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Domestic Worker Wage Theft? There’s an App for That.

Domestic worker activists are some of the most innovative organizers on the planet. So I was very excited to learn about a new app designed by immigrant rights activists in Jackson Heights for day laborers. The app allows users to record hours and wages, document working conditions, and identify abusive employers with a history of things like withholding compensation.

What is most important about the app is that it allows workers to do all of this anonymously. In addition to the isolation of the work, the risk associated with visibility is another barrier to domestic worker organizing. Because a number of domestic workers are undocumented, confidentiality is of the utmost importance.

And the hard work has already started. Just this week The Workers Justice Project in Brooklyn demonstrated against a woman named Jacklyn Wahba for refusing to pay her domestic worker…in front of her house. To which I say: good for them. Black women domestic worker organizers did something similar in the thirties.

The refusal to give domestic workers basic labor protections is an affront to their human rights. Even more than that, it gives employers the right to abuse those who work for them without every having to be held accountable. I support these workers in taking accountability into their own hands with this new app. And my hope is that we can leave abusive employers on the cutting room floor.


2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

It’s been quite a year for me. I finished a PhD. I learned a lot of new things about the history of domestic work in my family. I traveled to three countries. I read for pleasure. I published 15 blogs on this site. And, more importantly, my musings about domestic workers became a part of an amazing media collaboratory, a project we call The Newest Americans.

But even more than that I witnessed domestic worker activists make history over and over again. I am awed by their hard work, dedication, steadfastness, and most importantly the pride and dignity with which they do this hard but important work for women, workers, and migrant families all over the world.

I witnessed a dynamic conversation surrounding Ai Jen Poo’s new book, The Age of Dignity. It’s a short book that tells a big story about the central role played by elder caregivers in the health and wellness of our society.

I share in the celebration as Oregon and Connecticut became the next two states to pass legislation guaranteeing labor rights for domestic workers.

This year, over a hundred domestic workers marched one hundred miles to bring attention to the need of immigration policies that support women and families. Side note: they are advocating for “common sense immigration policies.” Brilliant.

These historic moments are being created and facilitated by working women of color. The everyday women in families like mine whose names we may never know, but whose work we all benefit from.

I am always honored to be asked to participate in this important discourse about domestic work in any small way. The experience is always transformative and I am consistently reminded that their story is my story. Its our story. Because these are the women that make all other work possible. They  make us who we are. Literally. When they win, we win.

Inspired by their relentless journey to justice, and by several conversations I’ve had this year with those wiser than me, in 2016, I pledge to write more. Not for academic credentials. Or for visibility. But for the women in my family who have taken this lifelong journey and are unafraid to share their stories with me. For the scholars I revere, people like Mary Romero and Premila Nadasen, who have spent their entire careers researching and writing about domestic workers and lending their support to the movement in any way they can.

But most importantly for me. Because I need to write in order to understand. So here’s to a new year of blogging. (Once a week…I promise…really…I put it in my google calendar.) And to remaking these thoughts into something more powerful than the cutting room floor.

Black Women Are Amazing…That is all.

For the last several weeks, as a part of this fancy postdoc, I have been thinking a lot about philanthropy. Ultimately, as the university enters a series of partnerships with institutions and organizations in various places all over the African continent, my job is to make sure these partnerships look like partnerships, and not like philanthropy.

While we are supposed to think of philanthropy as this noble undertaking, it is, in many ways, a sick self-congratulatory cultural practice whereby rich people throw money at a crisis to serve themselves instead of supporting long-term and sustainable solutions to much bigger (but not unsolvable) problems.

As I was beginning to think this through, a friend ofOseolaMcCarty_web mine sent me a video of a sermon. The preacher was telling his congregants the story of Oceola McCarty, a domestic worker who is in the philanthropy hall of fame. After I got over the pure comedy of there being a philanthropy hall of fame (really?), I became fixated on this woman. My inner researcher needed to know everything about her. And what I discovered is nothing short of incredible.

Ms. Oceola was born in 1908 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. (Yes I am going to call her Ms. Oceola throughout this blog. She just feels like a Ms. Oceola because I am from the South and cannot call her McCarty like a detached journalist.) She was conceived when her mother was raped after visiting a sick relative, and was raised by her grandmother and aunt, who was a domestic worker.

