On Saturday, May 5, I attended a powerful and moving panel by members of the Domestic Workers United, moderated by poet and activist, Mark Nowak. Titled ‘There’s so much to say…,” the event, at the PEN World Voices Festival 2012, gave voice to and showcased the writings of participants who’d completed a poetry workshop with Nowak, meeting Saturday mornings at the Domestic Workers United office, in downtown Manhattan, over the course of five months.
Nowak, a 2010 Guggenheim fellow, and the author of Coal Mountain Elementary and Shut Up Shut Down has conducted similar workshops in collaboration with a number of labor unions. On Saturday, he began the panel by screening a short documentary about a workshop he’d led in South Africa with workers at the Pretoria Ford plant. The video segment ended with the choral poem, “Oh! What a Life!” written by six of the Ford workers.
By contrast, the seven panelists on “There’s so much to say…,” Arlene Charles, Yvonne Ennis, Allison Julien, Christine Lewis, Lizeth Palencia, Gricelda Sanchez, and Jeanette Warner are all domestic workers—nannies and housekeepers—in New York City. Some of the participants had never tried their hand at creative writing before this workshop while others, such as Christine Lewis, have been writing for many years.
“I thought I had nothing to say. I thought, I don’t know how to write,” Arlene Charles addressed the audience. “But it was amazing. Saying it out loud and hearing it, I realized there is pain and this is good therapy.
Nowak screened a video segment of the Saturday morning workshops, filmed by the videographer, Olga Oros, in which he guides the participants through creative writing exercises. The sessions appeared to be dynamic and heartfelt. Workshop members sat around a wide rectangular table in a sunlit room, actively sharing their creative ideas while revealing personal and often painful stories.
“Writing gets into the painful parts… It is life,” said an emotional Gricelda Sanchez.
Indeed, it became clear that the workshop had not only taught the craft of poetry, but it had also created a space for sharing anger, frustration, sadness and loneliness, and had enabled some of the women to find their voices. The power of creative writing to illumine pain, to humanize and add dimension to jobs and lives that, too often, go unacknowledged, was made clearly evident as participants read their work aloud.
“Writing is your force!” said one of the workshop participants while another stated, “This is therapy 101! It’s a place for us to let our hair down. We lend support to each other in a creative way.” A third participant said, “It’s very cathartic. As domestic workers, we have a lot to say.”
The poems spoke about the alienating, hurtful and disorienting experiences of working in people’s homes, of taking charge of that most personal space and of their employers’ most precious possessions—the children—and yet being treated as second class citizens or as if they are invisible.
“They don’t care about us,” said one of the panelists, while another said, “They are deceiving people. They only pretend to be your friend. I say to them, I am the employee, you are my employer. I am not your family.”
Allison Julien prefers to keep her personal life separate from work. “The more people know about you, they use it against you,” she said. “At work, I’m a nanny. After work, I’m an activist, writer, social organizer!”
Christine Lewis, who has been writing for many years, and is a veteran advocate for domestic workers, set the record straight during the Q & A session with an audience member who wanted to know about the tales of poverty that had, presumably, made the women come to America to work as nannies and housekeepers: “I came here on an adventure. I came to be part of the New York art world. I never thought I’d be a domestic worker,” Lewis said.
Ennis echoed the sentiment by stating, “Back home in the islands, we are educated women. I am a mother, too.”
Before reading a stirring poem, titled “The List,” inspired by a friend’s job interview for a live-in position that would pay $400 a week, Lewis said, “Poetry is charged language and it’s very complex.” Midway through the poem, which lists the exhausting housekeeping duties required of the prospective nanny candidate, Lewis urged the audience to join her in the refrain, And the four children aren’t even mentioned yet…. urging us to, “Put a little sass in it!”
There were several highly charged moments during the panel and a few participants sobbed while reading their work aloud. In the Q&A session, a woman came up to the mike and spoke for many in the audience when she said, “This has been the most heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching panel!”
When we write, we reach into the raw spaces of our hearts and help them heal. Mark Nowak’s poetry workshop has enabled this tremendous group of women to hone their individual voices and to rally around their collective strength. The Domestic Workers United Workshop panel ended with the emotionally driven choral poem, “They Say.”