Elders & Leaders

The Long Read

I’ve been obsessed with Studs Terkel’s brand of oral history since I came across Working, which made me look at the value of work in a whole different way and inspired lots more research and reflection that might translate in the near-ish future into a live art concept.

I’ve picked up another Studs Terkel’s collection, this time his 2003 Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times, and it’s indeed just the right time for these first-hand accounts of resistance, persistence and ‘smart idealism’.

Human rights lawyers, labour movement activists, teachers, doctors, recovering addicts, death row survivors, radicals of all ages and stripes talk about what keep them jumping through every hoop in their way to make the world better than how they found it.

In the first few pages, I discovered the wonderful Tom Hayden (1939-2016), who drafted the 1962 Port Huron Statement (a radical political manifesto that called for “participatory democracy” ) in his 20s, and went on to play other major roles in anti-war, animal rights and social justice movements.

 

 

 

 

 

He’s 62 at the time of this interview with Studs Terkel, and he shares his wisdom about stages of life, the problem with the sixties and his newly-found role as an elder:

It’s not surprising that the idealists are always young. Young people are like eagles, they can see a long way and they don’t have any hindsight. They’re always discovering something new, and they don’t carry as much of the burden of the old. Then comes the second stage of life. I would call it your entry into a career, where you have to make money, you’ve got to settle down somewhat, and you become more like a coyote, more competitive with other people because this is going to determine where you are in the pecking order. So the idealism of the young is tempered by the competitiveness of the thirty-somethings and the forty-somethings. And then the third stage is you get as far as you’re going to go in your career path, you become president of the United States, or a journalist, or a school-teacher, or you get your seniority. And you realize that competition is not going to get you any farther. So you settle down more, you’re the mayor of a city or the city council person or the editor of the newspaper. Here you try to bring together the best of the idealism you had when you were a kid and what you’ve learned about the world and the rat race. So at worst you’re compromised, but at best, you’re a smart idealist, you’re learned something, you’ve matured. Then you go beyond that, in what in this society is usually called old age, but it’s the only opportunity you’ll have for wisdom. You’re no longer really needed as a mayor, because there’s always some guy knocking at the door who wants to replace you, and the end is coming. So this is the last stage. You know what that is? To be an elder. To problem with the sixties, as I look back, was a problem of the elders. It was always defined as a problem of youth, a crisis of youth. But really, that was how the elders defined it. The real problem was that the elders weren’t there. The elders missed the point entirely. I live now with one goal: to try to learn to be the kind of elder who was missing when I was a kid.

Tom Hayden in Studs Terkel’s Hope Dies Last, p. 70 (The New Press, New York, 2003)

Self-Care Checklist for Precarious Workers

Self-Care Checklist for Precarious Workers

Tools of the Trade

The gig economy! Love it or hate it, it seems that we’re all in it. Thank you to Rachel Dobbs from UK-based artistic duo LOW PROFILE for creating an infographic (inspired by Sheila Ghelani‘s own checklist of care) that precarious workers (self-employed, freelance, zero hours…) can use as a reference to decide whether they should or shouldn’t take yet one more contract.

This is a fantastic resource as a risk assessment checklist for helping artists, independent producers and other precarious workers to say ‘no’ to work that may cause more harm than good. Use it, share it and check out Rachel’s original post for more insights into her process and references.

Self-Care Checklist for Precarious Workers

Self-Care Checklist for Precarious Workers

Working

The Long Read

Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.
—Nora Watson, editor

 

I’ve come across Studs Terkel via his good friend Kurt Vonnegut, who quotes him in A Man Without a Country, his memoir-esque final book.

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do is a collection of over 80 interviews conducted in the 1970s with Americans from all walks of life. Studs Terkel, a broadcaster and oral historian, manages to both create a warm space for an intimate conversation and make himself transparent, and the transcripts read as insightful monologues constantly flowing between the personal and the universal. Working has been turned into a musical and adapted as a comic book by American Splendor’s Harvey Pekar.     

 

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all, (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of is. (…) It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.
Introduction

 

Working tells the extraordinary stories of ordinary people, and the everyday grind of those in the limelight – in their own voice. Policeman, bus driver, pharmacist, professional hockey player, farm worker, switchboard operator, airline stewardess, actor, doorman, piano tuner, gas meter reader, private eye, hair stylists… sit for a while with Terkel, in their home, in a tavern, in the boss’s office, and share a moment with him, opening up about their life, their feelings, their dreams. Some have already put a lot of thought into what they’re being asked to talk about, for others it feels like they’re discovering themselves in the conversation, revealing their inner contradictions and sometimes finding resolution. There’s a precious quality of individuality that comes through every single interview, but also a sense of interconnectedness that emerges from the accumulation of stories.

Studs Terkel made a point of scouting for people whose voice is not often heard, those who toil in the dark, are oppressed, marginalised, or trying to escape their golden cage. Class, race and gender loom large in the life choices of Terkel’s interlocutors. Barbara Herrick, a farmer’s daughter and award-winning writer / producer in the male-dominated ad world, is often ignored by clients at meetings – or asked to make them coffee – until she starts one her brilliant presentation. Roberto Acuna, farm worker, born on a cotton sack, picking the fields seven days a week from the age of 8, now organising for the United Farm Workers of America, has one wish:

 

If people could see—in the winter, ice on the fields. We’d be on our knees all day long. We’d build fires and warm up real fast and go back on the ice. We’d be picking watermelons in 105 degrees all day long. When people have melons or cucumber of carrots or lettuce, they don’t know how they got on their table and the consequences to the people who picked it. If I had enough money, I would take busloads of people out to the fields and into the labor camps. Then they’d know how that dine salad got on their table.
—Roberto Acuna, farm worker  

 

Some are fulfilled by their job:  

 

People imagine a waitress couldn’t possibly think of have any kind of aspiration other than to serve food. When somebody says to me, “You’re great, how come you’re just a waitress?” Just a waitress. I’d say, “Why, don’t you think you deserve to be served by me?” It’s implying that he’s not worthy, not that I’m not worthy. I makes me irate. I don’t feel lowly at all. I myself feel sure. I don’t want to change the job. I love it.
Dolores Dante, waitress

 

Others suffer from the daily drag, the erosion of their rights, the contempt from management:

 

All I do now is get up in the morning, go there, and I don’t be thinking about that. Like a machine, that’s about the only way I can feel.
—Will Robinson, bus driver

 

Some lose their illusions:

 

We were caught up in the American Dream. You’ve gotta have a house. You’ve gotta have a country club. You’ve gotta have two cars. Here you are at ten grand and getting nowhere. So I doubled my salary. I also doubled my grief. I now made twenty thousand dollars; had an expense account, a Country Squire—air-conditioned station wagon given by the company—a wonderful boss. We began to accumulate. We got a house in the suburbs and we got a country club membership and we got two cars and we got higher taxes. We got nervous and we started drinking more and smoking more. Finally, one day we sat down. We have everything and we are poor.
Fred Ringley, ex-salesman, farmer

 

And some take action:

 

When I worked as a bartender, I felt like a non-person. I was actually nothing. I was a nobody going nowhere. I was in a state of limbo. I have no hopes, no dreams, no ups, no downs, nothing. Being a policeman gives me the challenge in life I want.
Vincent Maher, policeman

 

Some find meaning in their life, beyond their job, by becoming reluctant leaders:

 

I was one of the organisers here when the union came. I was as anti-union in the beginning as I am union now. Coming from a small farm community in Wisconsin, I didn’t know what a union was all about. I didn’t understand the labor movement at all. In school you’re shown the bad side of it.

