Artifacts from life, workers tell their stories in 10 objects | WBEZ
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Artifacts from life, excluded workers tell their stories in 10 objects

Millions of workers in the U.S. are beyond the reach of basic labor protections. Either by law or by practice, they are excluded from minimum wage laws, overtime rules or the right to organize. Earlier this year, WBEZ profiled some of these workers in the series Exceptions to the Rule.

But that wasn’t the end of the conversation.

Recently, WBEZ combined forces with Heather Radke at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum, an organization dedicated to the legacy of social reformer Jane Addams and her many colleagues. Together, we worked with three labor organizations to host an exhibition.

We asked participants to choose artifacts and write labels about their personal experiences as excluded workers. You can navigate the online version of this exhibition by clicking on the images below or scrolling through the page. These labels are excerpted from the workers own words.

Donna K. Shaw

Mail Handler and Machine Operator at the Post Office
Access Living, Disabled Workers Want Work Now

(Photo by Christine Frei)

I purchased this phone myself, and also purchased several apps that help me with translators. I use the phone to communicate with coworkers or customers that do not know ASL [American Sign Language] (which is almost everyone), including at work meetings where there is never an interpreter. The phone can be used to translate between ASL and spoken language through interpreters and pictures. It is almost a lifeline, without it I could not understand or communicate with other people.

Robert Hansen
Student at Northeastern Illinois University
Access Living, Disabled Workers Want Work Now

(Photo by Christine Frei)

This helps me get through the day
The power of writing. My expressive tool.
The tool of expression – the pen.

We all know people with disabilities aren't even acknowledged when it comes to getting employment. I don't think people take us seriously. They may think, ‘How can a legally blind person do this?’ I've shown up for employment and sometimes I'm led to believe that I'm on target. I'm glad when I get a rejection letter, so at least I know. But a lot of times, I don’t get called at all. If I try to call and find out why, I get voicemail.

One time a potential employer asked how I would get to work each day in an interview. But you are not supposed to ask that question.

I’ve encountered other people who say, “Oh you are so amazing.” They are very patronizing.

The pen allows me to express myself and write about these experiences. My pen needs to be reliable. It’s not going to leak or run out of ink. I need to be able to hold it in my hand. It’s my therapy, my way to remember things, my way to calm my mind and relax.

A piece of paper is right here, while a voice can be forgotten. I can do a voice recording and accidentally hit the wrong button and it’s gone. I don’t have to hit save or remember a file type with a pen. The file type is universal. It puts my mind at ease, it’s more intimate, it’s more personal when I’m hunched over writing with a pen. I sit here and write with my fingers. It’s not using a $300 device, a pen can cost as little as a dollar, but it is valuable because it has the intimate touch that people enjoy. It’s less of a commodity, it’s not like you have the latest and greatest.

If we can pick up our pens, we can communicate what we need and want. I want people to know the power of communicating.

Tamale Pot
Asociación Vendedores Ambulantes

(Photo by Christine Frei)

I sell tamales. I use this pot to cook them. I leave them in there to keep warm and to carry them. It’s a very functional object. It’s the only object that works for cooking tamales. Without it I can't do anything. I can't work. I bought this pot because it’s specifically a steamer.

Measuring Type
Construction Worker
Latino Union

(Photo by Christine Frei)

I do a lot with the tape measure. I use it to make sure that the length of everything is correct, from pieces of wood to windows. Without it my job is not possible. Numbers are a huge part of my life, and without this measuring tape, I’d feel lost. I use it so much that I have to buy a new one every year. The old ones get rusty and break. Compared to some bigger and more expensive tools, it might look unimportant, even insignificant. But believe me, it is indispensable. I’d say essential.

As an undocumented worker, I have battled unemployment. When I do find an opportunity, it is tough to actually get it due to competition and the bad economy. I often hang around Home Depot hoping for work. But lately its been difficult because the businesses do not like us loitering outside, and there has been trouble in the past with other groups of workers.

It is very difficult for undocumented workers to simply find work and keep a steady income.

Vicky Lugo
Vice President, Asociación Vendedores Ambulantes

(Photo by Christine Frei)

I bought my notebook at a Target store. The notebook itself is not worth any value, but what is of tremendous value is what I have written in it.

In this notebook I keep a record of all agreements, discussion, notes, ideas, and projects. I keep everything that has to do with my work helping street vendors. With my notebook, I feel a sense of pride and power at the same time. I feel that this object is my life and in a way the air that I breathe because without it I have felt lost and empty.

