The following are my notes, with references, from my keynote speech at the Digital Library Federation Forum, which took place on Nov. 7, 2016, in Milwaukee, Wis., at the Pfister Hotel. Thanks and gratitude to Delano Massey, Jarrett Drake, and Bergis Jules for their feedback and suggestions, and innumerable thanks to Crescenta Sabree for watching the baby while I gave this talk.
Good morning everyone! Thank you Bethany, Janice and Ann for such wonderful introductions to Milwaukee and to the conference. I want to start by thanking the Digital Library Federation for inviting me here today. The programming committee worked extremely hard to assist me in getting here, and additionally helping with childcare, which is not something you can take for granted. I recently heard about a conference that created a room for nursing mothers to pump milk, yet nursing infants were banned onsite. I recognize all of the moving parts involved in including participants with children and I’m grateful to the DLF for taking their mission of inclusion seriously. Bethany is absolutely right that it takes a village. I also want to thank the employees here at the Pfister for their labor to make this conference happen in this space. I see you and appreciate you. I am truly humbled to have the opportunity to talk here, in my hometown, the city where I got my first job about the notion of labor in our profession (no pressure!). Wisconsin is a state with a rich history of progressive labor movements, many of which have influenced my perspectives over the years in ways that were as subtle as a suggestion or as loud as a yell, like being a young girl and seeing my mom go to her teacher’s union meetings, watching my fellow undergrads at UW-Madison protest against sweatshop labor, or writing some of my first pieces as a reporter for alternative publications focused on labor, race, class and education. I am extremely interested in the politics of work and how they shape all of our experiences. But, the longer that I have been at work, the more I hope that we can all find a common ground that will allow us to create intentional policies and praxis toward our labor that are truly liberatory, to quote my brother Jarrett Drake. The idea of work as freedom might sound radical, but it doesn’t have to be. Radical labor would be work that we respect because of its values and work that respects us — not just our differences but also the things that draw us together.
So let’s talk about labor on a Monday morning the day before we decide the outcome of a particularly contentious election season in which we as voters have expressed very strong sentiments about what labor means to us, not just in libraries and archives, but in childcare centers. At factories. At restaurants. On farms. In classrooms. In hospitals. In big-box retailers. And what work means to us as human beings who wish to have the autonomy to self-identify and define ourselves.
The notion of work has been deeply political since the founding of this country. In the 1980s, Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously remarked that “all politics is local.” Using his purposely colloquial phrasing, O’Neill posited that a politician could only get ahead if he or she understood the small, yet potentially life-changing details concerning constituents’ lives. Garbage pickup. Noisy neighbors. Parking tickets. Good choices for public schools. And, most importantly, jobs. I wanted to explore O’Neill’s theory with the idea that labor is as local as politics, meaning it’s related to and a reflection of these smaller experiences we have in our immediate communities.
These “local” interactions are how we understand work: how we perform it, how we value it, and how we advocate for ways in which we can continue to improve upon the conditions in which we do it. I tend to think of the local approach as radical because our politics in their current incarnation are the exact opposite of radical. Our politics are safe for the people who have the money to either be unaffected by the resulting policies or who have the money to influence the policies. Politics seems to have discarded the laborers a long time ago. Late capitalism ensures that many of our laborers have been intentionally disenfranchised through policies meant to strip away local context and flatten everyone into a one-size-fits all money-making widget. A code. A content creator. A quota. A consumer.
We see this with big-box retailers who depressed their employees’ wages so low that the employees had little choice but to apply for food stamps, which were then used to purchase food from that exact same employer.
We see this nationally in police departments that fine citizens through nuisance tickets as a way to make money, penalizing our poorest constituents and putting them at risk of jail time or worse.
We see this in a media that elevated a political candidate to legitimacy because he was clickbait worthy, and therefore capable of generating revenue from online ads.
We see this in our universities that continue to pay high salaries to administrators but only hire professors in adjunct, temporary roles.
We see this in parental-leave policies that force parents to make a choice between returning to work and paying astronomical sums of money for childcare or leaving the workforce for an unspecified number of years.
