2019–2020 CONTEST
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2019–2020 Contest Winners

The pandemic derailed our traditional awards ceremony, but the videoconference version turned out to be just as powerful and just as inspiring. For the first time family members from across the country and beyond were able to be present. Once again extraordinary young authors and artists show us new perspectives on work with their creative and thoughtful fiction, poetry and visual art. Many of them talk about work that is too often unseen, from the front lines of the new economy where precarious service jobs reign. Their efforts fulfill the goal of this CUNY/LaborArts contest—to expand student thinking about the history of work, and to provide opportunities to make links between individual lived experience and larger social issues.

Briana Calderon-Navarro’s installation and video art piece “Chasing Threads Home” is but one example.

There is a short narrative and a video about creating the installation. She writes:

My objective is to visually identify the way capitalism treats the other. These textiles remind me that the United States welcomes the labor of Latinx people into its economy, while simultaneously enforcing immigration policies that dehumanize working-class people of Hispanic origin.

We sincerely hope that these young authors and artists continue on with their work—their voices demand to be heard.

Now in its tenth year, the contest is open to all CUNY undergraduates. Entries are judged according to originality, content and style. Guidelines used for this 2019-2020 contest are here. Student writers and artists draw upon history, their close observation of the world around them, and a wealth of first hand experiences to link their work to the spirit of labor arts. Every year professors judging the contest reflect on the value of providing opportunities for the students to seriously interrogate their own life experiences and that of those around them.

All photographs courtesy of student awardees.

Joseph Diyarza

First Prize, Nonfiction
Joseph Diyarza  New York City College of Technology

Finding My Way

Joseph and Davis   Joseph Diyarza, March 17, 2016

“You better be prepared to get lost,” Sergeant Patt said that morning.

I knew that meant one thing: we were going to do land navigation training. For that, I needed to be prepared and pack enough clothes to spend two days in the field.

Land navigation consists of finding coordinates on the map and navigating unfamiliar terrain. It is a skill that all privates need to learn in order to become soldiers. To pass the training, you must know how to plot coordinates on the map and find them on the field in day time and at night too. Once you find those coordinates, you must write a code that you can find on the field. The code could be attached to a tree or a post; it could be a number or a letter and a number together.

That night I packed my bag for the next day’s training, and my packing list consisted of one uniform, one pair of socks, one t-shirt, my tarp to cover my bag in case of rain, my hygiene kit, and snacks, like beef jerky, sunflower seeds, cookies, and chips, in case I got hungry. Sergeant Stanton, my team leader, inspected my bag and told me that we were leaving at 0600 in the morning. I showed up at 0500 in the morning so we would be at the company early, ready to go.

On June 25, 2015, in Fort Polk, Louisiana, I woke up at 0400 to change, make my bed, shave, and brush my teeth. Then I grabbed my bag and headed to the company. By the time I arrived, it was 0430 in the morning. My team leader inspected my bag again, and then we waited for the truck to take us to the land navigation course.

The truck arrived at 0630 and took us to the course, which was one and a half hours away from any post or man-made place. When we arrived at the course, you could hear the wind whistle, see fallen trees, smell the pine trees. Birds were singing, it was sunny, and everyone thought it would be a good training day. There were some benches next to a gazebo in the middle of the forest, and inside the gazebo, something that I would describe as a desk.

Sergeant Patt stood on top of one of the benches and barked out the instructions: “So here we are at this God-forsaken place where you will conduct your training. Now listen carefully, you stupid idiots, you have four hours to find all 8 points to pass this course.” Sergeant Patt was pacing back and forth on the bench so everyone could hear. He was shouting so loud you could see the birds flying away. “After you find all your points, come back, so we can score your points and tell you if you passed or failed. Soon after everyone is done, we are going straight to nighttime land navigation, so be ready for that.”

After all his yelling, we got our coordinates and started plotting the points on the map.

I was on my way to find all my points. I was running for most of the time, so I was fast to find them. The first coordinate was easy because it was close to where we started the training. Once I got to the point, I checked if the coordinate on the post was the same as the coordinate on my map. Then I put the code in my score sheet and headed to the next one. On the map you can read landmarks, such as hills, valleys, roads, and rivers. You can plan the fastest routes to the next point, but it wasn’t always as easy as it sounds. The second point was two hundred meters away from my first point, and it was on top of a hill. I thought it would be painless just to head straight to the point, but I found out there were a lot of trees and holes, so I kept on falling. When I reached the top of the hill, I found the code and tried to leave it on the side of the hill, but with my luck I tripped and fell, all the way to the bottom of the hill.

