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Category Archives: Welcome

Allow Me to (Re)Introduce Myself

On paper I am Shana A. Russell. I’m an academic. Well, I like to think that I’m more than an academic. The kind of academic that is full of both facts and feelings. The facts are all in the dissertation. The feelings are buried somewhere here on this blog. I think.

In theory, I have been writing since I was twelve. It started with poems and short stories. I wanted to write in a way that words made me feel. I don’t know that I cared what was being written about. But how it was being written. Rather it was Shakespeare or Hurston, I studied the order the words were in. What they meant. Their multiple meanings. Sentence structure. Punctuation. It was art to me.

In college I learned that there was an art to writing about things that have already been written. Discovering words in dusty books in basement libraries. I learned there was a whole world of things I knew nothing about. And somewhere in my mind I thought that everyone would want to know too.

I treated my college papers like great masterpieces that had yet to be written. My mother thought as much. My professors thought they were ambitious at best. Overdone at their worst. So they rightly sent me to grad school.

Now that this whole PhD thing is over, no one is making me write anymore. But I do anyway. Here. Because I want to remind myself that I’m not just an academic. I don’t want to write theory. I want to write the kind of words that made me feel the way I felt when I first started reading.

But this time it matters what I write about. This time I realize that I’m pretty good at telling stories. And the best stories are about ordinary people.

In actuality my love of stories started with Josephine Emma-Bell Weldon. She was my maternal great-grandmother. Everyone called her nanny. She was a preacher’s wife. She took care of just about everyone in my family. And she was a domestic worker.

I never met her. But my mother said once that Nanny would have known how to love me better than she did sometimes.

As a break from researching I spent hours on the phone with my mother asking her questions about Nanny. What she did. What her work was like. Who she worked for. What she did for fun. It’s a bedtime story that isn’t quite finished yet. One that I hope never ends.

When people ask me about my research I should tell them that I study literature and women and blackness and class. Sometimes I give them this cocktail speech. But most of the time I tell them about Nanny. And other women like her. Aunts and grandmothers of friends or strangers I met at bars. The everyday women of the  Montgomery Bus Boycott who were interviewed in newspapers. All black women who worked as domestic workers and whose names no one knows.

I tell their stories. And people smile. And laugh. They are surprised and intrigued. Occasionally relieved. Relieved to know that the women they revere, the ones that make them who they are, were not passive victims of history.

I wondered if I could write those feelings down. Facts reserved for scholarly writing. Feelings here. Both things that make me who I am as an academic and a writer. So, allow me to (re)introduce myself: I am Shana A. Russell and these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor.

 

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Maid in the USA: A Conference on Domestic Labor and Organizing

It seems like everyone is talking about domestic workers lately, thanks, in part, to the 2011 film The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestselling novel. Everyone’s weighing in: scholars, critics, bloggers, actors, and every tv talking head from Oprah to Katie Couric.

If the current discourse is any indication, domestic work is a part of our mythological American past. And yet, at this very moment, there are at least 1.8 million domestic workers employed in American homes. Ninety-three percent of whom are women of color.

That’s over a million women with no right to organize (that’s right, its illegal), and no federally mandated minimum wage, overtime pay, or maximum hours. Employers of household workers are not required to provide a safe and healthy working environment.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Civil Rights Act, right? Arguably the most important piece of legislation of the second half of the twentieth century. It prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, or national origin. Well, it only applies to employers with 15 or more employees. In other words, it doesn’t apply to domestic workers.

So, how did we get here and where do we go?

Twenty years ago this year Mary Romero’s tackled this very question in her groundbreaking study of Chicana domestic workers in the Southwest, Maid in the USA. To commemorate Romero’s work and work of advocates and organizers around the country the Center for Migration and the Global City at Rutgers University Newark is gearing up for what proves to be a really exciting conference on the opportunities and challenges facing household workers in the United States today.

As a part of this dialogue between scholars, advocates, and organizers, we wanted to start the conversation here. Check back for regular updates about conference planning, where to register, profiles of some of our collaborators and people working on the ground to advocate for domestic workers’ rights, and more facts and figures that highlight the urgency of this significant issue.