The local aspect has been lost.
The localized politics of my own labor became apparent to me as I worked on this speech. Writing it was extremely challenging because I am a parent and I am currently at home as the primary caregiver for my children while my husband works full time, but I have freelance gigs and professional committee work that take my focus in such a way that I might as well be working outside of the house. Every time I sat down at my computer to write and research what I would say to you all today, with aspirations of going deep on the politics of Wisconsin’s labor movement, my 4-month-old would wake up from a nap needing milk, so I’d feed him on one side and express milk with a hand pump on the other side while the 2-year-old screamed in the background because that’s what two-year-olds do. Whole weeks went by in a fog of laundry and spit up, and every night during a two-hour window in which dinner was finished and the kids were asleep, I would attempt to write, but that was also the only two-hour window in which I could talk to my partner and have some adult conversations that didn’t include the phrase “No don’t do that!” or “Yummy tummy.” Worse, the closer I got to this conference, the more toddler tantrums cropped up, likely a consequence of my inability to give my son as much attention as I previously had. Suffice to say, being a parent of two very young children and spending time researching about labor was hard. And maybe “hard” is an understatement.
The conclusion I came to was so obvious, I kicked myself for not seeing it earlier, though I blame the sleep deprivation that is par for the course when you have very young children. The conclusion being that in the local context, carework is the beam underpinning this entire system of labor as we know it, i.e. leaving your house and going to another location where you create a thing or assist someone and get money in return — and yet it remains the most invisible part of what makes our economy run. That context is local, national, international and intergalactic. Someone has to watch your kids if you have to work. And even if you don’t have kids, someone somewhere watched you when you were a kid. If you’re a Baby Boomer or Generation X, it’s likely that you may now be a caregiver to your own parents or other relatives.
This is interesting because when you look up the definition of labor, of the three main definitions given in Merriam-Webster, it is the third that’s explicitly related to the act of giving birth, but that third definition is not shown as being related to the first two definitions, which are: human activity that provides goods and services in an economy; and services performed by workers for wages. But essentially, it’s caregiving that makes the first two possible. Giving care isn’t limited to parents. And it can be emotional as well as physical. A teacher who encourages you is giving you care. A coach who pushes you gives care. A friend who loves you and asks you how you are doing is giving you care.
So I worked on this speech in fits and starts. In what little downtime I had, I found that it was hard to concentrate, so I spent a lot of time scrolling through Twitter. I don’t know how many of you are on Twitter — and I’m going to tell you now that I am, and am tweeting wildly about libraries and archives and Netflix binges at any given point in time — but back in August 2016, a hashtag was started by singer/songwriter Marian Call asking people to list their first seven jobs. I responded, and what I loved about it the most was the idea that the thousands or tens of thousands of people who responded represented thousands more job experiences that they bring to whatever they do now. I revisited the idea of the #firstsevenjobs topic when writing this speech and was surprised to have such strong feelings when reminiscing on the first one.
As a teenager, my first jobs were babysitting for working mothers in the Sherman Park neighborhood where I grew up. Just to give you some background, Sherman Park was one of the only truly integrated neighborhoods in the city by design. My block had whites — a mix of German-Americans, who had settled in the city in droves during the 19th century and also a large number of Orthodox Jews. There were also some African-American families, as black people had started moving to that neighborhood in the 1980s; we moved there in 1984. But this integration was an anomaly. Milwaukee remains one of the most segregated cities in the country. So this neighborhood with the blacks and whites and Jews and Catholics and Protestants was very rare. And at least on our block, we knew each other in more than superficial hellos and goodbyes. When I was a kid, a woman who lived across the street used to babysit me and my two sisters. So babysitting was one of my first jobs, but it was situated in this local context that nearly everyone on our block worked. This was a neighborhood where if you stayed home from school sick, all the cars on the block disappeared by 8am and returned by 6pm, except for a few people who worked second shift at factories, which were going extinct citywide by the 1980s. No more smells of yeast wafting across the expressway from the numerous breweries downtown because they were closing, no more workers huddled outside of AO Smith waiting for city buses to go home after a long day of making car parts.
