Going for Broke: Can Work Be Love?
How we live is indelibly intertwined with the care and empathy we give to each other. What if we put care into helping Americans find homes and build dwellings, into keeping their bodies and minds sound, and finding meaningful and well-paid work? In this three part series, “To The Best Of Our Knowledge” and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project bring you real life stories about economic struggle in our time, as well as ideas for solutions.
In this final part of our series, we’re talking about work — about the right to meaningful work, the search for jobs that pay enough to live, and what happens to people who look for work while also having a disability that’s invisible to most.
– [Anne] This is To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I’m Anne Strainchamps. Interviewing for a job can be a nerve wracking experience, no matter how well qualified you are, especially when you know from the start the deck is stacked against you.
– [Andrea] So I was applying for a job at a university that I allow to remain nameless, and I was in a very small conference room with six other people. And someone tried to shake my hand, but I did not see them. I guess they assumed I was being rude or they were like, hey, you don’t wanna shake my hand, but I didn’t see their hand extended.
– [Anne] Andrea Dobynes-Wagner had two BA’s, a master’s degree, and had already been working as an adjunct professor when she applied for that job. But there was one thing the hiring committee did not know about her because Andrea didn’t tell them, she’s legally blind.
– [Andrea] I often find it hard to actually tell someone that I’m legally blind and made me minor accommodations while I know it’s against the law to discriminate against me for that admission, I do know it happens every day. It’s happening right now somewhere. It was a small conference room, but it had lots of windows in it, so there are also glares and like kind of funky lighting. And so, I didn’t look everyone square in their eyes while doing this presentation because I could not see them. And so they didn’t like that. They didn’t think that I’d be personable enough to do this with what, 10 students. But I taught this with 18, every semester. So, yeah missing handshakes and not proper eye contact when you’re legally blind, won’t make it to the second interview.
– [Anne] This hour we’re talking about work, about the right to meaningful work, the search for jobs that pay enough to live, and what happens to people like Andrea, who look for work while also having a disability that’s invisible to most. Andrea’s experience is part of a three part series. Going For Broke. We’re collaborating with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project for this series about economic difficulty in our time, bringing you real life stories and some ideas for solutions. Our host for this episode is someone who’s reported on these subjects for years, the distinguished broadcast and public radio journalist, Ray Suarez.
– [Ray] It’s great to be back with you Anne. Andrea Dobynes-Wagner worked really hard to manage with a disability that’s not immediately apparent, and it would be nice to believe when you sit down for a job interview that you’ll be evaluated fairly and openly on the basis of your skills and qualifications and expertise. That’s the ideal. But if you’ve been around the block a couple of times, you may have already concluded, it’s not always that simple. Hidden judgements, invisible assumptions, and prejudices almost inevitably come into play about age, gender, ethnicity, disability and more. We have a body of labor laws and equal opportunity requirements that attempt to level the field, but how they play out in the real world is complicated. Take Andrea’s case, she has retinitis pigmentosa, a rare disease in which the retina breaks down over time. She’s legally, but not obviously blind. Every time she sits down for a job interview, Andrea weighs the pros and cons of disclosure. Will telling people she has a disability help or hurt her chances. She’s been dealing with that question for a long time.
– [Andrea] People’s perception of people with disability seems to be that they think we are incapable of doing regular quote on quote, life things like getting married, finishing school, traveling independently, cooking, dressing ourselves. And know, I’m actually using all of these examples from things people have actually said to me.
– [Ray] When was it first recognized, either by you or by the grownups in your life that you were having trouble seeing well?
– [Andrea] I didn’t really notice that there were extreme differences between what I could see and what my classmates could see until around middle school I say. Because I did all of the things a normal, well, I guess, sighted middle school student would do, from field trips to extracurricular activities. I rode bikes, I was a cheerleader, the whole nine.
– [Ray] Without getting too technical, what is retinitis pigmentosa?
– [Andrea] Retinitis pigmentosa is a rare, degenerative eye disease that basically means I was born with the underdeveloped retina or scarring on my retina. So essentially I have permanent tunnel vision. If you imagine cupping your hand and putting it to your eye like a, or like I can see basically through a paper towel roll. Like if I’m looking directly at you and you’re, I guess in close enough proximity, I see you perfectly fine. You start moving around doing the YMCA dance, then not so much.
