New Award Categories – 2015-2016 Recipients

Published on October 21, 2015

UCHRI Junior Faculty Manuscript Workshop

Playing Nature
Alenda Y. Chang, Film and Media Studies, UCSB

The Seduction of Sovereignty and the Birth of Biopolitics: Miscegenation along the U.S. Military Base Fenceline in Okinawa
Annmaria Shimabuku, Comparative Literature, UCR

Futures: Oil and the Licit Life of Capitalism in Equatorial Guinea
Hannah Appel, Anthropology, UCLA

Radiation Sounds: Marshallese Music and Nuclear Silences
Jessica A. Schwartz, Musicology, UCLA

The Black Middle Ages
Matthew Vernon, English, UCD

Peculiar Places: A Queer/Crip History of Rural White Nonconformity
Ryan Lee Cartwright, American Studies, UCD


Humanities Center Collaborations

Public Voices: The OpEd Project
Main PI: Ignacio López-Calvo, Center for the Humanities, UCM

David Biale, Humanities Institute, UCD
Willeke Wendrich, Center for Digital Humanities, UCLA
Julia Lupton, Humanities Commons, UCI
Georgia Warnke, Center for Ideas and Society, UCR
Susan Derwin, Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, UCSB
Nathaniel Deutsch, Institute for Humanities Research, UCSC
Sarah McCullough, Center for the Humanities, UCSD
Dorothy Porter, Center for Humanities and Health Sciences, UCSF

Metadata Central: Digital Scholarship and Outreach
Main PI: Willeke Wendrich, Center for Digital Humanities, UCLA

David Biale, Humanities Institute, UCD
Ignacio Lopez-Calvo, Center for the Humanities, UCM
Georgia Warnke, Center for Ideas and Society, UCR
Julia Lupton, Humanities Commons, UCI
Susan Derwin, Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, UCSB

Participating Humanities Center Representatives:
Sarah McCullough*, Center for the Humanities, UCSD
Irena Polic, Institute for Humanities Research, UCSC
Brian Dolan, School of Medicine, UCSF

UC Public Scholars Initiative
Main PI:
David Biale, UC Davis Humanities Institute, UCD

Nathaniel Deutsch, Institute for Humanities Research, UCSC
Alan Tansman, Townsend Center for the Humanities, UCB
Ignacio Lopez-Calvo, Center for the Humanities, UCM
Susan Derwin, Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, UCSB
Georgia Warnke, Center for the Ideas and Society, UCR
Julia Lupton, Humanities Commons, UCI
Willeke Wendrich, Humanities Research Centers, UCLA
Sarah McCullough*, Center for the Humanities, UCSD

Supplemental Graduate Student Funding

il divino Cipriano’: New Perspectives on the Music of Cipriano de Rore
Jessie Ann Owens, Music, UCD

Diversifying the Classics: “Classics in the Classroom”
Barbara Fuchs, Center for 17th- & 18- Century Studies, UCLA

Feeling Photography
Lisa Cartwright, Visual Arts and Communication, UCSD

Public Voices: The OpEd Project
Main PI: Ignacio López-Calvo, Center for the Humanities, UCM

David Biale, Humanities Institute, UCD
Willeke Wendrich, Center for Digital Humanities, UCLA
Julia Lupton, Humanities Commons, UCI
Georgia Warnke, Center for Ideas and Society, UCR
Susan Derwin, Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, UCSB
Nathaniel Deutsch, Institute for Humanities Research, UCSC
Sarah McCullough*, Center for the Humanities, UCSD
Dorothy Porter, Center for Humanities and Health Sciences, UCSF

Art before History: Interdisciplinary Research on Ancient Andean Art and Visual Culture
Lisa Trever, History of Art, UC Berkeley

Metadata Central: Digital Scholarships and Outreach
Main PI: Willeke Wendrich, Center for Digital Humanities, UCLA

David Biale, Humanities Institute, UCD
Ignacio Lopez-Calvo, Center for the Humanities, UCM
Georgia Warnke, Center for Ideas and Society, UCR
Julia Lupton, Humanities Commons, UCI
Susan Derwin, Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, UCSB