Before the union came in, all I did was do my eight hours, collect my paycheck, and o home, did my housework, took care of my daughter, and went back to work. I had no outside interests. You just lived to live. Since I became active in the union, I’ve become active in politics, in the community, in legislative problems. I’ve been to Washington on one or two trips. I’ve been to Springfield. That had given me more of an incentive for life.
—Grace Clements, felter in a luggage factory

 

We meet those who have found their calling, like Father Leonard Dubi, son of a steelworker and radical priest, taking on corporations and politicians to fight against pollution, poor planning decisions and corruption.

Others are making both a life and a living:   

 

I knew when I was eight years old that I wasn’t going to amount to anything in the business world. I wanted my life to have something to do with adventure, something unknown, something involved with a free life, something to do with wonder and astonishment. I loved to play—the fact that I could express myself in improvisation, the unplanned.
—Bud Freeman, jazz musician

 

And there are those who are still searching, like Charlie Blossom, upper middle class college dropout, hyperbolic hippy on a brief stint as a copy boy for a Chicago newspaper, who bring sunflower seeds to his co-workers and dreams of murdering his capitalist boss.

For a job that is similar on paper, two workers might have completely different attitudes – because so much of how they feel about it is down to the level of autonomy and responsibility they are offered or have carved for themselves. To quote Norma’s words, they are satisfied when they can put their spirit, whole and sincere, into what they do, when the job is big enough for them to be a full human being. Studs Terkel makes no comment outside his introduction, he passes no judgement on his subjects, but the fact that he features so heavily union members, second-chancers, angry young women and men and people fulfilled by creating value and connections to others and to the world is a strong hint at the kind of society he favours. And when articulating the need for change in his Introduction, he goes on to quote yet another union leader:

 

Perhaps it is time the “work ethics” was redefined and its idea reclaimed from the banal men who invoke it. In a world of cybernetics, of an almost runaway technology, things are increasingly making things. It is for our species, it would seem, to go on to other matters. Human matters. Freud put it one way. Ralph Helstein puts it another. He is president emeritus of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. “Learning is work. Caring for children is work. Community action is work. Once we accept the concept of work as something meaningful—not just as the source of a buck—you don’t have to worry about finding enough jobs. There’s no excuse for mules anymore. Society does not need them. There’s no question about our ability to feed and clothe and house everybody. The problem is going to come in finding enough ways for man to keep occupied, so he’s in touch with reality.”

 

Terkel concludes: “Our imaginations have obviously not yet been challenged”.

 

40 years on, technology has accelerated automation far beyond all expectations, education is still preparing young people for jobs and structures that don’t exist anymore, and chronic mass unemployment and underemployment are robbing many out of the right to make a life, fulfilled and dignified, out of making a living.
We need to challenge our imaginations to try out new ways of learning, of being together, of caring for each other and the world, and of valuing what is being produced within and outside formal contracts of employment. Universal Basic Income, or Citizen’s Income, is making its way into the mainstream, with pilots under way in Finland since January 2017 and starting soon in Ontario. It redefines the meaning of belonging to a community, enabling people to care for each other and removing the stigma of negative ‘benefits’; and it challenges the notion that employment is the source of all value, conflating money, status and identity.

Work in Culture?

Spotlight

I have been invited to talk about what I do for a living at a primary school’s Careers Day by a friend who volunteers there as a reader. He works in catastrophe insurance, so he is planning to bring wooden blocks to demonstrate earthquakes. I am wondering, of course, how I will manage to present what I do to a bunch of 7-year-old kids when I can barely explain it to anyone beyond my immediate circle of colleagues; but also whether there is any point in trying to convince anyone to follow in my footsteps when work in the cultural sector is only getting more precarious and discriminatory by the day.

