“Workers Write”: Exposing the Unseen

Image courtesy of Regan Books (2006).

Like most Americans, on your way to work this morning you probably stopped at a Dunkin Donuts-like establishment to pick up a coffee.  For most, this is routine; however, have you ever wondered about the person behind the counter taking your order or making your coffee? Questioning where they come from, what types of past times they enjoy, or even any life lessons they could offer?  Taking it a step further, have you ever thought about actually asking them these types of questions?  Most workers would probably think you’re insane asking such personal questions during such a routine transaction.  Or, they may feel reluctant to share anything about their life due to a lack of trust. This represents a lack of human to human communication.

Today, people are less observant of others.  One example of this disconnect could be the increased use of personal communication devices such as smart phones.  These phones do not require us to rely on others for face-to-face communication.  However, the strongest cause of this is the growing difference in social classes.  It’s unfortunate that the middle and upper class often treats low wage workers at McDonalds or Walmart less than human.  These workers often have lack job security and benefits, not to mention the minimum wage pay, which often isn’t enough to feed a family and make rent payments. Many workers in the low-wage labor market are forced to work many hours to compensate for the lack of payout for their work.  They have little to no time to spend exploring their interests, and in a way, can lose some of their individuality, ending up looking more like biological robots.

Esther Cohen sought to break that spell, with a vision to expose the inner human being of low income workers.  Cohen is the National Director of the NWUSO, a nonprofit branch of The National Writers Union.  She also works asa teacher at Manhattanville College. However, before this, Cohen was the executive director for Bread and Roses, another nonprofit associated with the Service Employees International Union  (SEIU Local 1199) in New York City. This program aided services to low-wage workers, like janitors, hotel, airport, garment workers. During this time Cohen had a peculiar idea for a project to provide something unique to these people’s lives.

Photo of Esther Cohen taken from the "Workers Write" website.

Photo of Esther Cohen, from the Workers Write website.

Cohen provided the groups of individuals within this organization with simple cameras.  She spent time training these people on how to use these cameras.  From there, Cohen encouraged people to take pictures and record their lives.   The focus of the project was exposing the lives of people who are not usually the focus in the media.  In an interview with Terry Schwadron, an affiliate of Cohen, he told me that in society there is a ton of media focus on celebrities.  Every time people like Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber so much as cough, there is a media presence waiting with a microphone.  This project was a play on this convention, flipping the focus of observation, zeroing in people who are never the focus of society: the low-wage workers.

After the cameras were returned to Cohen and her affiliates, they realized that that these photographs allowed them to capture the point of view of the workers.  They were often immigrants, hovering around the poverty line, and most had children to care for.  This project was done with around 800 groups of people, according to Schwa.  The images from Cohen’s project became the source material for her book UnseenAmerica.  Never before on TV, in the newspapers or magazines, were these people now photographers, with their work in a publication for the world to see.  UnseenAmerica exposed the lives of these people, on one end of the spectrum depicting the brutality and hardships of low wage workers. Contrastingly, the book also exposed the individualism of these people.  Cohen instilled a sense of importance within this group of people who are greatly underappreciated for what they provide for both society and culture.  Cohen spoke about the project as such: “Most of us don’t see the people who work around us, who make the cities work, who make our lives work … I wanted to figure out a way to do that.”  In providing low wage workers with an outlet of expression, this book was also able to bring poverty into the light, by exposing the lives of the workers. Unfortunately, it can be easy to not think twice about the people who are flipping burgers or cleaning hotel rooms, not to think that these people have lives outside of their place of profession.   In broadcasting the lives of these workers, the book also catered to society’s unobservant nature, exposing to what it didn’t know, or maybe, what society it didn’t want to see.

Clearly, the project had somewhat of a dual purpose.  It allowed low-wage workers to explore their creativity and expressiveness, while at the same time providing a social message, that low-wage workers are people like you and me.  They often share similar responsibilities and pastimes.  These people are interesting, distinct and most definitely important.  These social themes transcended UnseenAmerica, into Esther Cohen and her affiliates’ next project.  This project, also a nonprofit, is an extension of the National Writers Union, called “Workers   it hosts a similar concept to UnseenAmerica, but instead of exposing the lives of worker’s through photography, this project gears to document the stories of low wage workers.