– [Ray] Was there any attempt to steer you into learning environments with other kids who had visual impairments?
– [Andrea] Yes and no. So my mom actually sent me to Alabama School of the Blinds Summer Camp, which was two weeks out of the year in the summertime. And the very first time I went, I was extremely reluctant because I didn’t want to go to blind camp. I didn’t want to be blind. I didn’t think I needed to go. I had nothing incoming with, in my thoughts, those students. And it turned out to be transformational for me. It showed me that there were other kids who were fully blind or close enough, way closer than I was, and it wasn’t the end of the world. For those of us who still had limited sight, we’d often be blindfolded. So we could simulate what it would be like if we were to permanently lose our vision, especially considering that with retinitis pigmentosa, that could be the case. I could wake up tomorrow and be totally blind. I hope not because I’m not quite equipped for that. My cane technique, if I had to give myself a grade, is a strong D minus. My braille, however, is an F, but I didn’t want to, honestly, Ray, I didn’t want to know this. I didn’t want to be this, and in full disclosure, I didn’t really accept, I guess my fate until I was 28. I’m 32 now, so this is still quite honestly new. I guess being vocal about it is new, not having the condition is new.
– [Ray] Even at a young age, did people try to talk to you, to counsel you, to prepare you that you would have to accommodate over time to a world that was getting harder and harder to see?
– [Andrea] Yes.
– [Ray] Did people almost have to have an adult conversation with you about your future life?
– [Andrea] Absolutely, I can go… I guess the earliest memory of, oh no, something’s wrong, was in third grade. Love my mother dearly, miss her dearly, but she did not sugarcoat anything. We had to do a career exploration project when I was in third grade, and at that time I was extremely ambitious. I wanted to be both a pediatrician and an attorney. And she told me when I came home all excited about this dual career and this project and what poster boards and whatnot I may need. She sat me down at nine years old and told me, and I quote, “No one is going to take their child to a blind doctor.”
– [Ray] Whoa, Some tough love there. Whew.
– [Andrea] Yes, like the toughest. While that crushed me initially, like I guess from an ego standpoint, she was so right. And that was the kindest thing people have said at that point, because I’ve had guidance counselors and even eye care professionals tell me that it probably would be advantageous if I stayed in like an assisted living or stayed with my parents, or they moved where I came to college. All of this crazy, you’re gonna have a very limited life talk started probably around 14 because at that time my vision was rapidly deteriorating. But I was told I wouldn’t graduate college or college would be too difficult for me because of the sight, not because of my academic ability or inability for that matter. Ironically, I’m an adjunct professor now, so. It’s funny now that for my job I travel a lot for work. And I’ve had people, especially once they find out that I’m visually impaired, ask, well, who dressed you? Or how are you gonna do this job? That has nothing to do with sight. I’m not trying to be a NASCAR driver. I’m just, I’m an inclusion advocate basically. I think I’m better equipped for that role because of my personal journey. But yes, I’ve been told a lot of no.
– [Ray] Well now that you’ve lived this much life and gone to school, you mentioned that you travel, have you also accumulated rules to live by, philosophy? Are there better and worse ways of dealing with the inevitable variation in people’s physical abilities?
– [Andrea] I think at this point of my life, I’m committed to being the voice for the disenfranchised, which in my opinion is mostly the disabled. We have a lot of people fighting for equality, for black Americans, self included, a lot of people fighting for women’s rights, self included, a lot of people fighting for LGBTQ plus rights. But when it comes down to disabilities, especially arguably invisible ones like blindness and low vision, it’s like we get left out of the conversation.
– [Ray] I’d like to hear some more about whether there’s in between discrimination. Have you experienced the kind of discrimination where you’re running into laws that are made for people who are more disabled than you are, but you’re not at the same time, getting the kind of help that you need for the disability that you do have?
– [Andrea] Excellent question. So there are companies like Sam’s Club, Goodwill that intentionally hire people with disabilities, but these same people only have high school diplomas or GEDs. So then here I come with a master’s, two bachelor’s, I don’t fit in that category at all. There literally are really no avenues and no arenas and no pipeline type programs designed for people with disabilities with advanced degrees, so definitely stuck in the middle here.
