The Journey

Serving the Underprivileged a Privilege in Itself
By Tim Takechi

Marty Miller, '89, drove home from a town meeting where members from a rural community had voiced their staunch opposition to a cause he firmly believes in. He wanted to build housing for migrant farmworkers in an area where neighbors didn't want that to that happen. After a long and tense debate during which passions arose on both sides, Miller returned home exhausted, drained and determined. Determined that he was doing the right thing.

Gradually, neighbors relented and began to see the value such housing could have.

Miller helps migrant workers through his work as the executive director of the Office of Rural & Farmworker Housing, a nonprofit organization based in Yakima, Wash.

"Our mission is to increase the supply of affordable farmworker housing
in Washington State," Miller says.

Washington's success in farming has led to the annual influx of migrant farm workers during harvest season. Most migrant farm workers in rural Washington cannot afford decent housing; the seasonal demands reach as many as 30,000 to 50,000 housing units that simply are not available. The demographics of these workers vary from year to year, but most of the workers come from Washington, California, Texas and Mexico. Miller's job is to coordinate housing so that they all have a clean, safe place to be.

His office finds land, secures money, hires a contractor and manages the units once they are completed. Miller says he is optimistic about the future of migrant workers who need homes.

"Through good government and politics, we can build good communities," Miller says. "I am interested in how communities work and in how to improve communities."

The Office for Rural & Farmworker Housing does not operate these new communities of migrant workers directly. Instead, the office works with private nonprofit organizations, including the Diocese of Yakima Housing Services, SeaMar Community Health Centers and the Wenatchee Housing Authority. These organizations actually own and manage the housing communities.

Miller currently oversees housing construction in Skagit County, Douglas County, and the city of Toppenish, in Yakima County. In these areas, both seasonal and year-around units are needed to house all the incoming migrant workers. Statewide, Miller says approximately 1,000 units already have been constructed with the help of his organization.

"It's just a drop in the bucket," Miller says.

Although Miller's office is making progress all over Washington state, there remains a need for more units.

In the new communities where housing developments are already standing, some migrant farmworkers face opposition from citizens in surrounding neighborhoods. Residents living in rural farmworker counties complain about migrant farmworkers moving into their neighborhoods and the challenges of incorporating them into the community.

The Office of Rural & Farmworker Housing works to give migrant workers the means to develop residence councils, establish education opportunities for children, pursue literacy programs and provide for English-as-a-second-language programs.

Regardless of conflicts that may arise, Miller believes he is obligated to help provide for the workers' basic needs if they cannot provide for themselves. Remembering this calling presents Miller with a reason to continue his line of work.

"I was motivated by the fact that we're on the right side of the debate," Miller says.

Miller says that not all developing neighborhoods experience the clashes of culture experienced in some migrant communities. More pragmatic neighbors have an open mind about these new developments: If farmers want workers to help in the fields, then these workers need a place to live.

"Ultimately, community members view our developments as a positive addition to their area," Miller says.

Once the new communities are settled, the new residents are given an opportunity to better their lives. When farm workers move in and start working, they gradually raise enough money to buy their own homes.

Throughout his career with the ORFH, Miller has come to realize how rewarding it can feel to help out those in need.

"I've learned that there are very dedicated people who are committed to building affordable housing for all people," Miller says.

Miller believes this commitment because his own childhood reflects a sense of identification with farm workers. Miller grew up in Selah, Wash., a rural farming town just outside Yakima. While his small-town background influenced where he wanted to work, he did not intend to work with farmworkers and housing.

Miller majored in political science and minored in business. While attending Whitworth, Miller took an American-studies program in Washington, D.C. Witnessing politics in action led Miller to the realization that he needed to take the next step as a Christian.

"I found that serving underprivileged people is a way I can live out my faith," Miller says.

After graduation, Miller volunteered with Habitat for Humanity for a year. Wanting to enter the political arena, Miller then moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for a year as staff to the U.S. Senate's Labor and Human Resources Committee as assigned by Washington's Senator Brock Adams, who was a member of the committee. These two experiences gave Miller the knowledge and political savvy necessary for his present job.
"After working in the Senate and in that atmosphere, one of the things I realized was that I enjoyed working at the local level more than with federal policymakers," Miller says.

Upon completing a master's degree in economic development at Eastern University in Philadelphia, Miller decided to return to the Northwest. He applied for a job at the ORFH and was accepted, initially working as a housing developer. In 2004, Miller became the executive director. Before working for the ORFH, Miller had little idea where his career would go.

"Trying to serve the poor became a guiding principal for me, which is consistent with my faith," Miller says. "The job at ORFH was a door that was open, and I walked through it."