Brigitte Gynther, 27, coordinator of Interfaith Action (IA) of Southwest Florida, is the recipient of the 2009 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award for her role in supporting and empowering farmworkers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), as they pursue fair wages, improved working conditions, and an end to modern day slavery in the fields.
Gynther received the award at a reception on Monday, November 16, during the annual fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Baltimore. The Cardinal Bernardin Award was established in 1998 by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the domestic anti-poverty effort of the U.S. bishops.
Gynther first became involved in IA’s work after visiting Immokalee, Florida while a student at the University of Notre Dame. Moved by the plight of the farmworkers, her efforts to mobilize fellow students were instrumental in encouraging the university’s involvement. As coordinator of IA, Brigitte has played a key role in mobilizing faith communities throughout the country, whose support has been essential in convincing Yum Brands, McDonalds, Burger King, Whole Foods, and Subway to pay tomato pickers an extra penny-per-pound, which translates to nearly a doubling of their wages. Brigitte has also championed endeavors against human trafficking and worker slavery, and played an influential national role in the development of the national Campaign for Fair Food movement.
“Catholic social teaching lifts up right relationships, working together in respect,” says Gynther, describing her work as building a bridge so that farmworkers and people from other backgrounds enter into genuine relationship with one another. Gynther also emphasizes the need “to look at root causes of farmworkers’ struggles and help people see that we can do something at the systemic level.”
Bishop Roger P. Morin, Chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, praises Gynther and her work: “Brigitte’s commitment to standing with the Immokalee workers is a powerful illustration of CCHD’s work to empower low-income people to address the root causes of poverty in their communities. Her support for the farmworkers’ struggle to ensure that human dignity and basic rights are protected is an illustration of the Gospel call for the faithful to stand in solidarity with those who are vulnerable (Lk. 4:18-20).”
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award honors a Catholic between the ages of 18 and 30 who demonstrates leadership in fighting poverty and injustice in the United States through community-based solutions. It is named for the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, former archbishop of Chicago and a leading voice on behalf of poor and low-income people, who understood the need to build bridges across ethnic, economic, class and age barriers.
Four other young Catholics from across the country were recognized as finalists for the award: Elizabeth Garlow, for her work empowering small business owners in Boston; Sergio Lopez, for his development of Catholic social teaching resources for youth ministers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; Raquel Orbik, for her work to facilitate experiences of solidarity for students at Creighton University; and Mary Theresa Slavkovsky, for her social justice outreach to fellow students at Seattle University.
Photo: Gynther, with Romeo Ramirez, a tomato picker and member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers