continue to talk about this topic. And the broadband infrastructure office has supported the idea that they would take feedback from this group, joined some of the meetings when they can. So that's another way we're looking to engage partners. It's been a lot of it's not a lot of work. It is hard to keep up with everybody, but it's worth it. So it's really important to do.

Sophie Therber [00:34:16] That's so incredible that you're able to kind of take the people in different groups that you're working with now and form the digital alliance, and that's really exciting that that's something that's on the horizon for you and your organization. I'd like to switch gears -- oh, sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. Go ahead.

Natalie Rivera [00:34:34] No. Yeah, I think it'll be great. And I'll say, we're looking at it being housed in the potentially cooperative extension who has local counties. So that'll be really nice to where we'll support it. But yeah. Yeah, go ahead.

Sophie Therber [00:34:54] Thank you for adding that. I would just like to switch gears and ask -- you've been working with farmworker communities for a long time, and have you had any kind of personal experience with natural disasters or extreme weather affecting these communities in the time that you've been working with them?

Natalie Rivera [00:35:12] Yeah, yes, absolutely, and I was like, "oh, yeah, we were supposed to talk about that, too." Yes, I think that's why Elizabeth or Gayle or somebody referred me to you. So, when I was the outreach coordinator or at the time program director at Manos Unidas, we obviously went through a couple of hurricanes. In particular, Hurricane Florence was pretty, just devastating. And we're really far east, so it really impacted the communities. We went through Hurricane Florence and then the follow-up hurricane and then the next year, I think it was Dorian or something. But yeah, we've definitely had that experience for sure, or had that experience.

Sophie Therber [00:36:04] And if you had to explain your experience with Hurricane Florence or any other natural disasters or extreme weather to somebody who had never experienced that kind of flooding damage, what would you -- how would you describe that to somebody?