After I put myself back together, I looked for an easy route to the third point. It was on the side of an old road, so I just followed the road and reached the post and wrote my code. On my fourth point I tried something different: I pulled out my compass and followed the degrees on the map. It was difficult because you must check your surroundings and the compass at the same time to see if you are going in the same direction. For a new private it would be hard to do and he might get lost, but because I had some experience it was easy for me. I found my fourth coordinate on the side of a small puddle, so I just wrote the code and went my way without checking if I had the correct coordinate. On my way to the fifth point, I encountered one of the new privates and asked him if he had one of the same coordinates. He did, so we exchanged answers and that way I found my fifth coordinate.

On my way to my sixth point, I didn’t notice a beehive. It was wedged between the two pieces of plywood attached atop a post where the code was displayed. As I got closer to the post, two bees stung me. I turned around and ran from that post and never came back to get my code.

I went to look for my last two coordinates and to my luck they were close to each other. Once I found all my points, I turned back and headed to the start of the course. Even though my sergeant told me I passed, I was still pissed because I couldn’t get my last point. I went to talk to Davis to see if he had encountered the beehive. He told me that he got stung four times. However, unlike me, he was so determined to get the code that when he got stung, he didn’t stop. He got the code.

Davis was my best friend. He’s from Jacksonville, Florida. He’s taller than me but everyone is taller than me, so it didn’t bother me much. He has blue eyes and blond hair. We became friends in basic training. Our first duty station was in South Korea at Camp Casey. We were assigned to Fort Polk for our next duty station. I think the main reason we became friends is that he had a similar history as mine. He wanted to go to college, but his family had some problems. His parents were divorced, and he was living with his grandmother. Like me, he couldn’t afford college by himself. It’s not like his parents wouldn’t support him, but he felt that it wasn’t their responsibility anymore to help pay his way. Soon after finishing high school, he joined the army.

He helped me with almost everything, from how to write better English to how to speak properly in English. He advised me on how to buy my first car and how to be a mechanic. Even though everyone believes that Mexicans can work on a car, I was Mexican and I didn’t know what a Mexican is supposed to know or do. I didn’t know how to change a tire, how to change the oil, or even how to check the oil. In exchange for his teachings, he asked me to teach him Spanish and I did. I taught him how to approach Hispanic women. He would say: “Hola, sexy muchacha, te gustaria salir con papi?” or “Te gustaria bailar y besar con papi?” These translate to “Hey, sexy woman, would you like to go out with daddy?” or “Would you like to dance and kiss with daddy?” Of course, he got rejected. It was funny to see how the woman would cuss him out in Spanish—“Hay no, vete de aqui animal” or “Eres un estupido pendejo”—and then storm off.

Sometimes he got lucky because he would score and have a date. I think it was because the women thought it was funny like me. They would go out with him but on the condition that he would learn how to cuss and of course he came to me for some advice.

For his next lesson, he asked me to teach him how to cuss, so I did but only with words—puto, verga, culo, gringo, caca—because he couldn’t say a whole sentence. He would approach other Hispanic soldiers and when they talked dirty about him, he would answer back in Spanish. They would be surprised to hear him cussing. The soldiers never got mad at him. They thought it was funny, but once when we went to a Mexican restaurant, he thought he could be as funny, but he almost got beat up until I intervened and said in Spanish, “Disculpen a este pendejo pero no sabe lo este wey esta diciendo.” This translates to “Excuse this dumb ass, but he really doesn’t know the language and he’s trying out new words.” But what I said to Davis was “Excuse my friend.”

We are connected to this day. I think of Davis as more than my friend. He’s a brother who helped me overcome the obstacles that I forgot I had and reminded me of why I got into college in the first place.

While the second group was waiting for their turn, the rest of us were either eating or going over notes. After everyone was done, nighttime came and Sergeant Patt with his furious voice yelled the instructions for the night training: “Listen here, you pieces of shit, you have three hours and 4 points to complete this training. You’re going with partners, so you morons won’t get lost, so go and find another idiot and get ready.”

I asked Davis if he would like to be my partner. He said yes, so we got our points, plotted them, and we went our way to find them. We are good at land navigation, so finding them for us was fast.

After we got our points, I asked him if he wanted to take a break. I knew a place at the edge of the forest where we could sit.

