The Power of Complicated Stories

April 22nd marked the launch of a fundraising campaign for Claiming Our Voice, a short documentary by Sri-Lankan American filmmaker Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel that follows eight South Asian immigrant female domestic workers as they develop and prepare an original theater performance, telling their true-life stories on a Manhattan stage.  Both the title of the film – “Claiming Our Voice” and the short description “South Asian immigrant women domestic workers telling their own stories” are evocative of specific images.  Many supporters are likely to have some exposure to the issues around exploitation of domestic workers – they are familiar with the stories of long hours with little pay, of the physical isolation, of the struggle that South Asian immigrants face when working for employers of their own community and how these employers silence their workers.   

What is sometimes less clear to allies is how they themselves may unconsciously participate in the process of silencing domestic workers.  All of the participants profiled in Claiming Our Voice are members of Andolan – Organizing South Asian Workers, a Queens-based workers’ center that seeks to empower low-wage immigrant workers (primarily female domestic workers) through popular education, collective organizing, and litigation.  I (Nahar) moved to New York to escape domestic violence and instead of finding safety, found myself exploited as a domestic worker.  While there were a number of organizations serving South Asian immigrants at the time, I found that most of them operated on a service model versus organizing and none had leadership who themselves were low-wage immigrant workers.  In response, I began gathering immigrant women workers (primarily other domestic workers) around my kitchen table to discuss our stories and strategize how we could support each other – from these discussions, we collectively founded Andolan – Organizing South Asian Workers in 1998.  I (Chitra) joined Andolan as a volunteer in 2001.

As Andolan has gained publicity and support, our members have often been sought out for media interviews or public speaking events.  And within those contexts, a specific simple narrative is often encouraged – stories of exploitation and victimhood (with a focus on the most egregious treatment by employers) followed by a smooth trajectory of empowerment and upliftment.  We have been critical of the way in which these stories have been framed and have also begun to realize the ways in which we may have been complicit.

Much of Andolan’s work over the past fifteen years has been driven by specific organizing campaigns with clear goals and an emphasis on remaining “on message.”  We’ve also been impacted by the need for ongoing funding.  This has resulted in us unconsciously getting stuck in certain narratives when speaking about our work –  we focus on stories that depict the struggles domestic workers face and Andolan’s effectiveness in combating this exploitation through collective organizing.  And these stories are true, but the reality is far more complicated and far more interesting. 

And herein lies the beauty of the theater production documented by Jennifer in Claiming Our Voice.  That when asked about the stories they want to share with a wider audience on stage, the Andolan members, all domestic workers, do not necessarily want to talk about domestic work.  Because yes, they are domestic workers, but that is not what defines them. They want to go off-message and in doing so, they reveal themselves as three-dimensional beings which ultimately allows the audience to connect with them in a far deeper manner. They want to speak about their children or their marriage or the Liberation War in Bangladesh.
 
During the production of Claiming Our Voice over the past few years, Andolan has undergone some major transitions.  Due to funding cuts, we closed our physical offices in Jackson Heights in 2010. Soon afterwards, Nahar had to give up her salary as director and become a volunteer.  In the process, Andolan has in some ways been forcibly returned to our roots with meetings happening again at Nahar’s house; women workers gathering to share food and stories.   

The loss of funding has been difficult, but it also brings with it the possibility of liberation – the opportunity to delve deeper into the stories of Andolan – not just stories of our members, but of what it has meant to be a low-wage immigrant women workers’ collective and a nonprofit organization dependent on outside funding.  We both know of small organizations that have closed their doors, leaving behind no physical trace.  There are the people who were there and know about what happened but there is no documentation for others.  There is no institutional memory, no opportunity to both celebrate and learn from what happened. 

