Community Interest – April 2008

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Community Interest” April 2008.

Advocating For Napa’s Farm Workers - Mary Ann Cleary

Advocating For Napa’s Farm Workers – Mary Ann Cleary

What do Kermit the Frog and advocating for Napa farm workers have in common? The answer is Mary Ann Cleary, the Farmworker Advocate who works for Napa Valley Community Housing.

“I moved to New York city when I was 19 years old,” says Cleary, a native of West Palm Beach, Florida. “I worked for a production company that made television commercials. One of the ads featured the Muppets. The Muppets were a tiny organization at the time and the people who worked there reminded me of people from home. They weren’t impressed with themselves.”

Cleary worked as a producer for the Muppets for 12 years, traveling the world and enjoying every minute.

“It was my whole life for a long time. They were my friends. It was really fun; an absolute blast and the experience spoiled me for years to come.”
This day she is discussing planting vegetables with Gil Ortiz, manager of the migrant farm worker center in Calistoga.

“The workers like to plant their own vegetables so they can have fresh produce all season long,” says Cleary, adding that Central Valley Hardware is donating many of the plants this year.

The 60-bed center is clean, if sparse. Workers sleep two to a room. For $11.75 a day, they receive hot breakfast and dinners, plus a sandwich or burrito to take with them for lunch, six days a week. There’s a television and pool table in the common room. Boarders have access to a coin operated laundry. There are three similar centers in Napa Valley.

“As Farmworker Advocate, I try to make sure their needs are met,” says Cleary, a blue-eyed blonde who is studying Spanish.

Those needs recently included locating and purchasing a commercial coffee maker for one center, an ice machine for another.

So, how did this East Coast sophisticate end up in muddy boots, discussing tomato and chili pepper plants?

“After a long career with the Muppets, I lived in several places across the country. I built two houses. I worked in San Francisco as a prop stylist for photographers, ad agencies and interior designers. This led to museum work.”

The museum work included being Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, running a departing of 18 staff members, and putting on 40 exhibitions a year.

After receiving her Masters Degree in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College she was recruited to the position of Senior Vice President, Programming, for one of the three greatest maritime museums in the world, the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

“It was a fascinating learning experience,” says Cleary, who oversaw curators, the education, exhibitions and collections departments and conservation.

During this time, she made frequent trips to Napa to visit friends and, in the autumn, helped them with their annual harvest party.

“There was always fun in the fall. After a while, I realized how much I missed Northern California, particularly good, clean food and organic produce. I missed the bounty of Northern California.”

She says she listened to her instinct that she had to be here.

“I need to be around good ingredients, where seasonal food is grown locally. I’ve had an eclectic career, but am fortunate that I’ve done interesting things and worked with good people.”

She moved to Napa in 2006.

“I wanted to see if there was a way I could become more involved with the community.”

Her family ingrained community service and awareness of the working class in Cleary.

“I was the fourth of five kids,” she says. “My father was a general contractor who built bridges and roads all over Florida. In the summer, a friend would loan us his house in the Bahamas and every Sunday, our family went to a church at the migrant labor camp. The church was plastic tarps on bamboo. Instead of Holy Water, our hands would be sprayed with bug spray. My father wanted us to see how people lived.”

When he traveled, he also brought his children to the various cities and had them visit manufacturing plants.

“We went to steel mills, paper mills, orange juice processing plants,” says Cleary. “It appealed to me. I like to see the process of how things are made. It’s probably the influence of my father, taking us into migrant labor camps, into fields and into factories, along with the influence of Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets) to see everyone as equal. It put a human identity to it.”

One brief career change may have influenced her even more.

“I’d been trained to expect work to be rewarding every day, which is a gift and a curse. I used to joke if I ever needed a break I’d stop and work in a flower shop. Well, that time came and I took floral arranging classes and got a job in an upscale flower shop in Florida. Until then, I hadn’t realized how toxic the pesticides were that were used on flowers. The beautiful flowers were covered with chemicals. This was my ‘ah, ha’ moment. Towns in South America where these flowers were processed had bad water and children were born with birth defects. Here I was thinking I was creating beauty and being creative and I was being poisoned.”

When she relocated to Napa, Cleary thought she’d get into a career that was food and lifestyle related. She scanned the help wanted ads.

“There was an ad for a Farmworker Advocate, which sounded interesting. In the back of my mind, I thought that the farm workers might be having the same experience as I’d had in the flower shop. Of course, I knew the job wasn’t for me because I hadn’t advocated before and I wasn’t bilingual. A week later, I noticed the ad again and reread it, looking for the requirements. I was organized and work well with groups.”

Clearly was hired and began educating herself about the issues in the valley and worked toward making the farm workers’ lives better.

One of her current projects is working with the Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency on a vanpool to connect workers with the vineyards and the farm worker centers.

Foreclosure Prevention
When she learned about farm worker staff members falling into the mortgage crisis, Cleary pulled together a committee to present a Home Foreclosure Prevention Forum (see sidebar for details).

“I’d heard another story about a ranch manager being caught in the mortgage crisis. I made calls and found that Hispanic people were more likely to get caught up in the situation. Agricultural workers have a huge effect on our community. This is an organizing opportunity to go somewhere and get advice. They will be able to talk openly with a trained counselor. I heard there was a need and I could help figure out how to put it together. I was trained to be a producer.”

The Home Foreclosure Prevention Forum planning committee is a collaboration of non-profits and government agencies who understand what’s happening and rising up to get ahead of the problem.

“Our area is sizeable enough to know we need to reach out and encourage people to make good decisions, because their decisions affect our quality of life. The project is related to the Hispanic community and the American dream of home ownership.”

Cleary says that currently 30 homes a week in Napa County are going into default. Homeowners have up to 90 days to reply, but seven out of nine people don’t respond to the bankers.

“I listen and see how I can make connections. People can be in a lot of disparate situations and I can bring them together. I have a sense of how things can be connected. One level is networking with people and another is connecting the context and responding creatively.”

Cleary says she sees herself here for the long haul.

“I’m just beginning to realize how Napa makes it so easy to get involved in the community. There are good people here who can define what needs to be done. It’s a great place to use your talent and skills in ways that bring you personal enrichment and benefit the community.”

Kermit would be proud.


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