– [Ray] So back to being invisible.
– [Andrea] Right.
– [Ray] Do you ever get tired? Do you ever say to yourself, look, I did hard things for a person who has trouble seeing. I went to college, I stayed mainstreamed, I got the degrees, I’ve worked in sighted contexts. I’ve already adapted, shown my ambition, shown my creative workarounds, I’ve done my bit. This just shouldn’t be so hard.
– [Andrea] Yes, I get tired all the time. The level of anxiety that comes with having to be the advocate, having to often try to prove yourself is unfathomable. And when I get in this mode, I sometimes shut down completely, and don’t want anything to do with this work, whatsoever. Because it’s exhausting because I’m like, when will it end? Like you said, like, I know I’ve proven that I deserve to be here, but I also know and acknowledge that I can’t make everyone see that. It’s frustrating. It can be depressing, but these are the cards that I’ve been dealt and I have to play ’em. I don’t always wanna play, but I have to play them.
– [Ray] That was Andrea Dobynes-Wagner, a diversity and inclusion trainer in Alabama. Andrea is far from alone. The no from employers is pretty constant for people who are visually impaired, more than half of working age people who are blind or visually impaired are not in the labor market, meaning they’re not working or not seeking work that’s compared with fewer than a quarter of people without disabilities. That’s according to the American Community Survey from the US Census Bureau. Wagner may have experienced bias in the labor market for her disability, but there’s another group that experiences this societal disregard as well. That group is caretakers, both professional care workers and parents of young children, or adults who care for elderly relatives. In the midst of the pandemic, Seattle writer Angela Garbes was struggling. Like most working parents, she was juggling childcare, keeping her family healthy and her job. That was when she came across something called the Invisible Labor calculator, created by journalist Amy Westerville with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
– [Angela] The range of tasks include things like doing the dishes, cleaning, laundry, but also things such as maintaining the emotional wellness of people in your family or thinking about the psychological health of people in your family. And I just thought I do that all the time. This was probably early pandemic because my daughters weren’t going to preschool or daycare, so I was doing so much childcare. So, you know, I’m like, la, la la, I’m just gonna put this in and see what pops up. Like I know my work is valuable. I’m curious like what might this be worth? The result came back and told me that my salary for the year would be… over $300,000. I think I’ve screamed. And I was like, oh God. Like there’s no way that what I’m doing, it could possibly be worth this much money.
– [Anne] Like, if I saw that number, 300,000 that so beyond what I have ever thought of earning.
– [Angela] Yeah, and I should say that if I was getting paid at this rate, being a mother would be the highest paying job I’ve ever had, by far, over three times. It was a moment for me, it was a huge moment. It was emotionally really complicated. It was fraught, but also it was very clarifying.
– [Ray] Coming up, Angela Garbes on the most essential labor, being a parent. This is Going for Broke, a three-part special with the economic hardship reporting project and to the best of our knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio, and PRX. Angela Garbes started thinking, it’s not only mothering, it’s care of all kinds that’s invisible, undervalued, and unpaid. It’s also clearly work, no matter how much emotion we feel while performing it, taking care of children, of the sick or old, changing diapers, fixing meals, it’s also emotional work, taking a relative or friend through a crisis or their illness. But while caring for other human beings may be the most important work of all, it sure isn’t reflected in pay scales. That train of thought led to her book “Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change” And Strainchamps, a mother herself, talked with Garbes.
– [Anne] So I wanna go back to that moment when you fill out the invisible wage calculator and…
– [Angela] Yeah.
– [Anne] Suddenly learn you should be earning three times as much in a just world as you ever have thought about earning.
– [Angela] Yeah.
– [Anne] Did this spark anger then?
– [Angela] Yes. That’s what I felt. It was like a bur, I wouldn’t even say angry. I think it was an acute white, hot burning rage. Like it put me in touch with something very, it felt very primal where I was like, this is wrong. In those early days of the pandemic, the unemployment numbers were skyrocketing, and the people who were affected most by them, it was women of color, black and brown women who were disproportionately affected by that. Because women of color, we are overrepresented in the service industry and in childcare, and a lot of that portion of the economy shut down. Childcare centers, restaurants, and a lot of that stuff never reopened.
