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Toledo activists, organizers arrive in North Carolina

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    Travelers get on the bus for the ride to Greensboro, N.C.

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    Marlena Graves runs for the bus after saying goodbye to her husband, Shawn Graves, right, and children Isabella, 3, left, and Valentina, 6, right and partially obscured.

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    Usevio Torres, left, and Manuela Murphy wait for other travelers.

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    Manuela Murphy, left, and Baldemar Velasquez speak with the bus driver.

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    Waite High School students Trinity Torres, 15, a sophomore, left, Enriqueta Rodriguez, 17, a junior, and Mateo Cuevas, 18, a senior, sitting behind Trinity.

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    Shawn Graves, left, speaks with Baldemar Velasquez, president and founder of FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee), shortly before the bus departs on Wednesday.

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    Baldemar Velasquez is the founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the organizer of the trip.

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — They spent 12 hours on the open road, driving through mountainous terrain flanked by shrubs and woodlands. They are on a voyage in pursuit of understanding.

On the bus sits more than two dozen African-American and Latino organizers from the Toledo area. They headed south Wednesday to learn firsthand of the struggles their communities have encountered.

It’s easy for people to move through life with tunnel vision, so absorbed in their own struggles they become disconnected from the plight of others.

WATCH: Organizer Baldemar Velasquez talks about the trip

That reality is a hindrance that the trip is trying to counteract, said Baldemar Velasquez, founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO and organizer of the trip.

“There can sometimes be resistance from our own communities as there are those that think that brown leaders should only address Latino issues and some in the black community that think the same about their community,” he said.

On Thursday the group will visit the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro. On Friday, they will visit labor camps and farm workers in the North Carolina countryside.

Coalition members will get an in-depth lesson about the civil rights movement that once, and many would argue, continues to impact African-Americans. They also will get an intimate glimpse of migrant workers’ struggles that affect a large segment of the Hispanic population.

“What makes this so critical is that we can see it from both sides,” said the Rev. Otis Gordon of Warren AME Church in Toledo. “Truthfully, I’m not that familiar with the Latino labor rights’ struggle. I am familiar with the black struggle, and I suspect we’ll find that the struggles are very similar.”

Within the confines of this coach bus, almost everyone has a story to tell; a story that propels them to empathize with others’ pain.

Usevio Chevo Torres remembers his parents working in the fields in Swanton when he was a child.

By age 14, he too was in the field picking tomatoes, corn, and strawberries; the type of labor that could wear a teenager down.

“I know what it feels like to work out there,” he said. “It’s no fun.”

Mr. Torres, along with his 11 siblings, vowed to not follow in their parents’ footsteps.

Mr. Torres, now a deputy sheriff at the downtown jail, gives back as the president of Latins United.

Pastor Gordon grew up in Youngstown, where, for the most part, he escaped the overt racism that can be traumatic.

But at age 18 he decided to apply for a job at JC Penney’s department store.

He walked in confident and asked for an application. He was told to first take a math test.

He obliged. He didn’t miss a problem.

The receptionist, he recalled, then went into the manager’s office and handed him his application.

The manager peeked his head out of the office, saw a young black man, and didn’t say a word. He just nodded.

“Sorry, we no longer have any openings,” he recalled being told.

In one seat, with his iPhone filming the trees that stretched toward the clouds, was Justin Garza, a 17-year-old junior at Whitmer High School.

Justin is vaguely aware of the challenges migrant workers face, but he wants to know the unvarnished truth.

“I want to know what they really go through, and how they take it,” he said.

After spending all day riding a bus, after driving through middle America into the South, the highways begin to bleed into one another. The bus started in Ohio, then went through West Virginia, before making it to North Carolina.

Spirits are high but physical fatigue has kicked in.

The bus rolls along I-40 east. Then a small green sign appears.

“Greensboro 26.”

The mileage decreases as the bus approaches the city.

“Greensboro 22.” The sign beckons.

Contact Javonte Anderson at janderson@theblade.com419-724-6065, or on Twitter @JavonteA.

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