I am a fraud.
Over the last few weeks, I have conducted three “job readiness” workshops at Helping Hands Brooklyn.
I have partnered with a wonderful New York Civic Corps worker, Cassie (not her real name, of course), who is based at HHB. I like working with young people. Cassie is fresh out of college. She’s enthusiastic and has a lot of energy. She wants to do things, and she’s committed. So many people around my age (30’s) are just too busy with their own lives and their own people. I understand that life happens, and I am lucky to have this space in my life to do this work. Collaborating with Cassie has been so refreshing!
I won’t go into the nitty gritty details of the workshops at HHB. I’ll just say that, though the groups have been small, people have showed up to every session. People want “job readiness,” whatever that is.
That’s why I am a fraud.
The whole concept of “job readiness” workshops disturbs me. It suggests that there are jobs available, but people aren’t ready for them. It suggests that the jobless need to get ready first, and then –ta da!– they will find a job. The responsibility is theirs. Worse than that, “job readiness” could suggest an even more passive orientation: the job seekers should “get ready” and then wait and see what happens.
I am supposed to be helping people “get ready” for jobs that I know do not really exist. I feel like a fraud.
There is no “what happens if you get ready, but you still can’t find a job” workshop.
I also feel like the HHB staff, especially the elusive and overburdened Director of Community Outreach, is working from a deficit model in regard to community members. (Yes, I know, another academic-y phrase.) There’s a lot of talk about what people lack and what they need to do. There doesn’t seem to be a political awareness at HHB, no sense that people are shaped by circumstances they didn’t choose, or that poor people are poor because that spot is available in the social hierarchy, so somebody must fill it. Cassie has confirmed that no one talks politics at work. She’s a closet lefty and feels basically alone.
I don’t want to criticize the HHB workers who know more than I do about the community they serve and who certainly have worked hard enough to deserve to feel any way they want. Nor do I want to imperiously suggest they would do a better job if they all sat around reading Das Kapital together.
I’m saying that everyone is implicated in reproducing a flawed system in multiple ways. I am not a savior coming in with the “correct” perspective. I just notice things. That is what I do. And once I notice things, I think about them, and I ruminate on what these things mean and how I might think about them differently.
Maybe I need to focus on a “project” instead of on a problem. This is what Paul Mathieu suggests in her book Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in Composition. She writes about community literacy endeavors that do not have perceivable outcomes. “Social change is a mysterious process,” she writes, “ . . . one rarely knows when he or she has affected another or when social movements can really grow . . . [T]he full impact of such work is rarely measurable.”
Does that mean that I should keep silent about what I notice? Should I keep running these workshops with Cassie? Should I keep my mouth shut about why “job readiness” disturbs me? (For the record, I have mentioned my misgivings to Cassie. I said, “Is a resumé really what’s standing between these people and a decent job?” She agreed that a resumé is probably not the issue. But we don’t really know what else to do at this point.)
So we keep going.
At today’s workshop, I helped some older women learn how to use a computer. They did not know the first thing about opening Microsoft Word. But they really wanted to learn. Once I showed them the basics, they were practically falling over each other to practice typing words. They were awe-struck and fascinated by a machine (and a program) that I use everyday. It was thrilling and a little strange. When I showed them how to change the font and how to make capital letters, they were amazed, like it was a magic show and I was the sure-handed magician with a rabbit in my hat.
I wanted to show these women the internet. I showed them how to search using Google. They liked that for a while. But, eventually, they said, “We want to go back to practice typing.” So we went back to a blank MS word document, and they took turns. One woman wrote, “Thank God for knowledge.” Another wrote ,“I love Christmas.” Another just wrote, “Thank you.” When they were done typing, they asked me to erase the page so they could start again fresh
I told Cassie after the workshop that all these women wanted to do was write. They wanted to see their words appear, like particles of magic dust coalescing on the white screen. I said, “Maybe we should plan some writing workshops. We could invite HHB clients to come and write their life stories.”
Cassie seemed confused, “What would we do with the stories once they wrote them?” She was looking for a measurable outcome.
I didn’t have one for her.