Ethical Considerations of Blogging Farmworker Stories

By Joanna Welborn

The idea for hosting a blog to share our student interns’ reflections on their oral history and documentary work with farmworkers came up during our biannual documentary advisory meeting. We had been evaluating the Student Action with Farmworkers 2012 summer program and were trying to respond to the feedback from our interns who complained that their documentary work (and the endless transcriptions involved) served no useful purpose. “Students today really want immediate gratification,” one of our advisory members observed. “They need a way to share their work in the moment, right as it’s happening- like they do on Facebook all the time.”

We landed on the idea of testing out our first-ever blog so interns could share not only their documentary work, but also reflections on their work doing legal, education, health, and organizing outreach with farmworkers. We’re always looking for ways to share our students’ experiences with our supporters and were excited about the idea of students writing in their own voices.

But allowing students to blog on their own would bring up a whole new set of questions. Of course we’ve long been aware of the privacy concerns and ethical considerations of doing oral history work with farmworkers, most of whom are either undocumented or working under the H2A Visa program where their employers have power over their ability to stay in the country. We spend two days during our weeklong orientation training students on documentary and oral history work, and always spend a lot of time discussing the importance of getting signed release forms and informing participants about how and where the projects will be shared.  We could foresee interns coming home from a long day of outreach, having seen deplorable housing conditions, and having heard stories of pesticide exposure, wage theft, and backbreaking work, and sitting down at their computers angry, tired, and rashly posting a blog that could get a worker in real trouble.

It took a lot of discussion and research on our part, but we finally came up with a solution that worked for us: students would freely post to a private Facebook page that they already belonged to and I, as the documentary coordinator, would read all the posts, select which ones told stories we wanted to share, and contact both the intern and their agency supervisor to get approval before posting on our public Tumblr blog. It was the perfect solution for us. Students already knew how to use Facebook, of course, and by giving them the freedom to write whatever they wanted, we were giving them the instant gratification for sharing they wanted and also giving them the opportunity to reflect on the powerful experiences they were having, all in a safe space. We created a social media policy for interns that outlined what they could and couldn’t share on their own Facebook pages and we discussed possible repercussions that workers could experience if the guidelines weren’t followed. The students really got it. They took their responsibility seriously and kept posts about their work strictly to the private Facebook page.

We’re so proud of the work the students did this summer and of their writings that give an inside glimpse into the transformative experience that is the SAF internship. We linked to the blog from our public Facebook page and on our weekly listserve and heard from supporters that it had exactly the impact we wanted: “The blog paints such a great picture. It makes me feel just like I’m out in the fields with the students.”

Check out the SAF blog here.

Joanna Welborn is the Assistant Director of Student Action with Farmworkers, a nonprofit in Durham, North Carolina. Joanna coordinates documentary work conducted by college students interning with farmworker organizations in the Southeast each summer. You can reach her at