– [Anne] Yeah.
– [Angela] So I was sort of dealing with this, knowing this trend was happening and that people who look like me were most affected by it. And then add to this, we were hearing a lot about who’s an essential worker and who’s not an essential worker. And we were talking about essential workers, such as healthcare workers, sanitation workers. But in that, I also was like, why are we not talking about parents? Why are we not talking about mothers? I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life, right? And I was feeling like, why aren’t we acknowledging this work?
– [Anne] Well, what you’re saying is that the work of mothering is not just fixing peanut butter sandwiches is on call.
– [Angela] Yes, exactly.
– [Anne] And making sure the dishwasher is emptied and your kid visits the pediatrician once in a while. It’s a lot more than that.
– [Angela] Yes, it’s all of those things plus.
– [Anne] When and how did you begin to think about mothering as a form of labor? A form of production?
– [Angela] I don’t know if there’s an exact moment. My first book is about pregnancy and really the work that a body is doing in pregnancy, building a person out of nothing, building a brand new organ, the placenta, right? It’s all labor. And I started to kind of put that all together. But then, you know, when I became a mother, and my husband and I both worked full-time jobs, but we found we could not afford full-time childcare. It was a real wake up moment where I thought, oh my God, like in the United States, you’re utterly alone until a child is six years old when they can go to public school to figure out what to do with them eight hours a day while you work, if you work outside of the home. I started to see all the work that I was doing, and then I was seeing all of the work, thinking about all the work that my mother had done, and all of the work that mothers and parents around this country are doing that does not get acknowledged.
– [Anne] And one thing I’m thinking is, in the past when we’ve acknowledged or argued about it, it’s often been in the context of gender. So my husband is definitely not my oppressor, but we have had so many arguments over the years about who does more at home and how certain tasks get gendered.
– [Angela] Yeah.
– [Anne] So I was curious, what do you think changes when you see those arguments about housework and childcare as not so much about gender as about labor rights?
– [Angela] When we think of workers in a struggle, we think of men in a factory, or we think of people on the front lines. We are not thinking about people scrubbing dried egg off of a plate. You know, we’re not. But that is, that is what we’re doing. The fundamental belief here for me is that domestic labor is the work that makes all other quote on quote professional work possible. And what we have not reckoned with in America is that our economic system, American capitalism, relies just as much on domestic labor as it does on any other kind of labor. So I want us to redefine work. You know, I actually think the only real work that humans have to do is to keep ourselves and our people healthy and alive.
– [Anne] And yet, if you really think about, okay, who generates more wealth? The mom who’s raising two or three kids who are gonna grow up and become responsible members of our society, or I don’t know, Elon Musk.
– [Angela] I mean, if you were to even, let’s adopt for a moment, a rampant capitalist view. It makes sense to me to invest in mothers and families because we are raising the next generation of workers and consumers. I mean, I don’t like that line of thinking, but it actually, it would make more sense to fund people and this work. But it feels really wild to say simply by being born, you deserve a decent life.
– [Anne] You shouldn’t have to earn it.
– [Angela] You don’t have to earn a living. I reject that phrase, you know, like, I am alive. What do I need to do to earn that, you know? But I don’t understand why we can’t guarantee a basic life for everyone, just a floor.
– [Anne] Well, I’ll tell you the thing that I don’t get. So my mother was a preschool teacher. My son is an afterschool childcare worker. I think of them both as highly skilled, emotionally evolved people whose work is more essential than mine will ever be. And I do not understand why teachers and childcare workers and mothers and anyone else who works with children, why they’re just consistently underpaid in our culture.
– In our culture, what we value is progress. Creating a new thing, and that’s what capitalism is. Like we just keep inventing products and we make new things and we buy things and, but the work of care is really, it’s the opposite of that, right? It’s not productive in a traditional sense. It’s nurturing. It’s slow, it’s inefficient. Getting a child dressed and out the doors, it feels like a complete waste of time. It can take like 30 minutes, right? That to me is the ultimate work, right? People our, I mean, our country, our corporations have more rights than people. We don’t value that work. We venerate mothers. Like culturally, it’s the most important work anyone could be doing, but you’re on your own.