We got to the place and it was perfect. It was an open area, without trees or bushes, just a patch of grass where you could see the other side of the forest. It was a full moon that night—you could see your shadow because the moon was so bright—and the blades of grass were like they were painted silver. The stars were bright, too, as if someone had painted the sky with small white dots. We sat down and talked about the future ahead of us, about what kind of car I would be buying and how he would help me. Then without warning Davis asked me something that would change my life.

“Diyarza, do you think we did the right thing to join the army?” he said while looking up at the sky.

“I don’t know if we did or not,” I replied, “but we are here now, and we have to make the most of it.”

“But I like to think there's more to it than the army. I will go to college once I get out of here. What will you do after you get out?”

Before I could answer, I asked myself why I joined the army. When I was in high school, I wanted to go to college in Brooklyn. However, my father didn’t have enough money to support me and my family. He did have some money, but it wasn’t enough for the whole family. My family is not that big, but it is separated. I have two younger siblings: my brother was in high school at the time, and my sister was in Mexico with my mom. My father wanted me to go to college in Mexico because it was cheaper, but I wanted to stay in the United States. I had lived in Mexico for most of my childhood, and then I came to United States when I was 13. It was hard for me to learn the new language and the new culture, but I did.

Now my dad wanted me to go back to Mexico. But if I did, I felt all the struggle, all the effort I had put into learning a new language was just a waste of time. While in high school I heard from a recruiter that you could go to college while being in the military, so I decided to join the United States Army. Soon after that, I went to basic training for four months in Atlanta, Georgia, and then I had my first duty station in South Korea, Camp Casey. There I asked if I could go to college, but because I wasn’t in the United States, I had to wait. Eight months passed, and I received instructions to go to Fort Polk. As soon as I arrived there, I asked my team leader Sargent Stanton if I could go to college, and he said I could. However, I needed the commander’s approval signature giving me permission to go. When I went to talk to him, he refused to give me his signature; he told me that training was more important than going to college.

Hearing those words made me sad. I had faced so many obstacles already, so I just gave up. Then one of my sergeants (whose name I don’t want to say) told me with a serious face that I was too dumb to go to college. I thought that was a signal for me to stop pursuing an education. For me there was no “after the army” anymore; I would just stay in the army. I had lost my way.

Until my best friend Davis changed the way I viewed my life.

“I don’t know if I will go to college. The Commander keeps telling me that the training is more important than college, and the other asshole keeps saying that I’m too dumb.”

Before I could finish my sentence, Davis turned around and with a serious face said, “Look, puto, never let anyone tell you how dumb you are or how you can’t go. Show them that you can and show them they are wrong. You need to find your way back to college, you need to find your way back to your family, you need to get yourself a life other than the army, you better find your way back.”

At that moment I was shocked by what he said. I would never expect him to wake me up to how I was thinking so low of myself, and how I let myself down thinking that anyone can tell me what to do. After that day I started to view my life differently and asked myself what I wanted to do. All these questions were going through my head while we sat there contemplating the stars.

After that talk, we decided it would be a good idea to re-join the rest of the group. It was early when the whole group finished, so the sergeant in charge of the training decided that it was time to head back to base. On the ride back, everyone was happy that we didn’t have to spend the night in the field. Everyone except me. I was still trying to comprehend what my best friend had told me. Only later did I realize why I got into college—it was because of Davis. He got me back on track. He helped me find my way back.

Eva McGill

Second Prize, Nonfiction
Eva McGill  Brooklyn College

America Runs on Dunkin’:Analyzing Hierarchies and Customer-Employee Relations in the Coffee Shop Industry

Looking Up to Dunkin Donuts   Susan Jane Belton, 2012

Right now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in New Paltz, New York. Everything on the menu here is really expensive, but it’s because everything is fair trade, environmentally sustainable, and the employees are paid really well for the food industry. The people working here seem to like their coworkers—they’re constantly talking to each other while making drinks or food for customers. Joni Mitchell’s playing on the soundsystem; the music seems personalized, like one of the people working here picked the playlist or the radio station. When people come here, they understand that the employees are working hard, so they’re polite and gracious when interacting with the staff. Even when the food takes a while, customers are understanding. Customers seem to consistently tip the employees—the tip jar on the front counter is almost always full. Though paying food industry workers a living wage should be the norm, and treating food industry workers with kindness and gratitude should be standard, it’s hard to think of places where the staff are treated and paid this well. This is what the food industry should look like. But, as someone who has worked a lot in the foodservice industry, I can say with complete confidence, places like this are truly the exception. I’ve had some bad jobs over the years, but my job at Dunkin’ Donuts was undoubtedly the worst.