Ms. Oceola began working when she was in elementary school, washing and ironing. She stashed the money in her doll buggy and never spent it. When she was in the sixth grade her aunt was hospitalized and became unable to walk. Ms. Oceola dropped out of school to care for her and began working full time as a washerwoman, which she did until she was 86 years old.

What fascinates me most about Ms. Oceola is the way that she talks about work. “We worked and it was all good work,” she explained in a short documentary about her life. Ms. Oceola never used a washing machine. She would light a fire under her tin wash pot. Soak, wash, boil, rub, wrench, and rub clothes on a washboard. Then starch them and hang them on the line. She washed all day and then ironed in the evening until almost midnight.

Did I mention that Ms. Oceola was five feet tall and one hundred pounds soaking wet? My mother once explained to me how harsh hand washing clothes could be. To get them clean you basically rubbed your hands and knuckles raw. Yet, work, to Ms. Oceola, was something beautiful and not oppressive.

A friend described her work ethic in this way:

Work became the great good of her life…She found beauty in its movement and pride in its provisions. She was happy to have it and gave herself over to it with abandon.

I can’t help but think about the fact that barely two generations before, black people in Mississippi were enslaved. Work was something they did out of compulsion and without compensation.

Ms. Oceola found a certain freedom in working. Or, to think of it another way, she exercised her freedom by working. The meaning was in the labor itself. It was more than a means of earning wages. In fact, Ms. Oceola never really enjoyed the fruits of her labor. And by that I mean, the woman never spent a penny.

She never owned a car. She had her own grocery cart that she used to walk to the store to get groceries. She considered television an unnecessary extravagance. Hell she considered a newspaper an unnecessary extravagance.

So the money grew. And as she grew older she began to realize that she couldn’t take it with her. Without any children or siblings to serve as beneficiaries, she ended up giving ten percent to her church, ten percent each to three relatives, and the remaining sixty percent to the University of Southern Mississippi, which was just a couple of blocks from her home.

Oh, and that sixty percent amounted to $150,000.

Yes you read that right. A washerwoman managed to save more than $150,000 and then just gave it all away.

As she was showing the documentary filmmaker the wash pot in which she made all that money, she explained that years ago USM was a white school. And now that it’s not she wanted to make sure that black children could go there without having to work the way that she did.

The first recipient of Ms. Oceola’s scholarship: an honors student from Hattiesburg whose grandmother had worked as a seamstress. The young girl’s grandmother was expecting a rich old benefactor and was surprised to find a black woman who had worked the way that she did.

Admittedly if I had received that scholarship you could not tell me nothing. NOTHING. No, I am not the result of affirmative action or a diversity scholarship. Not at all. That woman who was good enough to wash your dirty drawls but not good enough for your segregated university? Yeah she made sure I could be here. Oh, I would tell everyone.

But I digress.

I am grateful to the memory of Ms. Oceola for taking my mind off of philanthropy for a bit. Instead, I thought about black women’s labor. Although the amount of Ms. Oceola’s philanthropic gift to USM is what constitutes her legacy according to the internet, I can’t help but think about the fact that her work (really her worth) didn’t amount to wages.

She found meaning in her labor. And then redefined a lifetime’s worth of wages as that which allowed others to do what she could not do because she spent her life working.

To be honest I don’t have anything more profound to say about Ms. Oceola. Gosh black women are amazing. And never belong on the cutting room floor. That is all.

On Shame

Now that the dissertation is over, the university has #blessed me with a postdoc. A big part of my job is researching and conceptualizing this new initiative concerning the university’s partnerships with organizations and institutions in Africa. As far as this new job is from my actual interest, it seems that I just can’t get away from the issues concerning domestic work. And for this I must admit I am truly grateful.

Just last week I was attending a high level debate at the UN on unemployment and youth development on the continent. (It’s a fancy postdoc…I must admit). The importance of domestic worker rights was, to my pleasant surprise, mentioned more than once. It was a moment when the global reach of this current movement became very real to me. From the park bench to the ILO to the United Nations. Never underestimate the impact of working class women. They do not play games.

Anyway, in addition to attending UN debates (still sort of in shock about this being my life), we were also visited by the CEO of one of our South African NGO partners. Their organization is sort of like the South African equivalent of the United Way. Except, to my surprise, they have some pretty radical politics.