Participating Humanities Centers Representatives:
Sarah McCullough*, Center for the Humanities, UCSD
Irena Polic, Institute for Humanities Research, UCSC
Brian Dolan, School of Medicine, UCSF

New Critical Frameworks for Socially Engaged Art
Grant Kester, Visual Arts, UCSD

Show & Prove 2016 Hip Hop Studies
Imani Kai Johnson, Dance, UCR

* Representing Interim Director

Categories: Blog |

Patterns of Life

Published on September 29, 2015

“Patterns of life” is a short movie by French artist Julien Prévieux dealing with the history of the technological capture of human movements. Starting with the use of chronophotography to model abnormal gait in the late 19th century, the film offers a choreographic reenactment of a long series of experiments that have been designed to extract objectified patterns of activities from the motions of living bodies, whether with the view to discipline, to control, or to target them.
This film is freely adapted from the paper “Patterns of Life: A Very Short History of Schematic Bodies” by philosopher Grégoire Chamayou, which stems from a discussion with geographer Derek Gregory at the UCHRI/WISER workshop “Knowing secrets, secret knowledge” held at UCHRI on the UC Irvine campus in November 2014.

Categories: Blog |

Prince of Florence

Published on July 29, 2015

Prince of Florence was created as a final project for Dr. David Theo Goldberg’s graduate seminar, “Epistemologies of Deception.” Some course readings engaged the everyday, interpersonal variety of deception; others addressed geopolitical deception as a mode of obtaining and maintaining power. Prince of Florence gets its name, in part, from Machiavelli’s The Prince, but references to other course texts are scattered throughout – and a full reading list is reproduced within the game as part of the information under “About.” A central idea that runs through these texts, and one that Dr. Goldberg offers in the reading list’s introductory essay, is the twin nature of secrecy and transparency. Secrets “are made to secrete,” to reveal themselves; transparency “hides secrets in plain sight.”

We chose the form of an interactive fiction text as our final project because of the medium’s capacity for hiding and secreting information. The Easter Egg, for example, showcases this capacity: players search for information with the expectation of encountering something revelatory, something that will open up new paths for story progression. But Easter Eggs are planned, which is to say that they merely offer the illusion of the illicit discovery of extra-narrative information, but the only secrets they can offer are those selected for secretion. Interactive fiction texts succeed when they entice the player to learn that which is not yet discovered, and therefore they hide information with the intent of revealing only some of it.


Figure 1: Twine Story Map

Our collaborative process in creating this text involved web-based documents on which we drafted and revised the text’s arc. The text branched off into four chapters, each principally authored by an individual group member, and everyone’s work was revised in the web-based document by peers. After all the chapters were written and the ending co-authored, the text was coded into Twine, an open-source tool for creating interactive fiction. In Twine the rooms were mapped out [see Figure 1 above], and variables were encoded to determine which pathways would be open to the player under certain conditions. Story progression was designed to be dependent on the player’s discovery of four Easter Eggs. These partially hidden pieces of information all reveal something about the story, but despite such revelations, basic details about the story are intentionally withheld. The text ends when the player becomes trapped in a ring of four rooms that verbally promise to reveal the final meaning, but in the player’s frustrated attempt to progress past them, they never deliver on that promise.

Once we had an initial build of the text, we each playtested it and asked any classmates, partners, and family members patient and kind enough to test the game for their feedback. Based on early playtesting results, we added a hint system to the game’s Easter Eggs and another system for keeping track of an in-game document as its contents become revealed. The current version also incorporates instructor feedback and corrects some mechanical and grammatical flubs. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this text, and thank you to Dr. Goldberg for the opportunity to work on a creative text as a way of responding to a highly stimulating course.

We hope you enjoy Prince of Florence; if instead you find it frustrating, then we hope we have captured the practice of deception.

Ben Cox
Anirban Gupta-Nigam
Matt Knutson
Diren Valayden
Melissa Wrapp

Please send any bug reports to mknutso1 (at) uci dot edu – thank you!