Higher Desk
Susan Aarup
Employment advocate, Disabled Workers Want Work Now

(Photo by Christine Frei)

This object is a higher desk. It helps me to do my job more effectively because I use a wheelchair and it gives me more space for sitting down at my desk.

If I get a higher desk it’s a symbol that someone hired me – someone wanted me for something and my struggle to find a job was worth it.

If there wasn’t a higher desk at a workplace it would symbolize that you aren’t paying attention to what I need. It’s my job to tell you that. But a lot of times people don’t want to hear what I have to say.

Employers don’t provide accommodations easily. Some do, because they realize the importance people with disabilities bring.

When I have a higher desk it makes me feel in control. When I don’t have a higher desk I just feel stuck. But I am not going to let myself be in that situation. I am going to say something.

Accommodating people with disabilities is the law. But it also makes good business sense, because my money and my time are just as valuable as anyone else’s. 

Trash Can
Curtis Harris
Disabled Workers Want Work Now

(Photo by Christine Frei)

I have been struggling to find a job in the the last year. I have been dealing with rejections from employers, disappointments and frustrations. I have put in over 100 applications with eight interviews with no callback. I’m a person with autism associated with psychiatric disorders and it has made it harder for me to get interviews, let alone a job. In May 2013, the Employment Services Representative told me one of the red flags on my resume is a 15-year employment gap from 1996 to 2011. During those 15 years I attended college for two stints and did volunteer work. In addition, I had medical issues during those 15 years, which I have since resolved. I think employers look over my applications and resumes and toss them in the garbage while overlooking the accomplishments and volunteer work I did. Each time I make a call back to check on my job status they tell me they haven’t reviewed it or they let me know they interviewed and hired another candidate.

I want to work to gain money, self-esteem, empowerment, and pride.

Luis Torros
Construction Worker
Latino Union

(Photo by Christine Frei)

How did you get this object?
I bought it.

What do you do with this object?
I use it for all sorts of jobs. It has two tips, one crossed and one flat, and a hexagon for screws. I think that it is an indispensable tool in all of its uses, whether residential, commercial or industrial.

How do you feel when you use this object?
I feel the security of performing my job.

Who made this object?
Apparently it was made in China.

What do you most enjoy about your job?
What I most enjoy about my job is when the client is satisfied with the finished work.

Basic Tools for Painting
Alejandro N. Serrano
Day laborer

(Photo by Christine Frei)

I get up very early hoping to be able to do what I like most, which is painting. I give thanks for the opportunity for another day looking for new clients and offering my painting services and making estimates. I feel excellent every time that I have the opportunity to use my tools and especially when I see my clients happy and content when the job is finished.

When the estimates are accepted I prepare my tools and even though they are basic, for me they are very important. Without them I wouldn’t be able to finish my work. I take my toolbox and put in my roller, my brushes, paint tray, a stick for mixing paint before emptying it into the tray, etc. I head to the assigned address, say “hi” to my client and prepare the worksite.

I take the paint and stir it, I also take the brush and start to outline the corners of the walls and ceilings, tracing each line as straight as possible so as not to get any paint on any of the other walls, ceilings or floors. Once I finish that, I empty the paint into the tray and prepare my roller, which I soak in the paint in order to then slide it along the walls or ceilings.

I think that if I lost any of my tools it would be painful for me because even though they are easy to replace, each one of them has a different history to it. Thanks to these tools I have been able to get ahead and I have improved my painting technique. Each object reminds me of the different projects that I have had the opportunity to carry out throughout my career. For me, each project represents a work of art.

Claudia Pérez
Asociación Vendedores Ambulantes

(Photo by Christine Frei)

With this thermos, I can keep the champurrado warm for customers. The thermos allows me to work, which makes me feel proud. I have been arrested three times. My children have been arrested. I have gotten tickets. I have paid fines. All for being a vendor.

Program and exhibit curated by:

Heather Radke, Exhibition Coordinator at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum
Isis Ferguson, Program Coordinator at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum
Shannon Heffernan, WBEZ reporter

If you liked reading these stories, you might also enjoy visiting the current exhibition at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum, “Unfinished Business: 21st Century Home Economics.”  That exhibition was the inspiration for this project and includes artifacts and labels from domestic workers.

Feel free to tell us which artifact you would chose to represent your work and why in the comments below.

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