I had a chance to speak with Terry Schwadron, who works with Cohen on the project.   Schwadron is the former editor for the Los Angeles Times and former senior editor at The New York Times.  He explained to me that Workers

Photo taken of Terry Schadron (right) and other members of National Writers Union at Climate Change March in NYC (2014).

Photo taken of Terry Schwadron (right) and other members of National Writers Union at Climate Change March in NYC (2014). Photo courtesy of “JUST CLIQ IT” media service company.

Write encourages writers to “get out of their own skin” and write about topics out of their element.  Furthermore, it encourages them to break down the social walls in place to extract valuable information, which ultimately makes people more advanced writers.  Schwadron said that he and Cohen knew that getting stories from complete strangers, from completely different walks of life, is a daunting task.

Who are you to that Dunkin Donuts worker? Why should they expose their life to you? Writers need to connect emotionally with their subject material.  In explaining this Schwadron made an interesting comparison.  He said that they wanted to see writers have the investigative and analytic skills beyond that of a doctor.  A doctor will often ask the patients ‘shallow’ questions such as “how did this happen?” or “what type of pain are you in?”  It isn’t part of the doctor’s profession to really ask deeper questions when treating an injury that occurred on the job. Doctors usually don’t ask “what job tasks do your employer make you do that caused this to happen?” or possibly even deeper questions like, “is this the line of work which you always wanted to pursue?”

Cohen and her affiliates were again creating another project with a dual purpose.  They were unconventionally exposing the lives of the workers who are the backbone of our society. At the same time, Cohen and Schwadron are also trying to develop writers and individuals in general. One of their goals is to make people more observant and strengthen their interpersonal relationships.  Cohen and Schwadron were, in a sense, teaching flâneurism, the ability to be more explorative and observant of society.  The ability to observe can lead people to ponder complicated societal questions; questions about poverty, about race and class discrimination.  Workers Write exposes a silver lining in our society: that we can respect and learn from one another.  However, in order to do so, according to Schwadron, “You have to listen.”

The exposure from this project may also provide a unique avenue of help to the workers.  By providing a sense of interest in an individual, it can cause them to feel special and unique, bolstering their aspirations.

Schwadron also told me that last year Workers Write was working with fast food workers.  Life for fast food workers is extraordinarily difficult.  They are often consumed by their high demanding, low-paying jobs.  Schwadron mentioned how his team interviewed a worker named Anthony Roman.  Anthony grew up in the Puerto Rican projects on the Lower East Side and was an employee at a McDonald’s.  He explained to Workers Write, the

A Drawing of "The Unionizer" a character drawn by Anthony Roman taken from the "Workers Write" website.

A Drawing of “The Unionizer” a character drawn by Anthony Roman taken from the Workers Write website.

difficulty of his work.  He was often thrown into situations where he had to fill multiple job positions, while still receiving the same low, mediocre pay.  He had many responsibilities at home he had to care for, and needed the job to pay for his family’s expenses.  Despite all this, Anthony still had aspirations to become a cartoon artist. He created a superhero, who he called the “Unionizer” who fights to make the lives better for fast food workers.  Through this project they were able to connect him to a graphic designer (Click here for link to Anthony Roman’s story).

Workers Write has additionally provided an example of a life changed for the better with the story of Naquasia LeGrand.  Naquasia is a fast food worker at Kentucky Fried Chicken, who, like most fast food workers, was stricken by the stress and high demands of her job.  In an interview, she explained the difficulty of her situation.  She had to work at two different KFCs to sufficiently provide for her family.  Her employer provided her with little job flexibility, so trying to work more often became a conflict.