View the project at

Call for Artist Submissions: Shari’a Revoiced

Published on April 28, 2015



Shari’a Revoiced:
Documenting American Muslims’
of Islamic Law

“Shari’a Revoiced: Documenting American Muslims’ Experiences of Islamic Law” welcomes submissions from Muslim artists from Southern California practicing in any form for placement in a one-day exhibit in late October 2015. Artwork(s) submitted should in some way reflect the artist’s interpretation of “shari’a” and/or lived experiences of Islam.


  • Artist must be Muslim American and from Southern California
  • Any art submitted should be located in Southern California (team can arrange for pickup or for artist to deliver work on site).
  • Artwork should require minimal installation for an indoor exhibit space
  • Artist will provide his/her own supplies
  • Artist will be recognized by the project for their contribution
  • Artists will agree to have artwork displayed at the exhibit, as well as on the website and project documentation
  • Artist will work with exhibit/event project manager to apply, submit and install artwork

Send Proposals To:
Marium Mohiuddin, Project Manager
512.657.7819 /
Subject Line: “Your Name, Exhibit Proposal”
Please Attach: 300 word project proposal, 150 word artist statement, resume and 3 or more images of recent work
Deadline for Proposals: July 31, 2015

“Shari’a Revoiced: Documenting American Muslims’ Experiences of Islamic Law” is a research project led by Mark Massoud (Asst. Professor of Politics & Legal Studies, UC Santa Cruz) and Kathleen Moore (Chair, Religious Studies, UC Santa Barbara) to uncover new voices and understandings of Islamic law among Muslim communities in California. It is supported by the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

“Our goal is to illuminate through words and images how diverse Muslim activists, students, feminists, lawyers, social workers, and other cultural brokers produce local forms of Islamic knowledge.”

Findings will be disseminated through three public translations:

  • a widely accessible book, which will feature results of interviews with Muslim interlocutors who are creating diasporic formations of the meaning of shari’a and empowering marginalized communities while accommodating debate and diversity
  • a companion website and blog, which will showcase the book’s stories
  • an art exhibit in late October

Together, these three components of the project — book, website, and art exhibits — will aim to reveal the complex and everyday functions and lived experiences of Islamic law in California.

Categories: Blog |

Neo Muyanga Awarded Composer in Residence Fellowship

Published on January 22, 2015

Neo Muyanga at the Rainbow Restaurant in Durban © Tana Nolethu Forrest

Neo Muyanga at the Rainbow Restaurant in Durban
© Tana Nolethu Forrest

The Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER) and the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) are delighted to announce that Neo Muyanga has been awarded a composer in residence fellowship for 2015. An internationally renowned composer and librettist, Muyanga will be composer in residence at WiSER for most of the duration of the fellowship, spending a final month at UCHRI. He will undertake research into the popularity of opera within various black communities in both South Africa and elsewhere in the global south. In addition to this, Muyanga will be workshopping two operas, one based loosely on Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness, while the other explores the meaning of Mandela in today’s climate of class and race tension in the aftermath of the killings at Marikana, Ferguson and New York. He will engage in research to support development and performance of the operas with faculty at the University of California.

WiSER is committed to promoting interdisciplinary scholarship which engages critically with both aesthetic and social science analyses. Muyanga’s research and interest confirms and strengthens this focus. “Neo Muyanga is not just a South African national treasure but a continental and global one too,” says David Theo Goldberg, UCHRI Director. “An extraordinary resource on the history of popular musics, from gospel to protest song, opera to jazz and pop, he is also an extraordinary composer and performer. We are deeply honored to have him engage with us.”

Neo Muyanga is a Soweto-born composer of operas, pop songs and other musical inventions. He is keenly interested in making music that seeks to expand what is acceptable as new black music and story-telling. He learned to sing choral songs as a child in Soweto and Botswana and madrigals in Italy. He tours widely as a solo musician and as a member of various performance ensembles, including BLK Sonshine and KwaCha. He is a co-founder of the Pan African Space Station – a genre-busting portal of music and sound art on the internet. He describes his current work:

“My research project this year involves taking an in depth look at the ardent follower-ship of the genre of opera in various black communities in South Africa and elsewhere in the global south. It is my firm belief that the love of opera we see (and hear) resonating throughout our townships and in our rural community choirs tells us something important about black aesthetics and concepts of black modernity. Sadly, it is also true that perceptions remain in South Africa and globally of opera as an elitist past-time which deliberately seeks further to marginalise black voices – and to leave them out of contemporary debates about the way forward for opera as praxis and a possible tool for re-defining blackness in the twenty-first century.”