– [Anne] I think for a lot of people, the idea of putting a monetary value on things that are done for love,
– [Angela] Right.
– [Anne] bothers them.
– [Angela] Yeah.
– [Anne] Is there a risk of reducing acts of care to a form of labor rather than expressions of love?
– [Angela] I mean, I think the idea, the concept of the labor of love is in and of itself a manipulation. It relies on this idea that women are naturally more inclined to care work, which I don’t necessarily think is true. The whole concept of the labor of love is a way of taking advantage of that labor.
– [Anne] So let’s talk about what it would take to change the system. I was thinking the one weapon workers have traditionally had is the strike.
– [Angela] Yeah.
– [Anne] And just refuse to work and stay home. But if you’re a mom and your work is at home, what do you do?
– [Angela] Yeah.
– [Anne] Hide in your bedroom?
– [Angela] Yeah, or go away, right? Like I think it’s a good question. I think we’ve also, labor rights and the power of unions in this country have really been eroded. And so it’s wild to think about that. But really the reason why we even have a 40 hour work week, it’s because of collective action. So I think that’s one way we have to think about it. And it starts with us individually. I encourage parents and mothers to say like, I’m not, we say I’m just a mom, right? Or I’m just a stay at home mom. But really, like, we need to say like, I’m an essential worker. It sounds silly, but I really think thinking of ourselves that way and talking about ourselves that way is very important. I think more women and mothers and parents need to see ourselves as being no different from the people we hire to clean our houses and to take care of our children. And that’s a very destabilizing idea for a lot of people. But the truth is, the majority of childcare workers in this country are mothers themselves. We actually have so much more in common. And so I think about how a lot of moms are like, how do I connect with other mothers? Like we should be a powerful voting block. And I think that that’s true, but I think there’s profound underdeveloped opportunity for solidarity with the people who we hire to do care work.
– [Anne] Yeah.
– [Angela] And I think that if we were able to guarantee workers’ rights and a living wage for nannies, for home health aides, for house cleaners, right, we would actually be one step closer to demanding those things and having them for ourselves. It is about demanding a better life, knowing that we deserve that, and putting the pressure on leaders from the federal level, but also locally. All of the stuff matters. Everything we do matters.
– [Ray] That was Angela Garbes, author of “Essential Labor”, talking with Anne Strainchamps. Rodrigo Toscano is a serious poet. He’s also a longtime OSHA outreach trainer of workers and the National Projects Director of the Labor Institute, a non-profit focusing on, say, the contracts in workplace safety of lineman or telecommunications workers. His poetry too addresses labor, both concretely and abstractly. Shannon Henry Kleiber caught up with Toscano at an art and poetry event in the Catskills in upstate New York, held at Opus 40. Opus means work in Latin. And the site is a physical metaphor for the combination of art and work.
– [Announcer] As Rodrigo writes, quote, “Let’s get moving”. Rodrigo Toscano.
– [Rodrigo] Two sonnets after Hurricane Ida in New Orleans. “Lineman.” “30,000 linemen in bucket trucks “Streaming into your distressed environs, “Hitting 16 hour shifts, repairing “Lines that keep your identities well lit. “The lines that give your powered distinctions “The punch they need to remain, aesthetic. “That is, when the lines are down, days on end, “Your projects oblivious to these men “And the striving families they’re part of “Start losing power, hour by hour. “Around the fifth day, you’re like the rest, “Overheated, exhausted, half crazy, “And perhaps becoming dimly aware “Linemen have zero power in the arts.”
– [Shannon] Well, let’s talk about some of your poems specifically. It was really interesting to hear you read them in New York in the Catskills and hear the audience’s reaction. What about “Lineman”? Where did that come from and what’s that about?
