Saturday, July 11, 2009

We Will Not Be Who We Were Part 2

As the auto industry reorganizes in my state and elsewhere, other places and pursuits fall with the factories. I am not employed in the auto industry, but my husband was before he retired, as were (and are) many relatives and friends. I am employed at a community college that I was proud of before I was ever an employee there. I am a strong believer in the community college mission: a well-run community college is a great equalizer, giver of second chances, and picker-up of slack in the system. It is also a trainer of first responders.

When I am walking on our pretty little urban campus and I see future EMTs rehearsing emergencies or nursing students discussing their assignments or field work as they stand in a lunch line, I think about how these are the people who might be the ones to save my life if necessary before I ever see a doctor. I took the Legal Assistant program at the college myself and met lots of very sharp people either already involved in law and some who were trying to make their Bachelor’s degrees more marketable. I didn’t see so many of the people who were being trained for a more high-tech auto industry because that was located on a new campus on the other side of town close to the new factory.

I was very proud to be doing what I do as well. It is a bit tricky to discuss one’s current employer in a public forum, but here is why I feel compelled to write about this: I am the kind of person who needs to process losing the old thing before I can commit myself to the new thing…so here’s what happened. Because a community college obviously depends on public funds, and because the economy here has been bad for some time and no one is predicting a quick recovery here, there were a number of job losses (retirements, layoffs, non-replacement of people in vacant positions). Several departments were reorganized or eliminated, including ours.

I was part of a lovely department called International Programs. That eventually merged with our Multicultural Programs, and we had several Study Abroad Programs designed to enhance our curricula and to serve our students (who because of their nature or circumstances are very budget-minded.) We also hosted folks visiting from other countries a few times a year, and one year I got to be a part of that, teaching a little English/American Culture class and hosting a couple visitors. Mostly what I did and do though, is teach English to students who are preparing for academic programs in the United States. Now the department is gone, but I guess I should be thankful that our group was assigned to another department.

We will lose our workspace, which I have since discovered, shared and cramped as it sometimes felt, it was actually quite luxurious compared to other adjunct workspaces. We had places that we sort of adopted that became “ours” (you knew which desk to find someone at on certain days of the week. My de facto deskmate and I are friends, somewhat equally messy and tolerant of each other, and now that will be gone. We will be assigned workspace and work time, and will have a drawer to store our stuff. (After eight years there, I think I will need some serious space at home to store the stuff I have accumulated).

Because our students meet at the same time, many members of our department are close and we do a lot of informal collaboration. Many of us have strong friendships outside of work as well, but seeing each other at work in spite of busy lives at home helped sustain those relationships during big life changes. And I was part of someone’s dream: my original boss (now retired) created this program many years ago, and it was quite remarkable. He is from Korea, and once received a medal from the Emperor of Japan for improving Korean-Japanese relations. I think those of us who worked for him always felt we were part of something very special, like in our own little contributions, we were promoting World Peace or something like that. It was much more to us than a part-time job to help pay the bills.

Now we have been made part of another department. I like our new boss very much, and where we are centered is pleasant enough. Now, though, it feels as if we ESL faculty have no “home.” There is no place to build our little work nest.

And finally, though we will have international students, and they might have more of a chance to interact with domestic students, it seems like there will be fewer opportunities for our domestic students to have international opportunities. There will be a liaison with the nearby university for Study Abroad, but our programs were geared for our students.

I will be positive eventually, and my friends all love what we do and we will make it work. But, as in Part 1, we will not be who we were, and that just feels sad right now.

We Will Not Be Who We Were Part 1 (And yes, there will be a Part 2 this time)

First of all, in the overall scheme of things, I probably have no right to complain. There is still plenty to eat, the bills are getting paid, and there is some money for fun. My community has lost factories and jobs, but has a shiny new one and a still-standing older one. We still produce vehicles that sell here, and will have another model. However, when I start paying for my own vision and dental care, and perhaps mammograms or however the overall insurance aspect plays out, there will be less of that discretionary income, and that’s the point where others start going down with us, I guess.

The hard thing is this: people don’t understand Who We Are, and the media has tried to convey this, but not very well, because they choose mostly folks who fit their Central Casting stereotypes: Clueless High-Level Auto Executive and Salt-of-the Earth Union Family (3 generations), for example. Of course, those folks exist, but there are so many others. An auto plant is like a little city: there are line folks, people who sweep the floors, carpenters, millwrights, plumbers, electricians and various departments such as paint, trim, body, and so on. My husband had various positions throughout his career, starting on the line and ending as a planner and getting to work overseas.

What I learned over the years is all of these are complex operations. I also met a lot of people (or heard about a lot of people and personalities). There are, for instance, college graduates who worked on the line or in skilled trades because the money was good. I have met some very smart, funny, clever people in the industry over the years, and I did not see these people on TV. I have met folks who are passionate about cars (perhaps with an old beloved model in their garage that they love to tinker with) and loved being in the auto industry. I did not see those people, or if they were on TV, certainly not with the frequency and emphasis of the others I mentioned.

What I did like about the three-generation family is what they conveyed-- this is what we do here. Grandpa did it, Dad or Mom did it, and I was hoping to do it too. The majority of people I have known in my life work or are supported directly or indirectly by the auto industry. Even though I have never worked for it (but am fed by it), I consider it part of Who I Am. This is what we do here.

I will certainly admit there were some problems, but stereotypes and prejudices exacerbated some of those problems. When service awards were being won and models were winning awards and receiving high ratings, we weren’t hearing so much about that. Because my stepson was involved in the launch of one of those award-winning vehicles, I am somewhat aware of the blood, sweat and tears that go into making that happen.

I have been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and found myself astounded to be sympathetic to a passage in which she remembers a college party (“one of those intensely conversational gatherings of the utterly enlightened”) at which people were discussing the “evils of tobacco.” She asked: “What about the tobacco farmers?” (This had been her family’s livelihood) Somebody asked: “Why should I care about tobacco farmers?” I would not have understood at all a year ago, but now I know what she means when she writes:

I’m still struggling to answer that. Yes, I do know people who have died
wishing they had never seen a cigarette. Yes, it’s a plant that causes cancer
after a long line of people (postfarmer) have specifically altered and abused
it. And yes, it takes chemicals to keep blue mold off the crop. And it sends
people to college. It makes house payments, buys shoes, and pays doctor bills.
it allows people to live with their families and shake hands with their neighbors
in one of the greenest, kindest places in all the world.

Now I am the last person on earth who will defend tobacco. However, what she captures in this and subsequent paragraphs is that when we gleefully celebrate the demise of something like tobacco (or logging, or the auto industry or whatever), there are more than evil Snidely Whiplash corporate executives finally getting their comeuppance and the deliverance of their clueless pawns. There is the loss of a way of life, not only financially, but of having a way to think of ourselves and What We Do. And it hurts.