Categories: Blog |

Welcome to Whitney DeVos, UCHRI’s Humanities Research Assistant

Published on August 29, 2014

DeVosUCHRI Research Programs Manager Kelly Anne Brown interviews Whitney DeVos, UCHRI’s newest staff member. As part of an innovative alt-ac pilot program in collaboration with UCSC’s Graduate Division Dean, Whitney is interning at UCHRI during August and September, working on program development and scholarly communications for the institute. With a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. in poetry, Whitney is currently a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz, concentrating on 20th and 21st century American poetry, poetics, and politics.


KAB: Tell us about your studies at Santa Cruz. Why did you decide to pursue graduate studies in literature?

WdV: I have always written creatively, and my scholarly and creative pursuits have tended to progress in tandem with one another. Shortly after graduating from college with a self-designed English major, I began an MFA in poetry in order to continue the experimentations in style and content I had begun as an undergraduate. Eventually, I noticed my most interesting creative projects had one thing in common: each would have been impossible to pursue without significant research. At that time, I was reading theorists such as Donna Haraway as often as I was reading poets like Anne Carson. I was also supplementing my required creative workshops with time-consuming graduate courses in English literature and anthropology, each of which required me to write long seminar papers. As I became aware of how much my poetic praxis was being influenced—and even driven by—extra-disciplinary learning and analytical writing, I was drawn to applying to PhD programs, especially those with strengths in experimental poetics and cultural studies.

The literature department at UCSC provides me with flexibility, openness, and a grounding in interdisciplinary approaches, all of which help allow me to follow my intertwined creative, analytical, and hybridized projects as they evolve. I’m fortunate that UCSC, with its recent adoption of a “creative/critical” concentration in the PhD program, is very open to non-traditional dissertation projects. I have the option to shape my research into a formally-experimental book project, and I’d like it to result in something that is attractive to a wide range of people. Rather than framing the research project in the form of the traditional scholarly monograph addressed primarily to a highly-specialized audience of literary scholars, I’d like the project to speak to scholars and poets and historians and my grandfather alike. Or perhaps I’ll write one of each.

KAB: What kind of research questions guide your current projects?

WdV: I’m currently interested in the social, cultural, political and civic/public potential and/or function(s) of poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries; particularly, in poetry’s relationship to crises, both personal and socio-political/economic, and in spheres local, national, international, global, planetary. How does recording, documenting, and/or interrogating an event in poetry and poetic forms differ from doing so in narrative? How might we approach poetry as an alternative form of history, or a form that complicates the narrative tropes and forms in which history is typically recorded? How might poetry make visible peoples and pasts often elided in dominant narratives of history? In what ways does poetry articulate forms of resistance? Whose forms of resistance? How might the individualized act of reading poetry foster a kind of solidarity or work towards cultivating in the reader a sense of global human community across time, space, and/or language barriers? How can groups of readers form communities, interpretive or otherwise, around specific poetic texts? What public and/or civic functions has poetry served in the past, and what purpose does it serve now? For whom?

KAB: What excites you about these topics? Where do you see this research leading?

WdV: Poetry is the fractured and fragmented language in which we attempt to articulate the most difficult things in life, and poetic language puts pressure on normative diction and syntax. Reading (and re-reading) a well-crafted poetic phrase has the potential to defamiliarize the reader from the glut of commodified language we are exposed to every day. Often, these moments of strangeness bring visceral insight into another human’s experience or suffering. Many people talk about the “uselessness” of poetry, but it is my inclination that poetry serves a particular function during crises, even if it is ‘only’ an articulation of sorrow/hope resisting the dehumanizing realities of contemporary existence. But even “function” isn’t the right word. I’m interested in poetry’s potential to engender types of thinking and being that resist the received, and often outdated, forms we inherit—forms that may be complicit in various forms of subtle or explicit dehumanization.