Workers Write came to Naquasia to hear her story.  They lent her an ear to explain her story, in a world where very little people care about the well-being of her and her employees.  Schwadron described Naquasia’s dire situation, stating that “she was in a panic.”  Amazingly, after her interview with Workers Write, she was given the confidence and sense of purpose that led her to take action against the state of fast food workers.  She founded an organization called “Fast Food Forward” that sought to unionize fast food workers in order to bring their wages up to the living standard.  Naquasia began her movement with a strike, pushing for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize without retaliation, in November of 2012 with around two hundred people.  The next year the strike was held again, this time reaching national recognition, with strikes in a handful of cities.  This past year, Naquasia was also featured on “The Colbert Report”, interviewed by Stephen Colbert about the goals of her movement (Click here for link to the interview with Naquasia LeGrand featured on the “The Colbert Report”).

In the case of Naquasia, the implications of her meeting with Workers Write are clear.  The fact that someone wanted to hear her plight, spurred the notion within her that people were concerned with her difficult circumstances.  Many low-wage workers in the United States face a similar situation, and by vocalizing her story, Naquasia introduced commonality and similar interests amongst people of the same situation, inciting them to unite. Her story opens up discourse about a social problem leading people to work together to then fix that problem.  Naquasia said it best in her interview with Steve Colbert, “Me, as one voice, can’t go to my manager, like ‘I want these set things’… No, I have to come with a team, with my coworkers, with other workers around the country, and let them know it’s not just me going through this, it’s all of us…that’s what makes a union, Americans coming together.”

This project introduces the uniformities about these serious circumstances that Naquasia and many other Americans face.  Workers Write encourages Americans to observe the world outside of their own, helping to work towards a society where everyone can share in the fruits of prosperity.

Revisiting the message which the program tries to instill in writers, it teaches them to be more observant, to try to live a more flâneur lifestyle.  Terry Schwadron further explained that one of the goals of Workers Write is to have writers break down their conventional walls, to a point of mutual respect and understanding.  We are all people, despite differences in ethnic or class background.  Understanding the dilemmas of someone very different from you, who may be facing great economic or social conflicts, is a valuable perspective to obtain.  This is reminiscent of what writers like Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey attempt to achieve, immersing themselves amongst people who were struggling—the working class.

During our conversation, Schwadron explained how he was trying to teach students of Fordham University, working for Workers Write, how to be more observant and perceptive.  Fordham University is a private university, with many middle and upper class students.  He understood how class difference could put up a communication barrier in the

A Photo of Fordham University student Alex Mold, seen here with shopkeeper Jalloh , taken from the Workers Write website. Click here to see the story written by Alex.

A Photo of Fordham University student Alex Mold, seen here with shopkeeper Jalloh , taken from the Workers Write website. Click here to see the story written by Alex.

way of the students capturing the stories of the workers.  Schwadron worked with the students, prescribing methods to talk to people different from themselves.  He explained how they needed to understand others on an emotional level, because independent of society’s influences, we are capable of understanding one another.  We all desire the same things; we want what is best for ourselves and for our families.  After that perception was achieved, the students were able to write the stories of some of the Workers at their university. (Click here for link to Fordham student’s stories)

Returning to the original question at hand, would you ever think to ask the kinds of questions that would bring out the individual who wears a Dunkin Donuts uniform or a McDonalds uniform?  If so, would you really try to connect with that person about their experiences, sharing a personal connection, or would you only speak to them “above the surface,” with the “doctor-type” questions that Terry Schwadron described.

All things considered, it is undeniably difficult to break down the wall of mistrust which many people emplace.  For many people, putting up walls is an unfortunate human defense mechanism.  However, that simple acknowledgement and basic conversation is a step in the right direction.  Next time you pick up a cup of coffee, or a burger from a fast food joint, remember that a workers day can be improved immensely simply by extending them a greeting or a wish of good fortune.  Until we ask, we do not know the barriers placed against that person’s life, and we need to treat others the way we wish to be treated.

 

If you would like to get in contact with Workers Write or take part in their movement, their website can be accessed here: http://workerstories.org/.  The program willing to accept anyone’s help in exposing the stories of the working class.

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