We are fortunate to have an Inner Life of Teaching & Leadership cohort at Cornell University, a circle of trust that meets monthly for faculty and staff. We have two cohorts at any one time – one year-long experience for new applicants and another into which participants can flow after that first year.

Mary Jo Dudley is the Director of the Cornell Farmworker Program. She has repeated many of our Inner Life of Teaching & Leadership experiences with students engaged in the program, and we recently got together to talk about how she weaves Circle of Trust principles and practices into her work. Here are Mary Jo’s words about the intersection between farmworkers and university students – and the ways in which the Circle of Trust Touchstones have been vital in forming a bridge.

~Marcia Eames-Sheavly, Courage & Renewal Facilitator


Many themes and challenges occur in the lives of the immigrant farmworker: imagine the challenge of not speaking English in a culture in which that is the dominant language; having a decreased ability to communicate with your employer as a result; being undocumented with heavy anti-immigrant sentiment and high risk of deportation; heavy debt and experiencing the anxiety of having to work many hours because everything one owns (homes, animals, land) were put up as collateral for the debt they incurred to come here, pushing oneself to earn enough to repay that debt or one will leave worse off when they came. And on it goes.

This creates an environment in which people try to remain in the shadows in every aspect of their life. And this has its own personal cost: people talk about starting to feel as if they are criminals, doing something wrong, must remain a secret, because if it came to light there would be repercussions.

So how do you help students to switch gears from their chemistry exams to listening to a low-literacy non-English speaker articulate their story and their hopes for the future?

Our work at Cornell is framed within the context of addressing the needs of farmworkers and their families.  A critical piece of that is having conversations with  and interviewing farmworkers one-on-one to understand their personal stories. We draw from these commonalities to inform materials developed to meet their critical needs. Farmworkers often note, “Why not just ask us what we think?” And so, we do.

The Cornell student body is smart and energetic, and students want to make a difference. And, they have ideas and preconceptions of who the farmworkers are. To create a baseline where we are starting from active listening – listening to what people say – I find that this is a challenge for all of us, not just students. Challenge: how do you teach students active listening?

I have begun to use the poetry from our Inner Life circles to ground the class before we begin. It changes the pace, from running from one thing to another, sinking us into a time of reflection to understand what it is we plan to do.

We work in teams but the students themselves have different perspectives and viewpoints, so to create a team, we must ask what are our points of agreement, our baseline? These are often individuals with different life experiences and different lenses. How do we create respectful communication? The Touchstones are so helpful for making and articulating points of agreement so we can call upon them when we slip out of them. This puts the emphasis on the touchstones – not pointing fingers at one another.

I recently had an experience of taking students to a detention center, so they can see what it looks like to be detained to await deportation. Students have different backgrounds – for example, one student was raised in an explicitly peaceful context and another came from a law enforcement family. The former felt the organization and the rules made the student terribly uncomfortable and for the latter – it was actually comforting and familiar. Another came from a setting with family members in concentration camps so you can imagine how that confinement raised huge personal issues.

How do you work with this, all these different lenses, how does this frame our work? In the face of all these tensions, how do we hold a respectful conversation with the leaders taking us through the detention center? How do we navigate this when we come with a different lens, and it might be in opposition?

I find the principles, practices, touchstones, stories and poetry to be immeasurably useful for exploring and articulating viewpoints, navigating these tensions. We are constantly turning to wonder. We hold the tensions. We learn to be here now.

Mary Jo DudleyMary Jo Dudley is the Director of the Cornell Farmworker Program at Cornell University, dedicated to improving the living and working conditions of farmworkers and their families through research, education and extension. Mary Jo was selected for the 2012 White House Champions of Change Cesar Chavez Legacy award. In 2015 she was awarded the George D. Levy Engaged Teaching and Research Award at Cornell University.

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