Our neighborhood was working class in that most everyone had to work to pay mortgages and car notes, and I grew up with this expectation that I would eventually work. I started agitating to make my own money before I could legally work at 16. Babysitting started with some family friends. Their daughter and my youngest sister were best friends, so I’d bring my sister with me and watch the kids. Then a woman related to one of my father’s co-workers moved to the neighborhood and needed someone to watch her son.
In a not-so-ironic twist, one of my most memorable library experiences as a young person was my mom taking my sister and I to the Milwaukee Public Library Capitol Drive branch during one summer vacation and assigning us to research and write small reports on topics of our choosing. This was largely because my mother always worked during the summers and that year, she was tutoring other kids at the library. She brought us with her because it was cheaper to have us nearby than it was to find childcare for the summer.
It’s not a coincidence that babysitting became one of my first local labor experiences. It may have been that way for many of you in the audience, especially considering that women are disproportionately tasked with the majority of caregiving activities in this country, whether or not we have children. According to the community-based nonprofit Family Caregiver Alliance, 66 percent of women will be tasked as caregivers at some point during their lifetime. This is significant when considering that this profession is 81 percent female, as of a September 2014 demographic survey by the American Library Association. Also of note is that of the members who responded to that survey, 38.6 percent were considered Baby Boomers, who are in this accordion sort of group where they are squeezed by needing to give care to older parents and are possibly still supporting grown children. So my first job was structured in this very intimate, local context: I babysat for others, and I had a mix of babysitters, in-home caregivers and daycare growing up until I was old enough to stay home alone.
My parents both worked; my father worked at the downtown branch of the Milwaukee-headquartered Marshall & Ilsley Bank, and my mother was a Milwaukee Public School teacher for 30 years. She was also a union member, as hundreds of thousands of Milwaukeeans have been since 1848, when some of the first unions were formed in the city. Fun fact: that in 1935, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Workers was formed in the state capitol of Madison and was the first state to grant public employees collective bargaining rights in 1959 — of note to those of you who work in unionized public library systems or serve in an information capacity in city government. In fact, prior to the 2011 Wisconsin Act, which killed unions for public employees, Wisconsin had some of the highest percentages of union participation in the country during the early 20th century, likely owing to its large concentration of factories and plants, which gave it the nickname of “the machine shop of the world,” according to the Wisconsin Labor History Society.
It’s important to note that as much good as the labor movement did for working conditions on the whole, it was still guilty of exclusion based on race, ethnicity, gender and physical ability — women, new immigrant groups, African Americans and the differently abled were actively left out of such negotiations, and were often used by anti-union employers to cross picket lines during strikes. Many women who had been allowed into the factories during World War II to replace the men who had enlisted, were pushed out when the men returned home. My parents were also products of and participants in the Great Migration — the exodus of an estimated 6 million African Americans between 1910 and 1970 from the south to the north who found better job opportunities when they arrived. So becoming mobile in order to work was not new to me. My parents left Chicago and moved north to Milwaukee for jobs. They placed us with caregivers so they could go to work. And when I became old enough, I watched other people’s children so that they could do the same.
The other part of this local approach to my labor is the immutable fact of my race. Allow me to point to another Twitter-related example to illustrate. One of my favorite accounts is a digital humanities project titled @Every3Minutes. The tweets announce that every three minutes in antebellum America, a person was sold. The wording of personhood is critical to the account’s impact; it reminds you that these slaves — kidnapped, taken across the oceans in horrific conditions, and forced to labor under threat of death for no compensation — were people, they had names, families they loved. The account also links every entry to an archival document: a slave bill of sale, a market announcement, a will or some other estate-planning document. The account is compelling to me because it’s “local” to everything I do as a professional. I can be at a library or archives, involved in the very privileged pursuit of learning for learning’s sake and being paid for it, and am easily reminded how different labor looked for people like me not so long ago.
