Project& launched its Working in America exhibition with a panel discussion at the Harold Washington Library Sept. 14. Library Commissioner Brian Bannon introduced Working in America as a "contemporary, thought-provoking" tribute to Studs Terkel's 1974 book Working. Hosting the project at the library, he said, was a good way to "bring the rich culture we have in our city to everyone."
Jane Hussein Saks, Project&'s director, agreed that the library was a natural fit for Working in America. Libraries "are free, accessible and open, and always will be," she said.
Several of the subjects of the Working in America project were at the opening, including Chicagoan Riva Lehrer, a nationally honored lesbian artist. Also in the exhibit, but not in attendance, is Red Vaughan Tremmel, a trans advocate and filmmaker.
Saks introduced Alex Kotlowitz, the panel's moderator and author of There Are No Children Here, as "one of the most courageous voices in our city and our country."
Kotlowitz began by playing a clip of one of Terkel's interviews, joking that though Terkel was a renowned listener, the man himself was most always speaking. Over the course of the next hour, Kotlowitz urged the panelists to open up about their work: what it was that people didn't know about their work, what they did to unwind, whether they considered their work just a job or a calling.
Gary Bryner, a union rep for General Motors for 32 years, talked about the external and internal power of unions. "When the boat rises for unions, it rises for everyone," Bryner said. He also lauded the democratic nature of the organizations. "You can appeal any action, any decision of anybody. It works miracles," he said.
Ai-Jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, discussed how her work as an activist taught her much about people's complexities and the importance of story in uniting people for a cause. She worried about burning out like she'd seen colleagues do. "It takes some intention to bring who you are to the work," she said.
Roque Sanchez, the panel's youngest member, said he felt invisible in his custodial job. "My job is just something I'm going through," Sanchez said. Yet though he looks to explore other careers such as writing, he took pride in his current work. "I care about it as if I was doing my dream job," he said.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Lynsey Addario had taken portraits of Working In America's 24 participants, but Kotolowitz prodded her to discuss her own work style. "The two times I've been kidnapped were the low points," the war zone reporter joked. Addario said taking pictures was the only time she felt fully present. "If I'm having a bad day, I can't work," she said.
Lucia McBath became a gun policy advocate after her son, Jordan Davis, was killed in what's been termed "the loud music case." "You don't go to school to be an activist," said McBath, who talked about how much research her work entails. Some of this research involves listening to survivors' stories, and it's there McBath said she can get overwhelmed. "Every day I wish I did not have to do this work," McBath said, citing that 91 people a day are killed by gun violence. Her family is crucial to keeping her balanced. "They remember the Lucy before the work," she said.
Jeffrey McGee, the last panelist, described his life as split in two parts. While McGee is now a facilities manager at a VA rehab center, in his past life he was a drug dealer who served time in prison. McGee talked about the compassion and focus it took to do his job every day. "It's like a crazy house," he said. "I have to bring myself to their level: I'm crazy too." He recalled finding clarity about his life while in solitary confinement. "Every time I've grown it's because of adversity," McGee said.
The audience was curious about how Working's subjects were chosen. "It's a testament to Jane's eclecticism," said Addario, speaking of the subjects' range. McBath had nothing but praise for Addario's photographic work.
"It was organic," said McBath, who noted that she'd been photographed many times in her role. "Nothing was difficult, nothing was staged."
The Working exhibit is up now at the Harold Washington Library. The exhibit, which was designed by Jeanne Gang and Studio Gang Architects, is part of a larger initiative that connects three multi-platform components. A radio series, co-produced by Saks and Radio Diaries Executive Producer Joe Richman, will profile people originally featured in Terkel's book Working and is scheduled to begin airing in September on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, with the Studs Terkel Archives as a partner.
At the exhibit, members of the public are able upload their own stories and photographs to an online archive called "Your Working Story." "The narratives of this exhibit allow us to explore the trials and tribulations we face in our work," said Saks. "It also shows what is universal about work and illustrates how labor, in many ways, gives us a sense of purpose, a means to participate in society and becomes the tie that binds us all together."
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