Natalie Rivera [00:36:19] It's like, it's a lot. Like, every time I think about it, I don't...I get emotional about it because it you don't realize how devastating it is until it's over, because I feel like you're just in response mode. And I'm probably making it sound a certain way. But we were in we were actually at a conference, the group of us were at a conference in New Orleans, of all places, and flew back early from the conference, heard this was happening. And you know, and again, I'm telling this from my experience as the program director, outreach coordinator. But obviously, you know, the concern was, what are we doing? I got a call from the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program, and they were saying, "Hey, just wondering what you guys are doing for the farm workers in your area, like, do you have any protocol?" And I was like, "No, we don't!" I don't know. We don't know what to do. This isn't part of our...I mean, we have our role and we have all these different aspects of our health program, but not necessarily this kind of an emergency. And I never really realized what could happen out a little bit further from the coast with the river flooding. So we just started making -- we were like, okay, so we just started making phone calls. And our database system is not very efficient for mass texting or emails or phone calls. And so we just dived in and all of us, the ones that were at that conference flew back early. Luckily, I mean, my parents were amazing and drove down to Wilmington and boarded up my house so I didn't have to worry about that, and I actually flew in to Charlotte and they picked me up and I stayed with them. Like I said, I'm from the Piedmont area, so it's a little bit safer. And then most of my staff, the staff also evacuated. Some of them were living in Wilmington, some were living in Pender County. A lot of them evacuated up to Raleigh. So we're just kind of like sitting ducks. And in the meantime, we're all monitoring the local county emergency protocols and where shelters are. And they just did an amazing job. While everyone's just sitting there like, "What is going to happen to our homes and our community and everything?" And they would just sit in their hotel rooms or in their family rooms. And we were all off work. We found out, and we probably knew at that time, we were going to be getting paid for the fact that it's an emergency and we can't go to work. But none of them really had to do anything. But everybody really did a great job. We started a Google doc and just started throwing resources in it and calling everyone we could. But it was it was hard because we just didn't have an efficient system. And when it was all said and done, everybody is waiting to figure out when you go back. I finally -- and then it was just crazy that Highway 40 was closed down. Every entryway back to Wilmington into that area was closed. And I mean, it's just something like apocalyptic. I'm not the age where I've experienced the other devastating hurricanes in that area, either. And a lot of us weren't. So, this was very new to be in a lot of my staff as well. So I finally heard that [Highway] 421 was open and I hopped in a car with a friend. Actually my husband had already left my parents' house and he was on call to go to a shelter in Sampson County, because he was also working in the health -- it's so funny, he actually became a health educator for pesticides, but working for a cooperative extension in Sampson County. So, he got called in to go to a shelter and he had already left to do that. And so I hopped in the car with my friend an drove back to Wilmington. And right when we got back, I got a call from the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry who is like, amazing. You should interview them if you have a chance, with Lariza. And she said, "Hey, we've got all these.." -- They're a little further out, in Clinton, so they weren't impacted -- she could tell you how it impacted they were, but a little further inland, I guess. And they got these donations and everything, can we get them out to the farms? And all I knew was a lot of the roads were washed out, but we wanted to try to see what we can do and get out to some of these camps that we don't know what's going on. Now, luckily, this happened at the end of the season, a lot of the farm workers had gone home. I even found out later, like a whole group of farm workers actually just flew out before anything happened in our area. So we were like, we can't get in touch with anyone. We just need to go out and see what's going on. And we have these food donations, so a group of us had planned to go the next day. Some of us who live in Wilmington, some of us who were on the other side of the flooding, meet at our office and get the van now and then drive off to Clinton or wherever the office was, I forget if it's Dunn. Somewhere out there. And start distributing supplies. And a couple people were coming from Raleigh. The crazy thing is, is that same night, I think that same evening, the road 421 washed out again. And I remember my husband was took a video of