Sunday, July 6, 2014

But what is work?

There are many productive things that people can do which can be considered work, and it is interesting to me how conflicts can arise and you can get less positive outcomes by not figuring out what work means to you.

My perspective is a broad overview I think as I was born to Black parents in Tifton, GA, USA, which is a farming community in a mostly rural area. When growing up my parents found it important to instill in their kids a work ethic, which meant for instance helping my father out at his job at the local hospital working in the laundry, or with my mom at times we'd go to the fields.

Did the work but wasn't happy with it. I was really into books. So into books that when I had to walk to school I'd read a book along the way. My classmates would tell me excited stories of their parents concerned about me walking along the side of the road with my face in a book! Guess they were worried I might wander out into the road or something.

So there were times I'd rather be reading than doing things like working in the fields, much to my mother's frustration.

Of course the reality is there is a lot of value in learning from physical labor and I appreciate those lessons, but there is MUCH more money in working with one's mind. Parents who focus their children on intellectual activity over physical and show a value for it are more likely to guide them towards things like college.

But if parents don't value mental labor, maybe because they have no appreciation of it, then it can be harder for their kids to value it as well, even when they have an aptitude for it.

Eventually I would go on to college and get my degree in physics. That was despite the disdain I'd often hear from for instance one particular older male relative who would dismiss "book learning". He worked with his hands as a brick-mason. I deeply respect such work. I wish he'd respected the kind of work I do.

But you can't make people.

Reality that can be lost on those who wonder about differential outcomes among groups is the extent to which parents and cohorts may guide their children against certain types of work!

Recently I got into a bizarre discussion with an older Black male who actually had highly technical skills who also had kids who had done well and gone on to college where we were arguing about what was hard work!

He was convinced that physical labor was harder than mental, and in case you think there was a problem with the meaning of "hard" he also told me he had taught his children to go on to college so they wouldn't have to work hard!!!

The peculiarities of this point of view may simply reflect a sad reality for many Black folks who when Black people were slaves were not meant to think. You don't want slaves to think, you just need them to do physical labor.

And physical labor can be a lot more direct. If you need to harvest hay, for instance, in the morning you can look out over your hay fields and have a good estimate of what it will take. Then it's just a matter of working through till it's done.

But what if you're a city planner trying to figure out whether or not a particular intersection needs a stoplight or not?

You may find yourself spending time in meetings with other people just talking. Sheer laziness maybe to people who figure when you got a job you just get to it. Why sit around and talk about it? There may be nights where you spend hours just pondering, with people not understanding how complicated such a thing may be wondering why don't you just DO IT already?

But feel a unique satisfaction when you figure it all out, and realize your decisions are a great help to your town. Where yeah, you can make a huge difference for a lot of people.

Both you and the hay farmer have done work. Both of you are a benefit to your communities, but you're coming from very different work realities.

One last story that puzzled me for a while. I was a software developer--or computer programmer depending on which you prefer where the former is more popular I think lately--and for a wonderful brief time had my own office at this software development company.

There was a Black janitor who was very well liked, but I began to dread when he would come to my office, as often I'd be working on a very hard programming problem staring off into space.

EVERY SINGLE TIME if he arrived at that point he would gently remonstrate me, asking me if I was "on the beach". Then he'd chit-chat with this kind of exhausted, paternal air about him, and I would just tolerate it until he would finally leave and I could get back to work.

I feel a little guilty telling this story. He really thought he was helping me. Thought I was a Black guy I'm sure with a unique opportunity to do well who was unfortunately goofing off staring into space, and maybe thought he was helping the Black race by trying to get me to focus.

Efforts in this country should also be about educating people about the many worlds of work and ensuring that children get their efforts valued across that world.

You see, the United States of America needs all its workers across a vast array of work possibilities.

Kids who were like me shouldn't have to work their way through disdain of family members and ethnic community with a heavy burden in order to make through to higher paying jobs that involve intellectual activity. While it's also true that we should value skilled labor of any type, or unskilled labor.

Work is a great thing.

What work you do, as long as it helps your society, should be about your choice.

The more we value the myriad worlds of work and understand them, the more we can all work towards a brighter future, with equal opportunity for all.


James Harris
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