I sat with this gentleman, Lorenzo, one afternoon, while he was taking a bit of a breather from fancy coroprate university meetings and enjoying a very New York lunch (a bagel with lox and capers, one of my favorites). I wanted to pick his brain about the state of education in Capetown. I learned a lot about that subject during our conversation, but it’s what I learned about Lorenzo that I remember most.

Lorenzo spent his entire childhood in foster care. At age eleven, while still in primary school, he began working as an assistant to the janitor everyday after school. Although I am interrogating this thought process now, my initial reaction (in my head, anyway) was that young people should be able to learn and not have to work at such a young age. But before I could finish that thought, Lorenzo began telling me how thrilling an experience that was. How much pride it gave him to be a part of what allowed the school to run on a day to day basis. He helped the school survive. And, more importantly, he supported family.

It was a moment of self-discovery in his life, Lorenzo explained. He found something deep inside himself that transformed him from a victim of circumstance into a provider. And this transformation is what allowed him to shed the sense of shame he felt.

Shame is a concept that comes up a lot in conversations about domestic work. Representations of domestic workers in popular culture are so painful and pervasive that their impact spills over into questions of the labor itself. It’s something that domestic worker activists are very aware of. Every time I am in the presence of activists, they always introduce themselves by name and then express how proud they are to do the work they do. The dignity of domestic work as a form of labor that allows all other workers to work is consistent across the globe.

When I asked my mother about shame she was perplexed. “Why would you be ashamed of someone for working?” she argued. In fact, my mother and Lorenzo, who came of age at the same time on opposite sides of the world, said many of the same things. My mother told me that the work she did as a young teenager exposed her to another side of the city where they had beautiful things. She was proud to work and help support her family. The lessons she learned as a young domestic worker followed her throughout the rest of her life.

Lorenzo and my mother’s words make me think of work differently now. Student poverty certainly made me a part of the working class, but I guess I, too, took pride in the work I was doing. It is idleness that produces shame. Which makes me think that this constructed sense of shame associated with domestic work is something we should think of as a part of the system of oppression that prevents domestic workers from advocating for the rights they deserve rather than a hurdle to domestic worker organizing.

I have ardently resisted the temptation of being a theorist during this academic journey. So, my thoughts on shame shall remain here, on the cutting room floor.

Domestic Worker, Domestic Worker, Domestic Worker, Domestic Worker, Doctor: Conversations with my Mother From the Cutting Room Floor

Welp. It finally happened. What was once the dissertation in progress is now the completed dissertation written by me: Dr. Shana A. Russell. Here I am during my dissertation defense giving my best impression of a serious scholar while getting positively grilled by my Defense pic2committee.

Dissertation defenses are weirdly formal exercises. One has to condense three and a half years of research and writing into a twenty-five-minute presentation that manages to summarize a set of obscure archival discoveries and display a certain intellectual rigor and ensure that one’s work is making the necessary scholarly interventions.

This leaves no time for what lies on the cutting room floor. In this case, an entire section of my research notebook that annotates five years worth of conversations with my mother about domestic workers in my family.

While I am tremendously relieved (I mean proud) that this doctorate thing is done and of the work that I did, these conversations with my mother are more powerful than multi-syllable words on a formatted page. I may write and research a whole host of things in my career. But these conversations with my mother gave our relationship new life, and my life new meaning. They were a gift to me.

One question still remains: How does a century long genealogy of domestic workers produce a doctor? While some see a black woman getting a PhD as an exceptional feat, the women in my family did more extraordinary things in everyday spaces. I can explain the implications of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, but my mother’s mother raised nine children alone.

There is something so beautiful and artistic about these conversations. When my sister got married I sat at my mother’s feet while she ironed and listened to stories about Josephine Emma Bell Weldon, my great-grandmother, whom everyone called Nanny.

Nanny was married to Reverend Alfred Cordell Weldon. She didn’t have to work. She could have just been a first lady of the the AME Church. But the women in my family depend on no one. And Nanny always said that a woman should always have a taste of change. So she worked as a domestic for a Jewish woman who lived in her building.

As Mom ironed, she explained that Nanny could make even the most modest home regal and everyone in it feel loved and cared for. Her employer had only the finest things. But Nanny treated the things in her own home exactly the same. For her taste of change she cleaned, polished silver, ironed, dusted, and set up for bridge parties. For her own family, Nanny did these things because she loved them.