Dunkin’ Donuts is the complete antithesis of the coffee shop I described above. Personality literally isn’t even an option at Dunkin’ Donuts. Corporate protocol requires that every store look identical, regardless of location or the people working there. There’s no opportunity for the staff to show their personal style, because everyone is required to follow the rigid dress code. Managers are required to wear blue polo shirts, cashiers are required to wear white polo shirts, and both cashiers and managers are forced to wear medium wash jeans. Cashiers have to wear Dunkin’ Donuts hats and Dunkin’ Donuts aprons. There’s no music in most locations, and if a store is allowed to play music, it usually has to be a Top 40s radio station. Even though cashiers and managers are supposed to wear name badges, from the first day of work, it becomes apparent that sacrificing individuality is key when working at Dunkin’ Donuts.

From my first day of work at Dunkin’ Donuts, I was immediately taken aback by the way the overwhelming majority of customers treated my coworkers and I. I initially approached customers by asking, “hi, how are you?” but after having my question cut off by the fifth or sixth customer, I realized that customers didn’t want to be asked how they were doing, and they certainly didn’t want to ask me how I was doing. I decided to get more to the point and ask, “hi, what can I get for you?” Customers seemed to prefer that, but still the end of my sentence was usually cut off. I always thanked customers and tried to remain upbeat, but after awhile, being overly polite to these people who barely acknowledged my humanity became increasingly harder. The Dunkin’ Donuts that I worked at was perpetually understaffed, so during peak hours, there was usually a line. Even though customers could see that my coworkers and I were working as fast as we physically could, if their order took a bit longer than usual, they would become visibly annoyed, and often aggressive.

Certain customers were polite enough. They would thank my coworkers and I for their order, but unlike in a lot of other places I’ve worked, there was a rigid division between the customers and the employees. Customers were reluctant to strike up small talk, even if they weren’t in a rush or if there wasn’t a long line. If a customer had a band t-shirt of a band I liked, and I tried to compliment the shirt, customers would usually smile, nod, and/or say an abrupt “thanks,” careful not to give the impression that they planned on pursuing the conversation. Though this seems like a minute detail, the way that customers distanced themselves from my coworkers and I stood out to me because it was unique to Dunkin’ Donuts. I definitely don’t romanticize my other foodservice jobs; many of these jobs were very difficult, and I encountered more than my fair share of rude customers. Still, at Dunkin’ Donuts, the degree of separation between the customers and the employees was unparalleled. Though I haven’t worked in other coffee shops, it seems that customers at independently owned, “cool” coffee shops are more likely to connect with their baristas. What about Dunkin’ Donuts made customers so reluctant to engage with employees?

From working at Dunkin’ Donuts, I’ve come to understand that there is a clear hierarchy within the coffee shop industry. The degree of separation between the employee and the customer depends on where a coffee shop falls on said hierarchy. Coffee shops at the top of this hierarchy are the aforementioned independently owned, cool coffee shops. Coffee shops at the bottom are places like Dunkin’ Donuts. These coffee shops at the bottom are chains, they require uniforms and/or a strict dress code, and though there can be slight differences between stores, in general, every store has a similar layout and organizational system. The food at these places requires little to no preparation and simply needs to be baked upon arriving at a store or it comes to a store completely cooked and only needs to be reheated for service. Similarly, the ingredients for the drinks at these places typically arrive pre-portioned and require a quick mix or stir, if that. The coffee beans arrive pre-ground, but beyond that, the coffee and espresso drinks are made the same way they would be made at most coffee shops. Because Dunkin’ Donuts prioritizes low costs for consumers, it’s fair to say that their food and drink might not be of the same quality as independently owned, artisanal coffee shops. That being said, customers understand this when they go to a coffee shop like Dunkin’ Donuts—customers go to coffee shops like Dunkin’ because they want a quick, affordable drink or bite to eat.

