Report Back: The Black Workers Forum

Collage of poster and murals at the Madison Labor Temple.

A collection of murals and signs on view at the Madison Labor Temple during the Black Workers Forum. Photos by Faron Levesque.

Work is something we all do, like sleeping and eating, in our own way. Work can be very personal, but none of us works in a vacuum. Life is work, and work connects to everything else.

This week, Faron Levesque, a PhD candidate in the History Department at UW-Madison, gives us her thoughts on the subject. She specializes in social movements and the cultural history of gender. As such, she sees the connection between work and current social movements that address inequities in housing, debt, education, incarceration, healthcare….and more.

IMG_7548I’m a public fellow from the Center for Humanities working for the Wisconsin Humanities Council on its Working Lives Project. I study history. But really, I’m interested in the everyday struggles of ordinary people and local and national movements for social justice, particularly in relation to the history of work and labor. Right now, I’m developing a digital humanities project for the Working Lives Project that focuses on gender equity, racial justice and labor, and seeks to build new coalitions that serve multiple communities.

The Working Lives Project is a multi-faceted initiative. One of the programs, called ShopTalk,  takes the classroom out of the university and into communities, offering spaces for speakers and the public to dialogue about the nature of work in the 21st century. It has the potential to be a public humanities initiative that brings communities together in dialogue about work and racial justice.

This dialogue calls for public humanities practitioners to identify and name the many forms of state violence that afflict the lives of working communities of color. Most importantly, we need to look to the folks already doing the hard labors of love and justice.

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Living in Madison, I am tuned in to the local expression of national movements, such as Fight for $15—a call to increase wages for workers in low-paying jobs—and Black Lives Matter, a response to incidences of police brutality.

On February 25, 2016, the NAACP in Dane County coordinated a free and open community discussion at the Madison Labor Temple. Although this event was not affiliated with the Working Lives Project, it stood out to me as an opportunity to spotlight local activism that focuses on racial justice and work.  

Organizers used the hash-tag  #BlackWorkersMatter to call attention to the economic status and struggles of Black Workers. As we’ve seen with #BlackLivesMatter, hash tags have become part of building a movement in digital worlds and beyond. They have the potential, with #BlackWorkersMatter for example, to become digital rally-cries for economic empowerment and self-determination: a call to reconcile daily experiences of work with the imperatives of racial justice.

Folks at this local event grappled with the realities of life in Dane County. Certainly not all the participants would have articulated it in this way, but I witnessed people wrestling with the larger questions of how to build and sustain a movement that challenges racial capitalism. This calls on people to connect the dots between work, housing, debt, education, incarceration, healthcare, and racial identity.

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The Black Workers Forum wasn’t just a conversation, it was a convergence. An impressive array of folks from social justice organizations led the panel.  

Martha De La Rosa, Executive Director of Wisconsin Jobs Now (WJN) —a non-profit out of Milwaukee—served as moderator and added a statewide perspective. The WJN uses grassroots organizing to fight income inequality and to build stronger communities throughout Wisconsin. Some of their initiatives include organizing low wage workers in retail, fast food and the private sector and coordinating leadership training and block captain networks in urban neighborhoods.

The panel included Corneil White and Evette Gardner, who are both fast food workers and were representing the Madison chapter of the Fight for $15 campaign. According to the Fight for $15 website: “Low-wage jobs are the fastest growing jobs in the nation, and they need to pay more so that workers like us can make ends meet, and rebuild the middle class and get the economy working again.” White and Gardner spoke personally about the bind of many low wage workers who face constantly changing work schedules, poverty wages and the economic and social insecurity that results. The refusal of corporate fast food chains to pay a living wage galvanized White and Gardner to join the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour and to form a union without retaliation.

Another panelist from The Young Gifted and Black Coalition (YGB) Brandi Grayson, noted that “[r]acism is based on power.” It’s critical that we “name what we see.” The YGB Coalition is a Madison-based collective confronting state violence—police killings, mass incarceration, poverty—through coordinated direct action in the community and on campus. They focus on creating the conditions from which low-income Black communities can become empowered on their own terms.

Donald Smith, from AFSME Local 6000, rounded out the panel with powerful words about what it means for younger folks to encounter racism on the job, asking, “how do we prepare our kids for this?” One of the primary messages of the Forum was that there is a need to imagine and implement a future in which this preparation is no longer necessary.

The Black Workers Forum is just one example of many community efforts to reconcile racial justice and work in and around Dane County. Just a week before the Forum, for example, Milwaukee-based immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera initiated a general strike—“Day Without Latinos”—in opposition to Assembly Bill 450 and SB 533. Latino/as across the state walked out of work and school and many businesses closed their doors in solidarity with the walk-outs.

What is happening in Dane County and beyond is a historic of marginalized workers combating deeply embedded structural racism. “Madison,” noted UW History professor and Forum panelist Will Jones, “is an extreme example of the transformation we’ve seen nationally.”

I believe that those of us who do public humanities—like the programs of the Working Lives Project—have a responsibility to reckon with the ways in which legacies of white supremacy and state violence affect communities of color everyday at work, at university, and on the streets. As YGB’s Brandi Grayson so poignantly put it: “We need a paradigm shift.”

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LEARN MORE: The Working Lives Project includes ShopTalk, with presenters ready to come to your community for free! Also there’s a traveling exhibit, radio programs, grants, and a vibrant website full of Wisconsin stories. We all know something about work. Let’s talk about it!

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Kathleen Gallagher, Mark Johnson, Gary Porter and Allison Sherwood are all Pulitzer winners from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As part of the WHC’s ShopTalk speaker/discussion program, they are available to come speak in your community for free in 2016.

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