As I listened to my mother, I watched her iron every piece of clothing we were going to wear for my sister’s big day. She sang. She told stories. We laughed as she remembered Nanny. I wondered if Nanny, who I never had the chance to meet, had done the same for her.

Then there was Izetta Bogess Crenshaw Weldon, Nanny’s mother-in-law. Everyone called her Gran Gran. My mother told me about her during one of our long phone conversations, after a conversation with her mother, my grandmother Vivian, inspired a new set of memories. Gran Gran lived in Horton, Kansas and worked as a domestic for the town’s only doctor. When Gran Gran returned from work each day, her husband, Crenshaw, would have her pipe waiting for her filled with her favorite flavored tobacco. Then he would wash and massage her feet in a tub.

I don’t know what Gran Gran looks like. In the depths of my mind, however, I imagine this dignified black woman, tired from a long day, smoking a pipe and looking lovingly at her husband as he nurtures her body and honors her labor as that which sustains him. I have watched other men in my family love and honor the labor of their wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters in the same way.

Then there are the stories my mother told me about herself. Mom went and worked with Nanny on the weekends at 13 or 14. Her taste of change was used to buy satin hair ribbons, socks, shoe strings, soap, candy, and soda-fountain milkshakes. While these things may seem small, I am sure they were a relief to my grandmother who took care of my mother and her siblings with barely any help.

Mom remembered that her work as a domestic was her first glimpse at another side of the city where they had beautiful things. The things she saw were the same things that she used to make a home for my father, sister, and me. But the love, pride, and dedication that shaped our home came from Nanny’s example.

My dissertation opened the door to these conversations with my mother. I realize that there is something sacred about housework in my family. My dissertation is a meditation on what domestic work was and is. These exchanges with my mother, sitting on the stool at the kitchen counter watching her cook, or at her feel while she irons, or imagining her pacing the floor of my childhood home, cleaning, and telling me stories about Nanny and Gran Gran, taught me what it means.

Most importantly, somewhere in the scattered notes of my dissertation cutting room floor is the reason that this legacy of black women, Gran Gran, Nanny, and my mother, were able to turn their love and labor into Shana A. Russell, Ph.D.

900 Square Feet of Hidden Hope: A Photography Series by Xyza Cruz Bacani

[Insert excuses for irregular blogging here]

There is an idea floating around among people who study domestic work that *we* are uncovering the reality of a hidden form of labor. As a historian, that’s a little difficult for me. You see, in New York City during the Depression there was this little thing known as the Bronx Slave Market. At the market, on the corner of 167th and Jerome, black women, in their uniforms with bag lunches in tow, would congregate, and wait for white women (and occasionally white men) to come and offer them a pittance of a wage for a days work.

While the actual work happened in private homes, the marketplace for this labor happened in public. The economic (and racial…and gendered) exploitation of these women was readily on display. It was unmistakeable. Which leads me to believe that sometimes we call the things we refuse to see “hidden” as a way of protecting ourselves.

Today, the exploitative and oppressive conditions of domestic work around the world are much easier to keep secret, thanks, in part, to underground networks of forced migration and the internet…a different kind of marketplace that allows for more efficient exchange of bodies for capital.

And out of this kind of invisibility, there emerges a community of folks (investigative journalists, academics, non-profits, politicians, etc.) who seek to lift the veil on the “secret underground world of domestic labor” and the abuse against the women who do it. This is not meant to dismiss the harsh reality and the heinous violence that domestic laborers endure. It is, however, meant to demean those who are determined to speak for household laborers (or any worker really), as opposed to speaking to (or even through as artists sometimes do), the women who actually do the work. And, as I hope this blog has demonstrated, women who are more than capable (and much better at) speaking for themselves.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog: the visual series 900 Square Feet of Hidden Hope, a project by photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani documenting the women of the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Shelter in Hong Kong, a refuge for domestic workers, particularly victims of abuse from employers. The shelter provides housing, meals, counseling, legal guidance, and, most importantly, community.

What matter to me is that Bacani is also a domestic worker. The commentary she provides for each photograph uses language that reiterates the fact that she is helping us to visualize a community of which she is a part. Her photos are both a representation of the subjects of each picture, but also a sort of self-fashioning of her own identity as a worker and an activist.