the river, the river as it started to rise. And he was driving through it. And I'm like, "Oh my God." And he made it home safe so. So we were like, "Well, how the hell are we going to get to the office?" And so we found this other route and it took us -- what would normally take 45 minutes from Wilmington, it took, like, an hour and a half the way we had to go to get there. And then I had another staff person that -- I'll tell you what, we didn't end up going to the office, we ended up going all the way up to the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry where we're picking up supplies. And that was where it was really hard drive anyway for us. So I forget how long it took, but it took longer because we were constantly running into the roads that were closed because they were flooded out. And then, so we got there and one of my staff got to the office. He was telling me how all around he had to go to get the van. And I was like, "Oh, my God." And I'm like, "What are we doing? Am I supposed to be allowing the staff to do this?" Like, I was also kind of freaking out, like, I know we need to do this, but also we don't have any safety protocols. It's just, we were not prepared for this. But luckily, everyone was so willing and so helpful and it was the greatest staff. So we started picking up supplies and we started delivering it to the camps that we knew were in the area. And that's where it got really...Just doing that all day, and we had some of the information from the phone calls we'd made, but we went to a farm that we thought only had like 20 workers. And I only brought enough for that and showed up, and it was, like, 80 people there. And I was like, "Wait, you guys were here? You guys, you didn't get evacuated or something?" And it's still to this day, I'm trying to wrap my brain [around] why they didn't leave. They had flooding and they weren't able -- they were sort of stuck in their homes. At that point, there wasn't any flooding. But I was worried. I was worried about this particular camp because I do remember from two years before when we had that flooding the area, they said it got flooded, and it was with a new group for us. And so we didn't really know about them until after that happened. I was just kind of worried that they had been flooded out again. Apparently, I guess some of them had evacuated, but they had been returned. And everything was closed down, too, so if you're not racked in foods, then, you know, you're kind of stuck. We left, and actually, my husband was -- that day, he had come with us because he had gotten permission from his work to do this work as well. And it was actually both of us that were out, and we left and I was just like freaking out because I was thinking we didn't leave enough food, you know? And again, people are resilient, but it just didn't sit well because we couldn't get back to the ministries in time. And I called her and she was thinking about doing another delivery with her group the next day. But I ended up driving by a firehouse and I was like, "Oh, gosh, maybe they at least have water and we could go drop off the water." And I got out and I said, "Hey, are you all familiar with this with this camp of farm workers? We really wanted to bring -- do you have extra water, just bring over to them?" And they were like, "Oh, my gosh;" they knew about this group, but they also didn't realize they were still there. So was again, speaking of this isolation, I mean, it's just this incredible isolation that farmworkers experience when they're here on their contract, it's really not safe. So they were the sweetest group of women. They said, "You know what, we actually have all this hot food we're serving, and how many plates do you need?" And I was like, "You know, like I think we need like a hundred plates." And so they said, "Don't worry about it. We're going to put their plates together right now. We're going to go deliver them." And I can't even remember if we delivered them. Who knows? I think they just went over and they said, "We'll deliver them hot food tomorrow and Sunday," or something like that. And I was like, oh, so just grateful. And obviously, I don't know how when maybe the food wasn't perfect. It wasn't maybe the most culturally appropriate food. I mean, but it was something and it was just a really great experience. But coming back, we realized that other route we took to get in was closed. So, we had to drive all the way up Highway 40 and then cut in and go through Jacksonville. Again, what would take 45 minutes from the office to get home took us 3 hours. And it was a group of us, two different vehicles doing that. And then we waited, and the next day I think some of the groups that were on the other side of the flooding kept delivering. And it finally subsided where we could get in through at least one route, and we kept delivering food and water and working with the local shelters. It was an overwhelming experience because we were seeing how unprepared we were and how vulnerable farmworkers are during a disaster like this and how bad the flooding is in that area. So, it was a mess.

