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Teenagers, many of them children of migrant farmers, frame up photos at Fender's Farm in Washington County, TN, as part of a multicultural education project — “Growing Tennessee.”
Photo: Katie Connors

Rural America has a reputation as the land of Anglo-only residents, of folks who lack culture in part because they've never known people of different ethnic backgrounds. That assumption's wrong, and Telamon’s Youth Initiative in rural Tennessee is proving it.

“Growing Tennessee: Rural Youth Cultivate Common Ground” (“Growing Tennessee” for short) is helping unite the Appalachian and Latino cultures. The project involves fifty students, junior high and high school ages. Half are from rural Appalachian families and half are children of migrant parents. Working with top-notch photographers, the students learn camera basics; then they photograph whatever is important to them and explore their photography — and their cultures — with one another.

Some students are migrant workers themselves, others are Latinos who are now native to the area, and others are white farmers’ children whose families have lived in Appalachia for generations. Students are able to share their heritage and background, and break past the “uncultured” stereotypes of Appalachia. Diversity is apparent in the mountains, and “Growing Tennessee” highlights that.

Telamon Corporation developed the project, with an initial $10,000 grant from Starbucks. Founded as a non-profit in 1965, Telamon provides human services to people in need: educational opportunities, job training, and housing services. Over the years, its programs have expanded to eleven states, including the unique migrant and youth initiative in Tennessee.

In 1995, Head Start programs were established in five rural Tennessee communities, to help both local families and the migrant workers employed on local farms. In these day care centers — open July through November, farm season — children as young as infants and toddlers interact with one another – Hispanic migrant workers’ children and local Appalachian children.

As inspirational as the head start program is, the Tennessee youth initiative is even more impressive. Funded initially by the Office of Head Start and 4-H, it, too, puts migrant workers’ children (ages 11-17) in contact with local Tennessee youth.

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From “Growing Tennessee” — a youth initiative bringing local teenagers together with children of migrant works in rural communities.
Photo: Maggie

Along with the photography, “Growing Tennessee” involves writing. As migrant students and Appalachian students express the emotions and ideas behind their images, suddenly people from different worlds find things they hold in common. They learn from one another. Jane Crowe, who coordinates the program, says that learning extends to the whole community; “Growing Tennessee” has been a “good way to educate the public about migrant workers and their children and put a face to them.”

The success of “Growing Tennessee” has prompted new proposals for the Telamon Youth Initiative. Ideas include ceramics projects involving parents and children working together, a bilingual education program, and a mural in which migrant children and rural Appalachian children depict agriculture’s effect on their lives.

Jane Crowe emphasized that the Hispanic drop out rate is three times higher than the national average, and even higher for the children of migrant workers. According to Crowe, many Mexican children start working as young as age ten. “Not only is it dangerous,” she said, “but they are likely to drop of out school then.” The Telamon Youth Initiative provides new opportunities for students, opportunities that Crowe said many migrant parents want their children to partake in and learn from.

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“I like to take pictures of my sister and other people, because the different faces of people are interesting. My photographs tell the stories of newborn babies, proud parents, happy children, and church activities. In photography class I have learned to pay attention to the background of a picture so that it is free of distractions.”
Photo: Jessica /”Growing Tennessee”

Throughout the cultural projects, the teenagers are paired with students from Milligan College and Walter State Community College. The younger students have also been taken to Eastern Tennessee State and the University of Tennessee to see art exhibits and tour the colleges. Working with college students allows the migrant children to form relationships with mentors closer to their own age and inspires them continue their education. One student in “Growing Tennessee” was able to get a tutor and earn a college scholarship.

To follow the students’ work and learn more about the cultural exchange in rural Tennessee, you can visit “Growing Tennessee: Rural Youth Cultivate Common Ground.”

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