Lessons from insured underemployment

In this post, Erika G Abad discusses lessons learned at intersections of race, class, and generation in the course of an interdisciplinary career. Erika G Abad, PhD is a full-time non-tenure track assistant professor in residence in the southwest. She first contributed to Write Where it Hurts reflecting on the contradiction of her income and social status. You can find her work on Latinx (formerly Mujeres) Talk, Centro Voices among other blogs. Her Oscar Lopez Rivera research is trying to make the case to write about him without a prisoner studies lens. Follow her @lionwanderer531. 

A professional mentor tells me to not talk about the call center. He insists because PhDs working two years at a call center right after their degree makes no sense. But I talked about the call center before receiving this advice, and in spite of it, because I wouldn’t want to work anywhere that didn’t understand the call center. A first-generation college student, the first PhD on both sides of my extended family, a queer Latina not ashamed of the struggle, a university would not be worthy of me if underemployment were a value statement.

Why do I care about the call center?

I got that job like I got others. Through social networks. Someone who vouched for me. Overqualified, they were worried that I was not going to last. And this white ally who saw me struggle said I would stay, and he stuck out his neck for me. I was frustrated then, PhD pride, that the moral obligation was placed on me. In hindsight, I needed that job. Car payments. Rent. My online summer class did not have enough students to afford those, let alone a trip back to Chicago. After three months picking up shifts to supplement the income my weekend part-time slot, a second-shift full-time post appeared. Because I needed dental work, because nothing else was biting, because the state of references for academic jobs was stale, I took it.

Within months they let me compost, a 64 oz old coffee can turned into a five-gallon bucket. The custodial worker hooked the car poolers up with free parking. White accomplice and I potlucked with others. In my off time, I spent Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons helping Latina immigrant women raise funds to buy Latino-centric food for the food pantry.  Those two years echoed the interdependent ethic of the Latino community of my childhood. People who took care of each other. People who had to figure it out with others’ help because pride was too expensive to deny need; assets were too plenty to deny support. Social networks built and born into were my Latino Chicago norms.

This is not a story of romanticizing the poor. They were far better than me. This is not a story that seeks to ignore that I left because the call center was being outsourced like most global companies that found less expensive labor abroad. The call center years forced me to think critically about the purpose of academia and the sites of learning, practices our degrees require us to privilege. The few years I embodied economic instability and uncertainty were largely due to my inability to explain how I did Gender and Ethnic Studies with my American Studies degree, given committee members’ disclosure after I graduated. Much like that call center job, I relied on friends and chosen family to take care of me. I wrote extensively on that interdependency for Women in Higher Education thanks to Liana Silva.  That interdependency I learned from the Puerto Rican & other Latina women educator-practitioners who mentored me over the years, and something which they, along with my work dad (the mentor who told me to not talk about the call center) modeled for me to pay forward in whichever way I found possible.

Latino Community Capital

While the job market for the past two years appears to have recovered from the economic recession. It has done so only slightly. With more part-time instructors than full-time instructors, we are competing with colleagues and friends to obtain our positions. Little has changed in interdisciplinary studies that articulates that those of us with those degrees can be as flexibly employed as those within traditionally defined disciplines. The instability of the field and the field’s necessity to rely on the complexity and contradictions of practitioners sparks this meditation. I have wavered on writing this, however, as a first generation college student who spent four years on the market, I worry for the future generation of scholars who need to learn early on how to apply their skills to other markets. Despite the status of the field, the caste system within higher education has marked select alum from specific universities as more likely to evade underemployment, discrimination, respectability politics performance, some of whom have benefited from citizenist, ableist skin color, class, and/or repronormative privilege.

Chicago born, trained by leading scholars in Latino and Puerto Rican Studies since my first year in undergrad, I was groomed for this. Latino intellectual community capital was my norm. The majority of my undergraduate faculty were Latina. As I wrote in my homage to Judith Ortiz Cofer, I’ve met Latino writers, Puerto Rican and Latinx activists as a result of choosing a school based on the wealth of Latino knowledge that my alma mater has. Pursuing that logic didn’t necessarily make social networking sense, but I had yet shaken off ethno-centrism and, more importantly, I knew the struggle I wanted to have was not about centering, gaining or sustaining white validation. I took for granted that having a job meant that the struggle against internalized oppression or imposter syndrome was over; I took for granted that publishing and prospering did not mean leaders in the field knew how to extend, how to do it.

As a mentor once said, not all faculty teaching you know how to write, let alone teach writing.

Pursuing that meant coming to terms with the stories that needed to be told and the way I needed to tell them. Once I regained my voice, as a result of letting customer service turn off the pomp and circumstance and self-righteousness, I learned in my white-collar identity-based politics struggles, then came to consider where to embody what the intellectual shoulders I stood on had modeled for me. Not because they asked, no, more because I knew what it meant to have faculty who looked like me tell me I could be like them, they who were running departments and bringing award-winning Latinx writers into my life. I needed to write from that place of fulfilled yet growing hunger for greater voices. That also meant coming to terms with the “race for theory” and where I wanted to run (Christian 1987). Also meant gauging how fast I was willing to run so that I could use white scholarly voices to more critically bring to light the black, Caribbean, Latin American ones with whom I find home and decolonial reason.

And talking Foucault, composting and food sharing with the fellow customer service associates echoed the exchanges that inform all the reasons I wanted to write and teach. The debates about which books to save from displaced cultural centers; the joking exchanged during the late nights of protest sign making, and the questions answered during my childhood afternoons talking with priests about scripture, women priests, and the call to serve the poor. Following the advice of former Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera provided in his letters to me, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work during those call center years (2008). While brief, and some would argue, minimal in comparison to the time I spent in the ivory tower, their relation to those years make them more profound.

The American Dream I embodied till graduation failed. It only resurrected because my sister insisted on bringing my exhausted heartbroken and proud behind home. It only resurrected because undocumented immigrant women gave me more to fight for in letting me partake in the work they were leading. It resurrected because activist leaders I critiqued allowed me to work through our disagreements when I returned to work with them in Chicago. Willingness to swallow my pride, work and serve across difference and work towards reconciliation continue to shape how I write, how I teach and continued efforts to sustain meaningful intellectual dialog beyond my own scholarly training.

The call center years remind me that intersectional, interdisciplinary professional communities have the potential to disrupt neoliberalism by being an exercising practicality in its intergenerational dialog. As contradictory, as distanced as we are—the we between disciplines, the we between junior and senior scholars—when we are willing and able to name where our intellectual and political forebears are, in spite of where we aim to be, we can create the opportunity to break bread together. The Catholic imagery I evoke functions analogously to intellectual ideas leading to traditional, creative works and or, if applicable, policy reform. Whether the border crossed us, our families, or they/we cross borders, we can still be a bridge for who’s and what’s to come.

Works Cited

Lopez Rivera, Oscar. Letters to author. 2008

Christian, Barbara. “A Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique: The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. 6 (1987) 51-63.

 

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