Sophie Therber [00:47:44] Wow, that's really incredible. I mean, I was honestly at the edge of my seat when you were talking about, like, all the road closures and having to make all of these backup plans and change what you were doing, and all of these different people, like the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry and the local shelters and the woman with the hot food coming together at the last minute, basically, to address these issues. So. That's really incredible to hear about.

Natalie Rivera [00:48:09] Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was a definitely a group community effort.

Sophie Therber [00:48:16] And just hearing you talk about the devastation, you were saying the conditions were almost apocalyptic, the isolation that farm workers are experiencing and just how vulnerable they are. What stands out to you, if you had to pick just a couple, the biggest challenges in addressing this issue for the communities that you were working with?

Natalie Rivera [00:48:39] Yeah, so after that experience, we were obviously like, "We need to set up protocols, we need to do more when something like this happens again." It was even, I do remember even one instance we had gone back, we were even all back in the office and Red Cross came in and they said, "We have all these cleaning supplies, can you give us some locations?" And I was like, I can't give you -- I'm remembering how it went, but I gave them some neighborhoods. I didn't want to give exact addresses because we can't do that. But I said, "You can go into this neighborhood and this neighborhood and just drive." Because that's really what they would do anyway. They would just go to neighborhoods and drive around and drop off supplies. So I did that. And then the next day I got a phone call from the Red Cross, a different person, and they said, "Hey, I heard you're really good contact for doing, like figuring out where to go. Can you give me some locations?" And I was like, "I literally just did that yesterday." And it was just frustrating because I know this stuff is going to happen, but it just wasn't efficient and a lot of different things. And I didn't feel like we were in the right place where we could just respond. After that happened, we started thinking about what we had capacity for and what we needed to really raise up to our community for filling in the holes. You have emergency management, but you also realize, like not a lot of communication goes out in Spanish, and maybe not everyone has access to that. And what's crazier is obviously now a couple of years later, doing this Internet project, realizing a huge hole in the whole thing was that farmworker's, a lot of times don't have Internet or don't have cell phone signal to even get the message. That's really just bizarre. Now, in this position, that's something I've talked about a lot, is how it helps with emergency communication. And many of the farms I talked to said the same thing. They said this is this is crucial because during Florence, we weren't able to communicate as well as or more immediately, they would have to go out. You have to go out to the farm and out to the camp, a lot of times, to know what workers need. Obviously, the farms know a little more because they're their employees. So there obviously should be a better sense of responsibility there. If you ever interview anyone else, Melissa Bailey out on another area with Kinston Community Health Center, played a role or received communication for a group of farm workers that actually really did get flooded in. And there was this whole miscommunication that happened. And, you know, the grower didn't evacuate the workers, and they literally got flooded in. And you can Google this and see pictures of farm workers like waist deep evacuating the camp. We didn't see that in our area, but I know Melissa Bailey could talk more about that and what happened. And so that's when we realize this is far from over. Farmworkers are vulnerable. They're already vulnerable. We already see just so many, you know, there's a lot of power dynamics, and it's not very normal for an employer to have that much power or responsibility for their workers or the nature of our H-2A contracts puts a lot of responsibility on the grower to make sure the workers are safe. And if the grower isn't fulfilling their role and doing that, the farmworkers are one hundred percent vulnerable. And if the infrastructure isn't there, Internet and cell phone service and money to buy a cell phone. And if that's not there, then that's a whole ‘nother issue. And farms need to have evacuation plans for their workers. So a lot of it was we knew, and thinking about what we could do as an outreach program, we knew a lot of it was beyond our capacity in our scope and even our funding. So we did apply for some funding from some grants that came out right after Florence. And the first one we did, we wanted to do, kind of, an assessment and do interviews with farm workers to see what we could do and what was needed. We were able to hire someone to really focus on that project. And they interviewed with farm workers. And some of the things we learned about was like, you know, even just they were going to like the vehicle that was there and charging their phones. And so we realized maybe battery-powered chargers would be important and flashlights. And so if they did stay in their house, like if there was a low flood risk then and they weren't in a flood zone, then at least they could have different forms of power. And we tried to think about education we could do. We also set protocols for our outreach team for what to do. And we were trying to explore -- and to this day, it was so funny. I just saw Angie yesterday, or two days ago, who took over my position there. And she's like, "We're still trying to figure out this mass texting thing," because the database that they use, it's so outdated, it just doesn't allow for that. So that's something that we've just been exploring. Also met with some of the county emergency management directors to kind of talk more about farmworkers and how they can be included in their plans. And we hit a lot of walls with that because there was turnover. We would make one relationship and then that person would leave and we would ask for one thing, and they would say that it was. Like Code Red, "Oh, yes, it's in Spanish." Well, after further, you know, because we were like, we can show farmworkers how to sign up for Code Red. That's an infrastructure that exists. You don't need to create and recreate the wheel. But when we realized it's actually not in Spanish, you could sign up. And if your phone's in Spanish, like the instructions, things will come. But if that particular message is being sent out in English, it doesn't translate it the way that it's inputted. So, we discovered a lot of issues, but I felt like we didn't resolve. I felt like we weren't really able to resolve those issues in the end. And I think to this day it's still a problem. And then COVID, and then the pandemic happened and that exposed even more. I mean, it just exposed all the cracks in the system.

Sophie Therber [00:55:25] Were there any ways, specifically with Internet accessibility and communication and just having access to messaging in Spanish, that any lessons that you and your organization have learned from your time dealing with the hurricanes that have carried over and applied to the way that you're addressing the pandemic?