KAB: What drew you to this opportunity at UCHRI?

WdV: Teaching in a variety of capacities and classrooms has shown me, over and over again, how passionate I am about teaching writing of all kinds: expository prose, literary analysis based on close reading, creative/poetry/fiction, even college admissions essays. I care deeply about helping my students learn to discover and articulate their personal voices, both scholarly and creative. However, having time available to devote to self-reflection is one among the many privileges of being a graduate student, and in recent months and years I’ve noticed that I’ve also been wanting to learn more about my capabilities and potential beyond the classroom; that is, I’ve been curious to know what it’s like to engage other personal strengths, areas of interest, and parts of my brain. I’ve come to realize I’m also incredibly interested in understanding and analyzing intricate issues, as well as engaging in collaborative high-level complex problem solving that results in measurable outcomes. I also have a strong desire to cultivate a sense of community within the environments I navigate regularly, and thus find it very rewarding to work collaboratively with others. Yet I remain deeply invested in and committed to the future of public higher education in my home state of California, and the particular roles the humanities and literary arts have to play in this future. So I’ve been wondering how I might pursue my current intuitive inclinations toward collaborative problem-solving in a way that a.) is consistent with my personal values and b.) might open up new possibilities for impact in different venues related to education.

UCHRI provides the opportunity to do both. I have the chance to try on an administrative hat and see what it feels like to be “behind the scenes” at a non-profit whose mission is to facilitate the kind of research I am interested in doing myself. I even have the opportunity to shape the kind of research UCHRI will support in future grant application periods. One of the most exciting assignments I’ve had so far was to draft from scratch a call for proposals for an entirely new grant—for graduate students! While working on a variety of different projects simultaneously, I am learning more about what day-to-day operations in a multi-campus humanities research institute entail. I also have the privilege of working alongside others in thinking through incredibly difficult issues—structural, fiscal, cultural—that pertain to my field and its future, and the chance to offer my own tentative solutions to these deeply-entrenched challenges.

KAB: What are you most looking forward to learning and/or working on while at UCHRI?

WdV: UCHRI’s initiative Humanities and the Changing Conceptions of Work is particularly interesting for me because it is directly relevant to the challenges I will face on both the academic and/or non-academic job market(s) when I complete my doctoral work. I was quite paralyzed, I think, when I realized very quickly in my first year that I had entered graduate school in a field deep in the throes of unprecedented budget cuts, hiring freezes, a diminished number of tenure-track positions, and very intense crisis rhetoric. In the attempt to not feel paralyzed, I wanted to understand better why things were the way they were, how they had come to be that way, and to think about ways in which we might resist and/or move forward. Humanities and the Changing Conceptions of Work is invested in all three of these areas, but focuses on the “moving forward” bit. To have a small role in the collaborative think tank responsible for reimagining the ways in which the humanities PhD might be utilized beyond the traditional faculty position is both exciting and rewarding. The questions and challenges presented by issues surrounding the Humanities and the Changing Conceptions of Work initiative are ones that fascinate me and directly relate to my future. It’s impossible for me not to be personally invested in this kind of work.

However, it’s also been inspiring to learn more about the research facilitated by UCHRI, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the interworkings of the RIDAGA Humanities Studios first-hand. I think the RIDAGA project will be formative in shaping the collaborative, innovative, and interdisciplinary scholarly and public research of the future. Scholars in the humanities provide us methodologies to work through the ways in which artworks and texts consider and create human experience, as well as the complexities within the questions that serve as the artworks’ impetuses. So often, however, the fruits of this largely-independent research remain inside of the academy. However, UCHRI, and the RIGADA’s Humanities Studios in particular, present a space for multiple methods of engaging in and approaching such questions, encouraging scholars, journalists, and artists to do, produce, and present collaborative humanities research intended for public and scholarly audiences. It is clear to me that the results of such innovative research funded by UCHRI will educe a variety of audiences extending far beyond those of the traditional, multi-authored academic monograph. This kind of work, long over-due, excites me very much.

