Monday, February 21, 2011

My Two Cents

My last post expressed my desire and need to begin rooting myself in every aspect of my community, both because I felt that that was the next step in my work and also because I felt that in some inspired way I was led to do so. I did not write that post and set myself solely to its progress and completion since November. Instead, in fewer words, I just let it happen. In my community life on 1229 N 4th Avenue, I began staying at home more, listening more intently at the dinner table, and focusing on conversations, moods, and tones. I also changed my approach to my work.

Here are some reflections on that change that I gave in a speech to a local church. They were…elderly.


I’m sorry for the outburst, but now that I have your attention let me explain.

You see, even though I have never in my life proclaimed such a thing to the church, I used to do so internally and subconsciously when I first arrived here six months ago from Asheville, NC, so I might as well have shouted it like I just did. I came to man a volunteer post at the SWC. It is a ministry of the Southside Presbyterian Church that seeks employment and development opportunities for mostly Latino men just north of “S Tucson” (Which I never really understood because, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there more of Tucson S of S Tucson?) Anyway, that’s where I began work. It’s also where I have been having my school-boy, white felt-board Jesus, Sunday School theology pounded on like a drum. The majority of my time at the SWC is spent in a parking lot waiting on the trucks of incoming employers to come in and hire a few workers. My job is to keep order, maintain the list of outgoing workers, and to help translate and negotiate day labor contracts. On any given morning, aside from meetings with the workers, computer classes, and English classes, I spend the hours of 7-10:30 sitting on curbs and plastic chairs in the parking lot conversing (platicando, charlando, hablando) with Mexicans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans about nothing really important, at least I used to think. Then at 10:30 I can go into the Center’s office and begin “real” work. In November I considered this real work to be cold-calling employers, organizing databases for marketing purposes, and continuing email correspondences about upcoming jobs, workshops, classes, events X, Y, and, wait don’t forget Z. However, while remembering event Z, I forgot or possibly never even really knew the real foundation of my work, the real work of the SWC. It begins with this: If one comes to “help” in a social environment that is new: new culture, new language and/or dialects, new problems, new social dynamics, new food, new music, new definitions of “cool” (The members of the center say “Que padre!”) and new definitions of “pretty” (They call their ladies gorditas, which means to us pleasantly plump), if one wants to “help” in this new environment then they must be willing to change their definition of “help,” and they must also be willing to pay their dues.

My terminology and understanding on this subject come from Paulo Freire, a Brazilian writer, thinker, and activist, in his arguably most important work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I have begun reading and discussing this book with members of the SWC’s staff. Its content has allowed me to put words to my experiences and begin a process of acceptance, analysis, and reaction. I have begun to understand that the single most committed folly by church, non-profit, or humanitarian aid workers and volunteers is that we treat our “cases,” or people we are to help, as if they are objects, while we are the subjects. They are objects to be organized into our pre-arrival, pre-conceived plans and projects, objects to be picked up in between the ages of 0-5 and carried around for photos to be taken, or objects at which we will preach our infallible monopolies on truth, which we call the “Gospel,” (Repent O Sinner!) “Budgeting 101,” (This is how to balance a checkbook dummy) and last but not least “The Correct Church, Family, and Social Framework Model (Based on the organizational structures of God’s Country: the U.S. of A.)” Freire says that this “Subject-Object” model is the base of oppression and that the only way to bring about the liberation of the oppressed, which we must understand is the liberation of ourselves as mankind created in the image of God, is to not enter into what we call the “mission field” with hidden agendas and ulterior motives. Instead, the agenda, or the plan to help or liberate, can only be found after we realize that we have in fact been the oppressors and that we can only participate in their/our liberation if we enter into a mutual dialogue where both parties are Subjects. To participate in that dialogue one must enter into a relationship of solidarity. (Sometimes it takes sitting and waiting for work in a parking lot for six months.) We must know their struggles, their daily realities, and their way of life. Only then can we begin to not lead them out of their oppression of poverty, racism, and lack of education, but instead support them as they lead themselves and one another as fully human, fully liberated, beautiful beings breathing the very life-giving breathe that God breathed into each and every one of us.

Freire is a thinker to behold; his words must be digested with coffee, contemplation, and complimenting conversation amongst wise and experienced peers. Discussion with the group I mentioned provides me with this, for which I am very thankful. However for all of you, I am grateful today for the opportunity to provide an illustrating story from the SWC.

Who here has been to the Gem Show? Well in January, it came to town. Gem and precious stone merchants came in from all over the world to showcase their fossils, diamonds, gold, rubies, and turquoise to wholesale buyers who were ready to stock up their inventories. There was also plenty of shopping to be done by Aunt Gertrude. Now come on, everyone here knows Aunt Gertrude (no offense to anyone with the name or the following characteristics) but she drove down from Phoenix with her sister and Bridge partner Myrtle. They wore sun visors, never exceeded 50 mph on I-10, and spent the duration of their weekend cooing covetously at the vendors’ wares, but not daring to reach into their purses to make a purchase. I-10 became a budding branch. It sprouted leaves of big white tents from the SWC’s location near 22nd street all the way north to the Young Adult Volunteer house right off of Speedway. The cars of tourists from the airport south of us and the rest of Arizona north of us crawled off the interstate onto the newly sprouted leaves like ants ready to feed.