– [Rodrigo] Hurricane Ida kind of swept through Louisiana last year. And I had evacuated about, you know, 60 miles north of the New Orleans area. But the hurricane did its damage up there as well. The electricity went down, power went down. I remember the house heating up where I was staying. I was in the bathtub with my notepad and I was stressing out thinking about how, you know, millions of people were without power, meaning they were out without AC. This is August in Louisiana where temperatures are in the 90s, and with the humidity and all. And I knew, because I have actually worked a lot with heat stress prevention, that there was gonna be a lot of people who were gonna be hurt and ultimately a lot of people who were gonna die. And so I was just counting the minutes or hours and days till the electricity went back on. And I knew also that a bunch of people would be called to work in these conditions and to go get in their trucks and drive 3-400 miles even. You know, sleep in their bucket trucks a lot of the time. Or in a, you know, hotel, bunched up and that they were gonna work until they get the job done. But I was in at once, like hopeful that they were coming and also in awe that such a force could be summoned. And I thought, you know, it’s a shame that these people here, they’re not people who appear on your nightly news, lineman or whatever. They’re not people who are ever heard what their issues are, especially these men and their ways, their way of being or, but nonetheless, here they are trying to get, you know, plug in civilization for everybody. And so that’s how that poem came about. It’s a sonnet actually. It’s 14 lines, 10 syllables a line. Very formal. Yeah, so that’s where that poem came from.
– [Shannon] You’re watching CNN and you’re in New Orleans and they’re saving civilization. I mean, it’s kind of a big thing actually. And they’re risking their lives.
– [Rodrigo] Yeah, absolutely. They’re risking their lives. And not only that, all the stuff that we like to do, you know, and culture, and you can turn on your laptop. You can’t be on your little app, whatever, uploading your work because there’s no cell tower.
– [Shannon] Yeah.
– [Rodrigo] There’s no way to charge your phone. And so these are stark realities, I think, in all sectors, right? Whether it’s food distribution or energy workers, and you know, this is the material reality of life or whatever, and it’s sometimes we just fetishize it and we forget of as when things are working, it’s wonderful that, but you get, you know, unplugged by category five hurricane, and you start to see very, very quickly who kind of rises to the top in terms of getting all of us to get what we want and need.
– [Shannon] Tell me a little bit about “Swap Out”, which I read as lyrical and a little angry, but also hopeful.
– [Rodrigo] There’s certain kinds of attitudes that I’ve detected in the many years that I’ve worked with people who work with machinery or workers who have certain positions that are swapped out from one position to another fairly quickly. Okay, now you’re working 80 miles in this direction and you’re operating this instead of that. And so there’s a lot of tolerance in certain sectors of the working class for the swap up. But also this attitude helps them look at the world in a particular way. This one’s called a “Swap Out”. “There’s no phrase in the entire English tongue “That gives me the tingles more than swap out. “Working folks don’t trade up, let alone down “They simply swap out, , folks, ideas. “Something’s not working? Have you tried and tried? “Okay, swap that out, let’s get moving. “But the problem is, where get the parts, and how? “Let alone at the time when you need them. “But even this tune of have-nots and haves “Is something folks swap out, if the tale’s stale. “Working folks, you’ve noticed, prefer new things “Things they’ve thingified to thingaramas. “There’s another phrase that’s kin to swap out “And that is crap out, most folks just, crap out.”
– [Shannon] So I think about some of the people you’re representing and you write about and you have in your poems who are either living in poverty or maybe struggling in the middle class in ways too, not getting to where they hoped. Should there be a right to meaningful work, like a social justice movement about appreciated work, meaningful work?
– [Rodrigo] Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. There should be, I think there, my vision is, that not only work should be elevated to dignity, but that it also should cease certain kinds of activities to make room for what people wanna do outside of their work. I mean, when you give your typical American a week vacation a year or two, and you have to sort of put in for and ask for it, that doesn’t create a healthy relationship to work. And I would say the proliferation of these bad conditions and crappy ways of being at work color the nation as a whole, you know, and it makes for very bitter and brittle way of interacting with the world, unfortunately.
– [Shannon] Is there something about how artists view their work that can help the rest of our society and the rest of our culture?
– [Rodrigo] I can say that in poetry. If I thought, for example, that people were actively talking about these kind of concepts that I sort of string together, like all this kind of stuff, perhaps I would be doing something else. It’s because of a lack of this that it just needs to be said. It needs to be pointed out. Some of the things are very obvious of what I say. Some of the things are not so obvious, and it’s that not obvious part that keeps me going.