It is not lost on me that many of our nation’s academic libraries were built by people who looked like me — some sitting on university campuses that were founded and funded by selling people who looked like me — but it was illegal and punishable by beating or death for people who looked like me to read and write, lest they attempt to organize and plan their freedom. Additionally, black women were forced into caregiving roles during and after slavery: As slaves, cooking for slaveowners and cleaning their homes, even breastfeeding their children. After the Civil War, as domestics, washing clothes and floors, running errands, cooking meals, watching children and still tending to their own families. For me, my labor is an explicitly local expression of who I am and the privilege and responsibility I carry as I do my work.
So if we return to this idea of local labor as work that reflects the everyday concerns of our lives and communities, we can and must acknowledge the need for a radical understanding of labor that points to caregiving as the beating heart that has made it all possible from the very beginning, because everyone sitting in this room today has benefited directly from that labor.
Our society’s caregiving institutions have had a hard time fulfilling this goal. Social workers, teachers, coaches, doctors, nurses, childcare workers, and home health aides. All have been told to deliver more results with fewer staff and less money. Doctors in many areas will not take patients on Medicaid, because the federal funding does not cover the cost of care. Social workers have even fewer resources and need to see twice as many children. Public school teachers have been told to teach more students who have greater social needs with fewer resources. Capitalism demands to be fed, and many of our institutions are running out of the food — money and labor that keep it running, which strips the value of the care underneath it.
We know that information work has followed the trend of late capitalism, which has an anti-care ethos that affects the ways in which we are taught to value our labor. I’ve argued in the past that, at least in archives, truly valuing what we do means that we have to recognize the ways in which our labor practices are problematic, to say nothing of our habit of focusing more on the “things” we have and less on the people those “things” can help serve.
We want to be valued, but how many of us have been a part of digitization projects like the ones featured on @Every3Minutes, where the work may have been performed by at-will workers with no job security who were paid the barest of minimum wages? How many of us use volunteers or interns paid nothing at all to complete those projects? How many of us outsource those digitization projects to people in prisons, disproportionately black and brown citizens who are unlikely to ever be offered jobs in the cultural heritage institutions that used their labor once they are released?
How many of our libraries or archives that have generated such projects sit on university campuses that are inaccessible to the community, thru architectural planning, where there are not even places for guests to park or reach buildings via mass transit, or have become inaccessible as places of learning because they have become prohibitively expensive to attend? How many of our organizations have made it harder to serve our local users because of extreme cuts to their workforces or because they replicated systems of hiring that rewarded those who best perform very specific racial, gender and class standards, as Angela Galvan discusses in “Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias?” How many of us have sat on hiring committees and made a case for an applicant who was “cheaper”? How many have written grant applications that didn’t request a living wage for participants? These questions touch deeply local issues for all of us who work in this profession, and more importantly for the people we hope to serve. Our local communities should always be at the forefront of the work we do. We labor for them, ostensibly. And the work we do should reflect the standards of access and equality we say we hold in this profession. Our systems are replicating harm, not care. In order to think more broadly about applying a local, caregiver-based perspective of labor to this profession, we need to be able to interrogate our own institutions and see our role in them.
This is the part where I shout out people in and adjacent to this field who have been asking the hard questions for a long time. The people who gave words and ideas to the things I was experiencing or questioning. Like UX designer Amelia Abreu, who explores what the metrics of caregiving labor would look like if applied to to create value in a feminist reflection of work. That the measurement of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made or trips to the park taken or diapers changed or tantrums soothed could help measure how valuable a parent’s time is, and that value might grow exponentially once the child being cared for grows into an adult. Or archivists like Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor who have called for the idea of radical empathy in archives that “draws to the fore women’s lived experiences as caregivers” in order to better serve our users. I’m grateful for the work of Dr. Safiya Noble, who has researched and called out the so-called neutrality of our information architecture as actually replicating the biases and oppressive systems already existing IRL — specifically ones that erase or misrepresent the women of color so often working in caregiving roles; which, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance, 57 percent of African-American women and 45 percent of Hispanic women spend more than 30 hours a week providing care to a child or elderly relative. And I look to women like librarian and educator Myrna Morales who, along with the gift of her friendship, also put me on to the Yvonne Pappenheim Library on Racism in Boston when I started library school and woke me all the way up. These are people who recognize that our work can and should be more than a series of transactions, codes, widgets, customers, or cash, and who can point to ways in which we can center our local experiences in care ethics that could elevate us all.