Many of the subjects of Bacani’s photographs are Filipina and Indonesian women. I have talked about these migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong in a previous post. In many ways this series is the counter-discourse to that analysis of the representation of domestic work in Hong Kong. But Bacani brings so much more to the narrative than I could ever capture in words through pictures.

I first came across the series in an article I stumbled upon on twitter. The author of this article (and others like it) was interested in one woman in particular, Shirley, who suffered third degree burns to much of her body after her employer burned her with a boiling pot of soup. The article posited the series as documenting “modern slavery” and abuse of domestic workers in Hong Kong, and talks extensively about Shirley’s case.

Why is it so hard for us to simultaneously affirm the impact of oppression and the multitude of ways that we cope and resist? This is something that Bacani does beautifully. The moments she captures create such a robust narrative.

One photograph depicts a Muslim woman praying on a makeshift prayer mat. The underlying text explains that Bethune is an interfaith community. Another subject, Vanjo, is lesbian. Her photograph is an opportunity for Bacani to address the inclusivity of Bethune House as it relates to sexuality and sexual identity.

Other photographs in the series show the women cooking together, sharing meals, giving each other comfort during what is called a “sharing session,” singing Christmas songs, taking care of children, and even participating in a labor day protest.

I don’t know…maybe I’m being naive or idealistic. But when I think of the women in my family, representing four generations of domestic workers, I don’t want the exploitation of their labor or an image of them as victims to stand alone.


Though there are several photographs of Shirley depicting the burns on her body, this one is my favorite. It’s a photo of Shirley as she prepares for the case against her employer. There’s something so compelling about it. And for me, it illustrates that the Hidden Hope that Bacani describes in the title of her series is not an abstract hope. It is one that the women of Bethune House create for themselves and work towards daily.

Images of domestic workers have fascinated me for some time now. Maybe one day I will write more about it. In the mean time (and I say this with so much gratitude to Bacani for the work that she does and with the knowledge that I will come back to it soon), it remains here…on the cutting room floor.

Ruining National Pancake Day

ihopToday marks the tenth anniversary of IHOP’s National Pancake Day. Head to just about any IHOP today and enjoy free buttermilk pancakes as the company solicits donations for the Children’s Miracle Network! Did I mention free pancakes?

While this is a noble undertaking, historical context does have a way of ruining our joy now doesn’t it? Even free pancakes.

During the first half of the twentieth century, there was a National Pancake Festival that was sponsored by Quaker Oats, the owners of the Aunt Jemima franchise. Similar concept but with even more fan fair. Representatives from the company would go to places like children’s hospitals and Kiwanis clubs to make pancakes for everyone and raise money for charity. There was even a Pancake Princess! And races at Disneyland! It was a nationwide celebration of deliciousness for a good cause!

Have I ruined it yet?…No?

Well, it seems I left out one important detail. The center of these celebrations was Aunt Jemima herself, who made appearances all over the country.

Wilson at KiwanisHere is Aunt Jemima (real name: Edith Wilson) at the Kiwanis Club where she, I am sure, gleefully served pancakes and sang songs with the Pancake Princess, who, in every photo that I’ve seen, is always a blonde white woman.

Looking at archival photos, I cannot put into words how incredibly unsettling it is seeing the happy, doting Aunt Jemima, the only black person among a sea of white faces. Even on a day of giving and service, an apron and a handkerchief manage to cement in our imaginations this belief that black women are born and bred to serve.

And in case that is not disturbing enough for you, those races at Disneyland I mentioned? Yeah. People raced while dressed as Aunt Jemima.

pancake races

Your eyes are not deceiving you. The above image is, in fact, a group of white housewives dressed as Aunt Jemima running through the streets of the happiest place on earth.


I hope that you can still enjoy your free pancakes. I mean that sincerely despite my usual tone of sarcasm. Just remember the labor it takes to make this happen. Some overworked and underpaid cook at IHOP will make thousands of pancakes today. And your server has, no doubt, been standing on her feet for hours without so much as a break between tables.

So, give to charity if you feel so inclined. But, more importantly, remember to tip well and recognize that free pancakes happen at someone’s expense. Rather its Aunt Jemima or your local IHOP employee.

And now that it has been sufficiently ruined, I leave National Pancake Day here on the cutting room floor. At least until next year.