– [Shannon] Yeah, I think that that is one of the key things you do with your poems is that you point out the not obvious things. You’re noticing things particularly about the work world and the labor world and the corners that other people might not see. So I wanted to ask you to read “Insurrectionary” and set it up a little bit first.
– [Rodrigo] Well, obviously, you know, especially in the summer of 2020, we had a very, very difficult period there that followed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, right? Those were some of the biggest demonstrations. Those were actually the biggest mass demonstration the US has ever seen, actually. Of course, those demonstrations were very much justified and being fueled by the direct cause of, you know, police brutality and that kind of stuff. But also there was a lot of other issues that were unspoken that were sort of fueling those uprisings, issues of alienation, issues of basically just like, my life sucks. What, you know, people are under lockdown. And so what I had to say, I’ll read right now if you don’t mind, and this one is called “Insurrectionary”. “The day to day existence of people “If that doesn’t change, then what is all this? “These protests, these stances, rage, pieties, “Passionate words, eloquent poetry “What’s the use of any of it today “If tomorrow in many days to come, “Aren’t shaped differently? “Aren’t lived differently? “Which calls the question, “What do people want? “What do they want? “Not just what they don’t want. “Let’s list it. “Let’s study the list closely. “And before these items get pinned to life, “Let’s have that conversation. “What is life? “What kinds of life forms are we, all of us, “And what’s best for each and everyone here?
– [Shannon] Wow. Rodrigo, thank you so much. I love talking with you. I love hearing your poetry and I appreciate your work.
– [Rodrigo] Thank you so much, Shannon.
– [Ray] New Orleans based poet, Rodrigo Toscano talked with Shannon Henry Kleiber. You’re listening to Going For Broke, A three-part special with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio, and PRX. This next conversation is particularly personal to those of us who read the many books of the author, Barbara Ehrenreich, her friend and colleague Alissa Quart, recorded this interview with Barbara in 2021.
– [Alissa] For years, I talked a lot with Barbara Ehrenreich. I was really lucky that way. Can you hear us now, Barbara? She was my co-editor and we worked together. She was my colleague. She was an expert in labor. I also talked to her because she was my friend.
– [Barbara] I can hear you as probably as well as I can.
– [Alissa] I only recorded those conversations once. I’m so glad I did and I kept meaning to tape her again, the way you mean to tape a loved one, a grandmother, a legend. I’m especially thankful I did because she died on Labor Day Weekend 2022. We had together built up the organization that this show is a part of, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project to support freelance writers and photographers who had been scrambling to do their work. They were on the brink sometimes of poverty, or sometimes they just were struggling financially. We did so because we had seen this ourselves. Going for Broke, both in our reporting and in the act of freelancing itself. So how would you describe EHRP to podcast listeners that may never have heard of us before?
– [Barbara] Well, EHRP is a device for weeding money out of very rich people and giving it to struggling writers and journalists. And some of them are young and just starting. Some of them are, I’ve almost aged out because you can’t get jobs if you’re over 50. It’s just really hard.
– [Alissa] What do you say to the sort of snobby media elite who would say, well, if these people can’t make a decent amount per word, why are we publishing them? Do you ever think that, like, do you ever have a response to that?
– [Barbara] Well, I mean that whole idea that if you’re a smart why ain’t you rich, depends on having people who are think they can determine what’s a good read and what’s not. And we wanna reach people who feel that their lives have not been covered in the media. They don’t see themselves. We want to see more coverage of economic hardship, poverty, people struggling to get through the crises of the last year and a half. We wanna see more of that that’s from the ground level. And the people to write that we think is not perhaps us, but the people who are experiencing it.
– [Alissa] They call it the own voices movement, that people need to write their own stories. And I think actually EHRP is part of this, writing and now recording people telling their own stories. Is this the new generation of “Nickel and Dimed” kind of style writing?