The caregiver approach to labor has roots in both feminist and care theories. Psychologist Carol Gilligan, identified as one of the primary theorists of care ethics along with Nel Noddings, says it “directs our attention to the need for responsiveness in relationships and to the costs of losing connection with oneself or others.” Gilligan’s approach tends to be gendered, looking at ethics through a lens of a “women’s being and knowing.” and theorizes that women are more concerned about relationships and responsibilities because of roots in maternal care, where men are concerned about rights. However, political science professor Daniel Engster, in “Rethinking Care Theory,” sees care ethics as part of a gender-neutral moral and political philosophy that not only engages our community through basic acts of caring, but also provides justice to communities through that care.
What does it mean to give care? Engster strips down care theory to its studs: 1) caring is comprised of meeting basic needs like food, water and shelter; 2) caring sustains people’s capabilities for basic functioning in society such as sense, movement, imagination and reason; and 3) caring to help people avoid or alleviate pain and suffering. Applying a minimalist standard to caregiving, he says, allows the theory to be as broadly used and performed as possible. For instance, Engster’s care theory would be one that supports a gender-neutral parental leave policy, understanding that it’s beneficial for both parents, not just women, to take a lead role in the care of a new baby. To use a more historical example, his theory would support care-based local labor like the Black Panthers Free Breakfast for School Children program established in 1969. His care theory parallels O’Neill’s statement about local politics, because providing these basic levels of care is what allows society to function at its highest levels, and those functions include civic engagement toward determining our political futures. Who is a voter, really? An individual who was cared for — or not — by a person, an institution, a neighborhood; someone whose capabilities for reason or imagination had been sustained until turning 18; someone who likely cares enough about avoiding pain and suffering to seek a political candidate who promises to do just that. And I say 18, because that’s the soonest that anyone in this country can step into a voting booth.
If we apply care theory to the library profession, these are the questions we should be asking: Do our organizations help people meet their basic needs like food, water, or shelter, in any way, and if not, what can we do to help meet that need? Do our organizations sustain people’s capabilities for basic functioning in society such as sense, movement, imagination or reason? And do our organizations help people avoid or alleviate pain and suffering? Maybe in your head, you answered yes to all these questions, but then I challenge you, can we be doing more, or better? What can we do in our work to reflect the level of care that put every individual into this room? What of those localized aspects of our care can we replicate or scale to help our users get free, whatever that level of freedom means to them?
We could look to the Mukurtu content management system as a care-based example of our labor that could be used in solidarity with First Nations tribes protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. The pipeline is not only slated to cut through sacred tribal burial grounds, but any oil spills would contaminate drinking water from the Missouri River for millions of people. Mukurtu — an Aboriginal word that means a place to store secrets — is a community-based open-source tool that takes inspiration from the way that indigenous groups share their cultural heritage and could be used in a substantive way for First Nations tribes to document the #noDAPL movement, which is being underdocumented by mainstream media. Few things are more liberatory than being able to tell your own story and history and have control and stewardship over your cultural narrative.
We could look to the online Social Justice Collaboratorium pilot, conceived by Spectrum Scholar doctoral students RaShauna Brannon, LaVerne Gray, Elnora Tayag, Mario H. Ramirez, Miraida Morales, and Myrna E. Morales in 2015, that aims to link librarians and archivists to intentional social justice practices in their work. The first words you see on the website let you know that this is an explicitly local project. “Communities are at the heart of all social justice endeavors.” The Collaboratorium will ideally provide a space to explore the ways in which we can infuse social justice into every aspect of our work, starting in LIS graduate programs, where we can start making connections at the most fundamental level to how our labor impacts the communities we serve.