While we don’t know the precise reasons why other organizations have not documented their history and experience, our guess is that it is equal parts shame, exhaustion, and the fear of the messiness of it all.  Despite our awareness of the instability and arbitrariness of the funding environment – of increased competition amongst community groups for a smaller pot of funds, of changing trends around what is “hot” to fund, there is still some shame – some sense that we failed by not securing sufficient funds to keep our doors open.  And then there is the exhaustion -  of trying to keep an organization going on a decreasing budget, of hoping for organizing victories against all odds, the strain of keeping fingers constantly tightly crossed waiting for miracles that occur all too rarely.

But we have had some time to recuperate and we are ready to honor this transition for Andolan.  We are claiming our voice beyond the scope and space of the film through the creation of a physical and multimedia archive.  In it, these are a few of the stories we will tell:

*Of the complicated nature of transnational lives and the stigma around domestic work that may never leave despite years of activism.  For example, one of our members was profiled in USA Today about her activism as a domestic worker.  At the time of the interview, she felt proud to have been selected and for the opportunity.  At some point, one of her children back home (financially supported by the remittances earned through domestic work) happened to see the story online and asked his mother about it.  While she was comfortable identifying as a domestic worker within the US, she did not want her family back in India to know because she felt that they would look down on domestic workers.

*Of simultaneous hierarchy and solidarity – Andolan members are bound together by their experience within New York as low-wage immigrant workers.  But their journey to this point is vastly different - our members range from individuals who have graduate degrees to those who are illiterate in their mother language.  While members have collectively organized to support each other, there have also been disputes; differences around class and language and religion have emerged.

*Of how “speaking out” does not necessarily lead to justice and empowerment.  For example, one of our longtime members was struggling with her employer for years.  Andolan encouraged her to take a stand, to speak out about the abuse she endured and take her employers to court.  The process of preparing for trial was emotionally exhausting but she kept hope alive.  Ultimately, the judge decided against her, finding her story to not be credible.  Her employers threatened to bring a lawsuit against her for libel.  Five years after summoning the courage to “speak out” she is experiencing difficulty finding work because of the publicity of the case. 

*Of the challenges that can emerge even from seemingly successful organizing and litigation campaigns.  Some of our members, with Andolan’s assistance, have experienced a great deal of success.  They have won a considerable sum in back wages or been able to obtain immigration relief.  And when that happens, the short-term response is a celebration. But the long-term impact is far less clear.  An individual may no longer want to associate with Andolan – perhaps the money won brings the chance to create a new identity within the US or perhaps she feels guilty when surrounded by people who continue to struggle.  Some of our members have received cash settlements and then been preyed upon by members of the “community” who defraud them or have been besieged by requests for assistance from family members.  Some, despite obtaining “justice” continue to work as underpaid domestic work because it is what is familiar.

In initiating this process of collecting stories, we have great partners – the A/P/A archives at NYU and the South Asian American Digital Archive, but we do not have a clear roadmap.  In our office, now operating out of Nahar’s home, we have file cabinets filled with materials.  Our bigger resource is all the people (members, allies, funders) with heads filled with information about their experiences with Andolan.  We want to do oral histories that are accessible to advocates, academics, activists and the next generation of organizers.  And we want to    encourage people not to give a sugarcoated tribute to Andolan but to reflect and to be honest about what worked and didn’t work.  And in this process of telling complex honest and potentially contradictory stories, we believe that we will be able to best determine what is next for Andolan. 

Our fundraiser for Claiming Our Voice finishes on June 6th.  The funds raised will enable us to complete production of the film, develop a curriculum for teachers and organizers to use when showing the film, and subtitle the film in multiple languages.  While we would appreciate your financial support for the film, we recognize that completion of the film is only the first step in the broader, and more radical storytelling process, in which we are engaged.  We are reaching out to you, our community, to support this film and to support us as we begin our archival process with a spirit of radical transparency and a belief in the power of complicated stories.

We would love to hear from you if you have reflections on Andolan to share, have suggestions to guide our archival process, or are interested in volunteering.  Contact Chitra Aiyar – chitra.aiyar@gmail.com

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