– [Barbara] I think my book, “Nickel and Dimed” did inspire a lot of young writers at least. So they told me to write about their own lives and their own work lives. One of the things I tried to really make clear in that book is that there’s a lot to say about the day to day, hour by hour interactions in the workplace, and about how tired you are at the end of the day when you have yet another job to go to. I don’t think enough people who are not of the PMC, the professional mirror managerial class, understand how limited physical freedom you have in most workplaces. I remember well, when I worked doing on those different jobs for “Nickel and Dimed”, you’d have to get somebody to cover for you if you wanted to take a leap.
– [Alissa] We started EHRP because we wanted to make sure independent reporters were cared for, but also that the care that working class Americans put into their own work was properly documented. Barbara showed that consideration in “Nickel and Dime” in 2001. In that book, she went undercover as a low wage worker in jobs like waitressing or cleaning. Not only did these low wage workers that she worked alongside lack autonomy from their bodies and their minds while they worked, but they also didn’t have a seated the table politically.
– [Barbara] And you notice when we get a new president, and I don’t know what what Biden’s gonna do, but Obama first convened a bunch of economic experts to advise him. And they were all like CEOs or professors of economics. Wait a minute, where are the cleaning people? Where are the assembly line people? Where is the working class? And that made me mad. We wanna turn up those voices.
– [Alissa] So many reporters have been taught or even forced to keep themselves out of their stories. Barbara felt the opposite was necessary. She wanted the financially stressed writers we worked with to pour their own emotion and experience into their pieces.
– [Barbara] Well, what I do if I’m working with a writer is I push them. I talk to them. It’s almost like therapy. I say things like, well, how did that make you feel when you found out that you were being cheated by the company, or whatever? Until they get to the point of saying, furious. I felt furious. I said, so say that. Find a way to say it or put it in your writing.
– [Alissa] You know, what was best about Barbara’s writing and really her personality if you knew her, it was her dark and acidic humor, and also her radical hope often found in things like dancing or drinking satire at one-liners.
– [Barbara] No, I’m right about happy things. And “Dancing in the Streets” is a, I think, basically a happy book. And even though what it’s talking about is destruction of age old traditions, of people getting together, dancing, singing, feasting, doing all sorts of things. You know, it gives us an idea of what we want in a movement. We want a movement where people can dance, as I think Emma Goldman said.
– [Alissa] She was fine being an activist and a journalist. That’s a combination of identities the mainstream media is still often not comfortable with.
– [Barbara] We marched to the Pentagon together. We marched to Washington over and over. We met till late at night in student departments and at Columbia University. You know, we were however vaguely, we were a collective. We were learning from each other and we were learning from revolutions around the world in the 60s and 70s. All these things just electrified us.
– [Alissa] In coming years, we’ll surely be hit with new American emergencies. I wish Barbara would still be here, helping me make sense of them.
– [Barbara] We are really at a potentially fatal turning point. Either we go towards fascism and I don’t use that word lightly, or we could say, we can’t go on like this. This is crazy. No more, no more. Let’s take care of those who are hurting right now.
– [Alissa] This is true for what Barbara did in her later years with this very organization with me. But I hope in itself, the show is an example of what we were trying to do with EHRP of the Care for Workers, putting their voices on a national platform.
– [Barbara] I mean, we can’t do everything. We can’t save people. We can’t go around and peel the journalists off the streets, things like that. But I think we could get more and more people going, writing, speaking, being voices for themselves in their communities, and taking heart from what we’re doing. That’s what keeps me going.
– [Ray] That was Alissa Quart talking with Barbara Ehrenreich, the labor writer who wrote such classics as “Nickel and Dimed”. Ehrenreich passed away in September of 2022. Going for Broke is a collaboration between the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and To the Best of Our Knowledge at Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Our executive producers are Alissa Quart and Shannon Henry Kleiber with help from Steve Paulson and Anne Strainchamps, Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Riechers Angelo Bautista, and Sarah Hopefl. With additional editorial assistance from Jeb Sharp, David Wallace, George Lozano, and Deborah John Lee. Our logo is by Penny Blatt Design. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Harkey. And I’m Ray Suarez. To hear the rest of the series, go to ttbook.org, economichardship.org, or look for it on your podcast feeds. And thanks for listening.
– [Narrator] PRX.
Co-published with PRX’s To the Best of Our Knowledge.