We could amplify community-based oral history projects that document caregivers’ experiences in their own voices. The National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Domestic Worker Oral History Project edited by Sarah Macareg highlight women’s stories as caregivers, the former with the goal of politically lobbying for labor laws that are inclusive of and protect domestic workers and the latter to reveal a contemporary portrait of what caregiving looks like in the United States, with proceeds from the collection going toward domestic worker rights groups.
Those latter projects circle back to our main point. Community-based information exchange projects exemplify the localized care ethics that should be a part of our labor. I look at a digital repository like A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, conceptualized by my brother Jarrett and produced in collaboration with Cleveland activist groups and other archivists (Disclosure: I am on the advisory archivist board). Through oral histories and other documentation, A People’s Archive nourishes or fulfills basic needs of functioning in society by allowing individuals to give and receive care to their local communities. Caregiving underpins this project, because when we talk about police violence, how many of these protests or acts of solidarity are initiated by mothers who have lost their children? The women whose names line the shirt I’m wearing are known to us right now because their families care enough to labor for justice on their behalf.
Or we can point to research by queer black feminist scholar Moya Bailey, who created the term misogynoir to define a distinct type of discrimination against black women. Dr. Bailey borrowed from a digital humanist concept of “collaborative construction” termed by Mark Sample to research uncompensated digital media labor by black trans women. Bailey amplified the women’s original work in her research, which also highlighted the ways in which those women’s lives remain at risk from a lack of care.
These are projects that are meaningful because of their local construct, the idea that it is a community partnership or exchange of cultural information that benefits the people sharing their labor in tangible ways. Creators or initiators of these projects view themselves as members of the community and in doing so, express their care through respect of that same community. That respect should thread itself through the information architecture aspects, like user experience and design, through the way we approach reference and access of digital and analog collections, outreach, research, or even management of each other. This respect and care is what we should strive for in all areas of our work as information professionals.
I’m only standing here today because of the care that I received here in Milwaukee. The care from my parents, who are at home in Cleveland watching my 2-year-old, my sisters, teachers, librarians, doctors, coaches, managers, clergy, and friends. Two best friends who have watched my 4-month-old while I’m here. And I must highlight institutional care. The local political care that used to value and fund a robust public transit system that went all over the city. Buses that took me to Pius XI High School on the south side of Milwaukee or to my teenage job at Boston Store at Mayfair Mall; the care funded by the Milwaukee Public Schools Recreational Department, where I took classes in dance, art, cooking, tennis and swimming from instructors who saw the value in well-rounded kids. let’s be real. Caregiving is work. Community building is work. Freedom is work. So many people in Milwaukee are still working hard against many odds to bring that respect and that care to their communities. The riots on the northside this August, so close to my childhood home, were a stark reminder of what happens in communities where where the caregiving institutions and individuals that people looked to for help have abandoned them. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Here’s where libraries can use their mission and resources to help people build.
Simply put, we must respect the care-based labor that pushes our local communities forward enough to pay daycare or home health workers a living wage, we must pay men and women of all races equally, we must create leave policies that respect people’s chosen families, we must be present and fight the inequalities and imbalances presenting themselves in our communities every day, like domestic terrorism against African Americans or Muslims, wage stagnation, gaps in mental healthcare coverage, or dangerous levels of climate change, otherwise there’s no way that we can be effective as information professionals. Because our work has little value if we can’t value or care about people in those communities and how they are affected by local issues. It’s not the makerspaces or the tech apps or the daguerreotypes. Those are merely the tools. Let’s value the people. Care for the people. Be a reflection of the care you received or that you want to receive. And let that radiate out in our local communities as a radical expression of love, empathy and service.
To close, I’d like to read a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine, who wrote often of the working class in his hometown of Detroit. This is the eponymous poem from his National Book Award-winning collection “What Work Is” and I think it’s the perfect end note for these ideas of work and care.
What Work Is
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is — if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.