A Challenge for Public Work

I am generally in favor of the idea of public work – people co-creating communities through their work.

It’s a very romantic idea. Revaluing the workers, the creators, the doers who literally shape our world every day.

We may be accustomed to appropriately thinking of teachers as civic workers. But what about the architects who design our schools or the construction workers who build our schools? What about the custodial staff or others who work tirelessly to make the school run? Is their work civic, too? A lens of public work would say it is.

Perhaps what I find most alluring about the framework of Public Work is that it genuinely values the work that every person puts into an effort. It doesn’t so much matter what you bring to the table, but Public Work acknowledges that everyone brings something of value to the table.

But while I find Public Work appealing, I have a hard time appreciating what this ideal would really look like in practice.

For example, I attend a lot of civic events of various types. Sometimes I’m a guest, sometimes I’m a host, and sometimes I am staff.

I’ve noticed over the years that I participate in the work, the content of the event, very differently depending on my role. As a guest I enjoy and engage, as a host I make sure everyone’s having a good time, and as staff I’m focused on the logistics of three steps ahead.

I may be the same person in every mode, but my work is not equal nor, perhaps, equally valued.

I’ve generally attributed this to my own archaic view of social roles. I did, after all, spend much of my childhood in a Victorian-area historic park. So, as much as I am passionate about worker’s rights and respecting all types of workers, I have to admit there is a certain part of me which still defaults to Downton Abbey-type norms.

There’s a certain propriety about the class hierarchy. A certain seemliness which, as much as I may fight it in society, I tend embrace in myself. There’s just a certain way one ought to behave when you are The Help, I suppose.

But as I’ve noticed my own effortless transitions between different roles – an honored guest, a gracious host, a silent staffer – I started to wonder if there was a deeper challenge here.

Don’t get me wrong, class divides are a deep challenge and I fully recognized that not everyone has the same experience as me in this regard. After all, not everyone has the luxury of walking between these roles.

But there is a challenge even deeper than ingrained social roles.

When I am in a supporting role, my biggest challenge may not be that I don’t feel welcome to participate as a guest – it’s that I don’t have the capacity for it.

I am so caught up in the logistic details, so exhausted from the effort so far, and so focused on completing the last few miles that I honestly would rather not participate more fully.

Perhaps this is only a challenge for us introverts, but when I am working an event, I honestly don’t want a seat at the table. I want a seat in the back where I can have a moment of silence of and relax my smile.

If I attended a replica event in the role of a guest, I would have few qualms about chiming in or speaking up. But the very role of staffing – social norms aside – diminishes my capacity to engage in this way.

And this to me is the challenge for Public Work. It is great to say that everyone’s work is valued. It is great to say that everyone’s role is important. That’s the right ethic to strive for, and fully support that view.

But while every person might have the capacity to contribute equally to the work, every role does not. Every worker does not. Someone’s voice will be left out.

And I don’t know the solution to this challenge, because I’m not sure I want to attend an unstaffed event. Really. That would be chaos.

You need people who will make these event run, who will make them go. And those people contribute greatly and importantly – and essentially – to the work. You should, of course, thank them for their efforts, but the challenge remains –

They haven’t been able to contribute all they could contribute. Possibly because of social norms, but also because their work simply didn’t allow it.


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