Natalie Rivera [00:55:46] Yes, so when I first started, I wanted to incorporate, you know, okay, farmworkers have Internet, let's also look at systems that provide emergency communication and I started exploring that as part of my role and realized that, again, I just continue to realize that all the county systems really have a challenge when messages are inputted into their mass texting system that they aren't going through in Spanish. I mean, again, I didn't explore every single one. But, you know, we learn that some groups do Facebook and they will post bilingual messages, but maybe the county doesn't have access to someone that's translating the documents. So they're only posting in English. So I didn't do -- there needs to be a more official study done on this, but it's...yeah, there needs to be something more done because I feel like, it just wasn't, I just feel like it's still not resolved at all. I mean, I think if we had another -- and we were talking about it last year, like, freaking out because, you know, this pandemic's coming, but how can we prepare our sites better? Because it's now working for the four NC Farmworker Health Program. It's like even their capacity with their specific funding isn't completely filling that gap, either there is some onus on our emergency management, you know, on our emergency management programs within the state and within the counties to really look at this and dive deeper, that we have a huge population of Spanish speakers and, or monolingual Spanish speakers. And we're not -- I don't think we're filling the gap, but, you know. I don't know. I don't know what to do. Episcopal Farmworker Ministries, I talked to Lariza a while back about this, and they did get a mass texting system, but it's very local to their area. And she said it to me again. She was like, "We need something that statewide or at least the county, because we can't keep --" you know, they relay the messages through their system. But it's just unfortunate that that system at the county level couldn't just be inclusive of everyone, that they have to replicate it so that it does work. Yeah.

Sophie Therber [00:58:20] And you mentioned the need for a study about this, but just in general, if you and your organization to have more supports to address this issue, what would, what would those be and what would that look like?

Natalie Rivera [00:58:34] I mean, I think like if we had a position that was a permanent full-time position, really strategizing and focusing on emergency response for farm workers, and then that person could have a seat at the table on the greater emergency plan statewide, I think that would be ideal. I don't know. It takes a lot to approve a position like that. And while we might have all this additional funding during this pandemic, that isn't going to necessarily continue in the next year or two. So if you don't have continuous funding, I guess it's hard to make a permanent position available because you have to base it off of what you would normally get. So that's kind of my understanding from my office that I'm learning about. So, I could see that. And it would also just be nice if, you know, I'm sure there's other ways around it. If there was sort of an equity person that really had to focus on equity and inclusion at the emergency management, that could just make sure that, because it's not, you know, it's not just farm workers, there's a lot of vulnerable populations that need an eye and support and they need to have a voice as well. So, I'm sure there's lots of ways to go about it. I do think more and more offices are moving towards a focus on equity. And you know, but I think a lot of us, maybe a lot of people may not. It's a concept that I don't know that everyone grasped...It's odd. You'd think so, but I think people like to try to make their own definitions of what equity is, and that's not really how it works. You really need to talk with the community and learn what's needed, what barriers there are and how to break down those barriers. You can't just decide, "well, I think this would make it more equitable," and, you know, anyway.

Sophie Therber [01:00:46] Right. That totally makes sense, and that's a really interesting point. Is there anything else that you would like to add before I stop the recording?

Natalie Rivera [01:00:58] Man. I think, I appreciate the time to talk about this and reflect and it was really interesting connecting what I, you know, the journey that I've been on. So it's kind of funny that that's a piece of this project is a personal journey and then also just farmworker health. Thinking about the project I'm doing now and I guess how much it relates and how much some of my work is sort of influenced by that experience, being in a state of emergency, I mean, and now we are again, in a state of emergency, but it's the whole state. Yeah, I just appreciate it and I think, you know, there was a lot of partners during that time, there's a lot of groups that did a lot of amazing work as well. Farmworker Ministries, I know Kinston Community Health Center was doing a lot in their community. And it's you know, that that's what it takes. Just everybody, everybody coming together. But it I don't think it's been -- I think they're still pretty big gaps, it's surprising after a few years. And now we have the pandemic. So, yeah, that's it. That's all I got, right?

Sophie Therber [01:02:09] Yeah. It is kind of interesting to conceptualize the pandemic in relation to other disasters that you have experienced. So thank you so much for your time and explaining to me your story. I'm going to go ahead and stop the recording really quickly.

End of the interview.