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Since her days as a Lakeland student, Erin Balleine has been committed to working for social justice.
She attributes her desire to making the world a better place in part to growing up the daughter of a pastor, Lakeland alumnus Lawrence Balleine '70. She remembers homeless people coming to the church seeking support. "If they needed some food or some money for diapers, our home is where they came." Erin remembers that missionaries from other parts of the world would stay at her house and share their stories of struggle and hardship. "I grew up understanding the social injustices that existed not only in my own community, but across the world. This really shaped who I am today."
Erin earned a bachelor's degree in sociology at Lakeland. She remembers that Lakeland faculty members Alan Mock, Keith Striggow and Don Francis all taught about the systematic social injustices that occur every day, and Erin began to understand the extent of the challenges and how she could make a difference.
Lakeland opened the door to several internships that gave her experience in helping people in need. At Project Youth of Lutheran Social Services, she worked with troubled youth. An internship with the AIDS Network of Madison, Wis., became the basis of her Senior Honors Thesis. She also worked part time with Safe Harbor, a Sheboygan-based domestic abuse shelter. Prof. Mock, says of her, "Erin's passion for social justice is a rare and needed attribute in today's world. Her work provides a profound and enduring commitment to improving the lives of people in need."
Erin remembers her Lakeland professors as people who cared. She has a fond memory of Richard Leach, who taught humanities, chasing after her across campus when she was late for a bus leaving for a field trip to Chicago. He had Erin's dad in class two decades before, and she says, "Dr. Leach called on me every single day. I could not ever be behind on my reading for his class, because I knew he would call on me. I tried sitting in different seats, but he always found me." She said she misses singing in the choir with Prof. Janet Herrick. "I loved that."
Erin also recalls an eye color exercise in Dr. Mock's class in which he placed students with blue eyes in the back of the class and those with brown at the front, intentionally discriminating based on eye color. "This exercise brought to life the realities of discrimination and was often something I thought about as I furthered my studies in sociology."
After graduating, Erin helped open the Miami branch of the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM), where she worked as a community organizer in support of farmworkers to end sweatshop labor in the fields. "Many of us have heard of the abuses that exist in sweatshops around the world," states Erin, "but few of us have considered the 'sweatshop' conditions that farmworkers in the U.S. have had to endure." During her time with NFWM, she helped organize the boycotts of Taco Bell, Mt. Olive Pickle Company and Gallo Wines, all of which ended victoriously. She remembers the day that a contract was signed between the wealthy company officials and the farmworkers who struggled to get by on $10,000 a year incomes. She and others had fought to ensure a penny-per-pound pay raise for the farmworkers who had not received a raise in 26 years. "As we all sat in the room together to sign the contract providing farm workers with their first raise in 26 years, I realized that a very small group of farmworkers, people who tend to have very little power, had just made a very significant change a multi-billion dollar industry. And I got to be a part of it. It was a very moving moment," she said.
Erin received her masters in sociology from Boston College. Her work there focused on social movements and social class. Currently, Erin is the statewide VISTA Supervisor and Resource Specialist for the Florida Literacy Coalition. She oversees an Americorps grant that provides 16 full time VISTAs to be placed in literacy organizations throughout Florida. Whereas her work during her time at Lakeland had to do with direct service to people in need, she learned from those experiences that she can do greater things for larger communities of people by working at the organizational level to create sustainable change. It's a perspective she gained through her varied work experiences and her studies at Lakeland.
When asked what advice she would give to new graduates, Erin says, "Don't be afraid to go for it, whatever 'it' is for you. Go for it full force. You have nothing to lose, only everything to gain." Erin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.