I had been told of the Gem Show shortly after I started work at the Center, that it had great opportunities for day-to-day employment and that I should send an informational email to all the vendors coming to make them aware of the services our workers could provide. So I did, to over 80 vendors and tent companies. Then I waited. After thinking for a time that the email had poorly received and conjuring reasons why, I received one reply. It was from a tent company in Colorado that was going to be sending a work crew with a large tent to construct. They needed a team of workers to help them over a three day period. I leapt at the chance to organize a work team, and to work with an actual employer that wrote emails and spoke civilly. I worked out the logistics for a team of four to meet at a specific site, receive pay, and to have the ability to communicate and follow instructions with one worker being bilingual. I then waited for the tent company to arrive. On the morning of, one of the workers for the Center’s team (the bilingual one), didn’t show up. He had found work elsewhere, so I had to find a replacement. There are not many that speak both English and Spanish at my place of work. After the team was assembled, they departed and I got a call 20 minutes later. It was the tent guy and the workers must be lost. I called them redirected and they made it. We’re set…I thought. I received yet another call from the tent foreman who wanted final details on payment options for the labor. He wondered when he could come by and “swipe his card”. I informed him as I had already informed his secretary that we do not have a place to swipe cards (well, that prints a receipt afterwards anyway). We are housed in a church. I could hear the frustration building. He was under the impression that we were a “Labor Ready,” with documented workers, workman’s comp (insurance), OSHA training and silly, official things like that. I quickly tried to dissuade his anger by working out a convenient payment method (which still required his checkbook to be sent from Colorado) and going to meet him with the workers to smooth things know.. conversationally (big thanks to my upbringing in the South for my first learned language of “good ol’ boy”, even though the accent ain’t the same in these parts the translation transcends cultural boundaries) So, it was a rocky start, but I waited, anxiously. When the next morning came I got a call from the tent guy. I said hello with my teeth tight and one eye wincing. Then he said good morning. I exhaled. He then began to tell me about how the day of work went. He wanted me know just how hard Ricardo, Cecilio, Jose, and Arturo worked, about how he had gotten to know them a little bit, ate lunch with them, and heard their stories of crossing the border, finding work, facing racism and exploitation at the hand of local employers who pay less than was agreed upon or don’t pay at all, and after all that, struggling to send money back to their families through a Western Union wire transfer that skims 10% off the top. Speaking of learning other languages, I could tell that gratitude and praise were languages new to him, and like many construction foremen he was rusty. But he went with the functional “fair pay” talk, a language he spoke fluently, and told me that the work had gone so quickly, from an estimated three days to one day and 3 hours, that he was going to go ahead and pay them for a full two days. He said, “Now I want you to make sure that you tell them I’m doing that, that I’m not stiffing them, in fact I’m paying more, it’s just that well the work, it’s all done you see.”

After that phone call I celebrated, all internally mind you, I was in the parking lot and I have a reputation to protect…they already call me Shakira, the name of latina pop star [Hair Flip] (I don’t know why). And then I began to think about what had just happened. Everything turned around so unexpectedly. My obstacle was that I was thinking about myself. I the English-speaking, business-minded guero or white man had done nothing to bring about this success. The magic in this story came from the workers: noble, diligent, and honest. Even deeper still, and this is the point I am seeking to illustrate, it came from people of different backgrounds working together, over lines of race, class, and nationality, as equals, sharing their toil, their stories, their tragedies, and then mutually each other’s success. Human relationships, mutual dialogue where both parties are Subjects, and face-to-face, working shoulder-to-shoulder interactions are the base for all real and sustainable change. Love your neighbor as yourself is right, because in a way your neighbor is yourself. Different language, different point of origin…but at the end of the day, when the roof is shingled, the tent is built, and friends are made-it’s all mutual.

The success of that day when the Gem Show came to town has continued. The Center’s services of A-grade work at a reasonable rate provided by hard working men of integrity spread by word of mouth from tent to tent along I-10. This past Monday, so many employers came from the Gem Show to get men to help pack up that there was a brief moment in time where the parking lot was empty. One employer arrived during this moment and I panicked. I had to run into the church where we have Crosstreets, a ministry that gives out a free meal on Mondays and Fridays to people without homes. There I found two able looking men that both spoke English, so they were top notch on my skill assessment chart. It took a lot of coaxing, but eventually they gave and went to work. I have since marked that day down as the best Valentine’s Days ever, not because of my work, know how, or BUSINESS DEGREE, but because of the power of human relationships and solidarity.

Now in conclusion, I’d like to apologize beforehand for bringing business to church, but I am not trying to make a buck. I bike, not drive, from every A to every B with a very modest “living” stipend in my pocket. And while Jesus himself turned over the tables of the merchants in the temple because they were desecrating the house of God with the business of the Roman empire, he did however teach of the need and the power of social reconciliation, of welcoming strangers, and living, being, and working with, not for, the poor. So in His name, I advertise to you: tomorrow is President’s Day so I know that many of you will have the day off. It was a windy day yesterday, so I know there are yards and roofs to be cleaned. Spring is here, in Arizona anyway. It’s time to dig gardens and rainwater catchments, plant flowers, vegetables, and trees. And let’s face it, those projects at home are not going to do themselves, so if you don’t want to do it, or as is usually the case just need some skilled help, then why don’t you give me a call (I’ll be waiting after the service to give you any info that you might need). Not because we want to turn a profit or fatten wallets, but because we want to feed families. We want employment because it leads to empowerment and liberation that they’ve never had before. We want to build a community on love and selflessness. A community, in Tucson, that welcomes strangers from other lands that came because they were poor, hungry, thirsty, and unemployed.

[Again without the mic] MY NAME IS JA-----well, that’s not important anymore. Frankly I was never that impressed anyway. But these people I know are. And, I’m telling you. Just like that tent builder from the Gem Show. You have got to meet these guys.

Jacob Owens


Tucson, AZ