KAB: What are you passionate about?

WdV: The easy answer to this question is poetry, but I think of this term rather expansively: the root of the English word ‘poetry’ is the Greek poesis (ποίησις), which is etymologically derived from an ancient term meaning “to make.” While a poem might be a reflection or artifact of (a) sensory experience, poetry literally refers to “making,” often of experience itself; memories are, after all, constructed in language. But the act of making something more tangible than a poem is a sensory experience in and of itself, and often results in a product that induces others to have sensory experiences of their own. I am equally, and often more, passionate about the making of things more tangible than phrases or lines: sauerkraut, rows of heirloom bean plants, the levain for pie crust. As you can see, more often than not, when I “make” anything, I am referring to some aspect of food. I’m big on “re-learning” preindustrial methods of food production and preparation that were largely forgotten when urban-dwelling people invariably sacrificed quality and tradition for convenience. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, and was never exposed to do-it-yourself or make-your-own anything. Like many people of my generation, I find it rewarding to learn to lessen my reliance on technology, corporately produced goods, and fossil fuels; this dovetails with an interest in ecological sustainability and reducing my impact on the planet. I have several friends engaged in similar efforts. I like learning from them, and coming together to share meals, trip, tricks, recipes, and secrets.

KAB: What are you reading these days? Have any recommendations for us?

WdV: I’m usually reading several books at once, and I highly recommend all the ones I’ll list here. Right now, a few include Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Ed Skoog’s Rough Day, published segments of Claudia Rankine’s forthcoming book Citizen. The best fiction book I’ve read all year is Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox; it’s a modern retelling of the fairy tale “Bluebeard” written in a series of interconnected vignettes. Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson is teaching me all about elemental breadmaking.

Categories: Blog |

Collaborative Scholarship: “The Work of Humanities / The Humanities as Work”
Hybrid Group October Meeting

Published on October 30, 2013

For the past two years, the University of California Research Institute has hosted and supported working groups, residential research groups, global workshops, graduate seminars, and conferences all focused on a central theme: “The Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work.” As we enter the third and final year of this multicampus research initiative, the UCHRI is pleased to host the final HCCW working group, which is a hybrid working/residential research group. Convened by John Marx, Professor of English at UC Davis, “The Work of Humanities / The Humanities as Work” group met officially for the first time from October 14 to 18 for a weeklong intensive session. The group will meet in residence monthly throughout the Fall quarter while continuing to collaborate for the full year through a variety of digital platforms.

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Collaborative Scholarship: The RIDAGA Humanities Studios

Published on September 17, 2013

On September 15, 2013, four groups of scholars convened at UCHRI to launch an exciting new scholarly project, organized on a pioneering approach for interdisciplinary research, the “Humanities Studio.”  The Luce-Funded Religions in Diaspora and Global Affairs Initiative (RIDAGA) initiative brings together a group of 22 UC faculty and graduate students, whose disciplinary backgrounds span religion, anthropology, feminist studies, history, politics, and law.


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Leigh Dodson: “The Work That Makes All Other Work Possible,” A Dialogue with Ai-jen Poo and Premilla Nadasen

Published on May 13, 2013

By Leigh Dodson

On Monday, our working group coordinated a live on-air webinar with Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in dialogue with Premilla Nadasen, a professor at Queens College, City University of New York. The group, “Working at Living: The Social Relations of Precarity” is part of the UCHI initiative on the “Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work.” We bring feminist, ethnic, and cultural studies perspectives to bear on both historical and contemporary forms of precarious work. Precarious work can be understood as work that is uncertain, short term, and provides little security or benefits – characteristics that have increasingly classified many forms of work, from the creative class to service workers.  The strategies used by organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance offer new models for organizing and activism that implement worker-driven policy, coalitions between the givers and receivers of care, and a message of respect, dignity, and empowerment.