Should I talk about the cost and length of training? A degree in any discipline is now £9,000 a year, and I’m not sure what you get to do these days without a Masters (I have two and am not especially overwhelmed with job offers). Then there’s the cost of Continuing Professional Development, to finally get to learn what they don’t teach you at school, keep up-to-date with the latest trends and do some crucial networking – all the conferences, courses and seminars that employers don’t necessarily put you forward to attend and are difficult to afford as a freelancer. And then there’s the ever-increasing sector precarity – zero-hour contracts becoming the norms in museums and venues, artist fees not quite a given, short-term and freelance contracts replacing secure jobs in organisations of all sizes. Not to mention the bullying, socio-economic and ethnic discrimination, unpaid internships

Maybe I should just stick to the brief: what I do, how I got there, what I like about it and what kind of skills I need to do my job, a few simple points to be covered in 5-10 minutes.

Maybe I should also remember that it’s not just about convincing kids that my job is the best. There’s a huge opportunity to make them realise that if working in arts & culture is a serious occupation, alongside all the other professions represented that day – people working in health, sport, law, IT and insurance – it’s because it’s important in everyone’s everyday life. Art is for life, not just for school, as this Guardian Teacher Network blogger eloquently puts it: even in the few schools that still offer arts subjects, young people are stigmatised for choosing them, even though the transferable skills and increased self-confidence alone should be reasons enough to encourage them.

As early as primary school, dance, art and drama were offered in clubs because they aren’t the “real subjects” that we need for “big school”… There’s this stigma with the arts that only “unintelligent” students take those subjects. I still struggle to be taken seriously for taking arts subjects… But more than a year later, I’m reminded daily that taking GCSE dance was the best decision I ever made. While everyone complains about the subjects their parents forced them into, I am in the dance studio every lunchtime. Dance gets me into school. Dance gives me something to pour my head and heart into. It gives me a feeling of belonging, creativity, security and freedom… The skills that I get from the arts also help me hugely with work across the curriculum, from improving my analytical skills to making me more self-confident.

 

So, to answer the questions:

What does a Festival & Arts Coordinator do?

I organise festivals with music, art, theatre, food… and also smaller events, like writing workshops, one-off concerts and guided walks across the city.

I work with artists, venues and schools to create these events, then with designers and journalists to make sure that the event looks good and that people know about it.

Some festivals last 10 days and can take 1 or 2 years and a huge team to prepare. On the day of the event, I make sure that everything goes according to plan – there’s always something that goes wrong, from the weather to the main artist being stuck in a traffic jam, but it’s part of the job to fix all these problems, and usually no one even knows about what happens backstage!

How do you become a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

There are many ways – but you really need to love art and music, enjoy working with lots of people, be very organised and also happy to do things that are quite unusual or unexpected – it’s never the same every day!

I studied Humanities – English, French, German, Philosophy, History, Art… and Business Management, then I started working on a tourism conference. My first festival job was with the Manchester Jazz Festival, which was perfect for me because I love music – I played the piano, violin and guitar when I was younger, now I’m learning the cello.

There are a lot of different festivals – it could be about sport, food, theatre, film – it can also be a bit of everything at once. The best way to get experience and see if you like it is to volunteer for a festival: it’s fun, you’ll meet lots of people and you’ll get to see how it works from the inside.

What are the best things about being a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

  • It’s fun – I meet lots of people, I listen to a lot of live music, sometimes I also get travel to other festivals.
  • It’s very varied – one day I could be choosing the image for the brochure cover, another day visiting a venue with an artist to check that their band will fit on the stage, or training a team of volunteers.
  • It makes people happy – that’s really the best part of the job and it’s worth all the hard work.

What did you like at primary school that led to you becoming a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

Every year my primary school would put on a School Fair, a whole day of games, food, music to celebrate the end of the year. The children worked all year on a performance for the Fair – it could be theatre, dance or singing… I really loved the whole day – all the parents and children would be there, and older children who used to be at my school would come back just for that day because it was so much fun. I loved that we prepared for it all year – the children doing a show, the parents preparing food to sell at the stalls or making up games, like sack race, egg in spoon race, coconut shy … and then on the day everything and everyone would come together.

 

(image: Josef Franz, from an exhibition I saw recently at MAK Vienna)