The webinar was organized in conjunction with an undergraduate course in Asian American Studies as UC Santa Barbara taught by Lalaie Ameeriar, a participant in the working group. Students from this course, “Gender and Labor in Transnational Asian/America” and working group participants submitted questions for the dialogue. Utilizing Goolge+ Hangouts On Air and YouTube, we were able to host a live webinar between the class and working group participants in Santa Barbara, and Ai-jen Poo and Premilla Nadasen in the New York City headquarters of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The webinar was open to public viewing for anyone with an internet connection and provides a useful resource that is easily accessible. See embedded video and link below to view the webinar.

Webinar with Ai-jen Poo and Premilla Nadasen

Domestic workers – those that care, cook, and clean – have long been excluded from legal definitions of what counts as work and who counts as a worker. Denied the protections of federal labor law, the job is characterized by low wages, long hours, and no benefits. These forms of work are feminized, devalued, and underpaid, often because they are expected to be performed by women in the private sphere for free, as the labors of love and care. And indeed, domestic workers who perform what is traditionally understood as “women’s work” are overwhelmingly women, the majority of whom are women of color and immigrant women. As Eileen Boris, principle Investigator for the working group, writes in her co-written book with Jennifer Klein, Caring for America: Home Health Care Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State, “women’s labors – once considered outside the market or at the periphery of economic life – have now become the strategic sites for worker struggle and the direction and character of the American labor movement.” The National Domestic Workers Alliance is one such strategic site. A leading voice for millions of domestic workers in the United States, they have organized to pass Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in New York, Hawaii, and California (which was vetoed by Jerry Brown) while creating paths to better living conditions for both caregivers and those in their care.

Throughout the webinar we can see some of the important characteristics of this strategic site for worker organizing. Premilla Nadasen, a renowned scholar and community activist who works on women’s history and welfare policy, shared some of the questions generated by students and other participants. Ai-jen begins the webinar by speaking about the beginnings of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, her own history of being influenced by strong women in her family and community, her organizing work, and the process of passing the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. Ai-jen speaks to the importance of the process of organizing, which epitomizes the kind of organizational and activist strategy that organizations like NDWA employ. It is through the process of organizing and the centrality of domestic workers defining strategies and understandings of what labor protections and standards look like that epitomizes what she calls “doing public policy from a workers’ perspective.”

As Ai-jen states, “We have always known that the policy in and of itself was not the goal, the goal is to continue to strengthen the workforce, and continue to strengthen the voice of workers, and to move the public consciousness and change the culture such that we can continue to create more options, more respect, more recognition, for this work that makes all other work possible.”

This model of organizing is worker-driven and process centered, and in the case of the NDWA, the result has been a vibrant multi-racial coalition among low-wage women workers that is rare in the labor movement. In addition, Ai-jen notes that both the givers and receivers of care have a stake in its quality, and often the NDWA and other affiliate groups, like Caring Across Generations, which Ai-jen co-directs, focus on coalitions between caregivers and receivers. As the baby-boomer generations continues to reach retirement age, and longer lifespans and increased independence mean more people want to continue living in their own homes, we will see an increasing need for quality, affordable, and protected forms of care work. Coalitions between those that require care and those that provide it point to another organizing strategy that has seen success in other forms of contingent and precarious employment. One has only to look to the recent AFSCME 3299 Patient Care Workers Strike, May 21st-22nd for enactment of such a strategy: in addition to patient care workers walking picket lines, patients themselves testified as to the importance of safe staffing and worker organized collective bargaining.

The increasing need for care speaks to what Ai-jen and others have called the shift to a “care economy,” what Boris and Klein call a “carework economy” dominated by work that can not be outscourced though the worker might be an immigrant, that is, insourced.  A care economy emphasizes the importance of caring not only for individuals and their communities, but also as a significant foundation for political and economic activity. In creating a worker-driven model for organizing and public policy, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations model the kind of care economy that they hope to continue the process of implementing across the country. This model for organizing has created a vibrant, multi-racial, and democratically organized alliance of domestic workers that promotes coalition, creativity, and the importance of care.

Please feel free to view the webinar and include your perspective on the work of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Visit their website and make a donation to support their work.


About the author

Leigh Dodson is a doctoral student in Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.