Even though low-level employees at Dunkin’ Donuts have no say in ingredient sourcing or in the food and drink preparation protocol, I wondered if customers looked down at Dunkin’ Donuts employees because they viewed the company’s food sourcing and production practices as inferior. Maybe customers believed that because Dunkin’ employees didn’t have to prepare and cook foods the same way employees at other coffee shops did, they weren’t performing “skilled” labor, and consequently didn’t deserve the same degree of respect as employees at other coffee shops. I think this lack of respect translates into a lack of relatability. If you ask people about their career, most people believe that the work they are doing is skilled and benefits society in some way. This being said, if you ask people if they think Dunkin’ Donuts employees perform skilled labor and/or benefit society, a large percentage of people would argue that they don’t do either of these things. Because so many people regard Dunkin’ Donuts employees in this way, most customers believe that Dunkin’ employees shouldn’t be paid a dime over minimum wage and should actively be searching for more challenging and socially beneficial careers. The idea that people should only work in the fast food industry to build character and/or pull themselves out of poverty is pervasive in our culture. Ironically enough, we are completely dependent on places like Dunkin’ Donuts. Dunkin’ Donuts serves millions of people a day across the globe. Even though Dunkin’ Donuts might not be most people’s favorite food establishment, the truth is, when you’re hungry or thirsty and you don’t have a lot of time or money to spare, Dunkin’ Donuts is there. If every Dunkin’ Donuts employee went on strike tomorrow and halted service indefinitely, a lot of people would panic.

When I was working at Dunkin’ Donuts, I often had to work the opening shift which started at 4 AM. My coworkers and I would have to bake the bagels, donuts, muffins, and croissants, prepare the iced tea, fully stock the beverage fridge, and count the cash register before the store opened at 5 AM. As soon as we opened the doors for the day, there would be a line. At this time of the day, we served nurses (who often work early morning shifts or overnight shifts), construction workers, and folks who worked outside the confines of the formal economy. Not many other coffee shops open their doors at 5 AM. Not to mention, many Dunkin’ Donuts locations are actually open twenty-four hours a day. So, for the aforementioned people, Dunkin’ Donuts was able to cater to their unique lifestyle and fulfill their demand. Even beyond these niche lifestyles, Dunkin’ Donuts’ hours of operations accommodate most people’s schedules. To clarify, Dunkin’ Donuts’ widespread accessibility and ability to accomodate is due to the workers at Dunkin’ Donuts stores. These workers, not the owners or those working at Dunkin’ Donuts’ corporate office, wake up early, work long shifts for minimum wage, deal with impatient customers, prepare food and drinks, sacrifice their weekends, forfeit spending time with family, and work in a perpetual state of being understaffed and undervalued. Without ​these people, Dunkin’ Donuts, one of the most popular coffee chains, would cease to function. Why are these workers considered unskilled while those working at Dunkin’ Donuts’ corporate office are considered skilled?

In conclusion, I believe that the hierarchy within the coffee shop industry and consequently the varying degrees of separation between the customer and the employee exist because of the concept of skilled versus unskilled labor. The idea that some labor is skilled and therefore deserving of respect and other labor is unskilled and therefore unworthy of respect creates an unnecessary and illegitimate divide in the workforce. Simply put, all labor is skilled labor. Though people might scoff at the idea that Dunkin’ Donuts employees are skilled laborers, Dunkin’ employees perform a function and provide a service to society. As mentioned in a previous paragraph, if every Dunkin’ Donuts employee were to go on strike tomorrow and indefinitely halt service, a lot of people would be distressed. Yet, Dunkin’ Donuts employees are both notoriously mistreated and othered by customers. The food service industry is laden with problems and no doubt needs to be fundamentally changed. If we want to head in a more equitable direction, challenging the notion of unskilled labor and acknowledging the hard work of all food service workers are good ways to start.

Sizhen Ivy Chen

Third Prize, Nonfiction
Sizhen Ivy Chen  New York City College of Technology

Bittersweet in a Kitchen

The Little Pastry Chef   Chaim Soutine, 2018

I work at the pastry kitchen of a Michelin starred French restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where a lot of rich people live. It sounds exciting and I thought the same before I applied for this job. In the morning, this neighborhood around 75th St is very quiet. I see very few people when I am walking to the restaurant. The building is not as tall as other buildings in this area. It has a white creamy color from the surface and a black metallic color from the windows. The restaurant has many plants growing in the front door area. But they are covered with green plastic nets. A very warm light brightens them up. Sometimes, one or two huge delivery trucks with built-in fridges or freezers are nearby. I open the pale green door next to the main door, I walk past the sleepy security guy who sits in his tiny room with glass windows around him. Two floors down is where I get my uniform. This floor is also where they store all the fancy high quality French wines and dried ingredients from everywhere. Sometimes I have to walk around the hallway for my chef jacket because the stairway I usually use is blocked by bags of dirty chef uniforms that need to be washed from the previous night.

One floor up is our production kitchen. Fish tubs and big cambros that are big enough for me to put myself in are organized on the top right side of the stairway. The locker room is right next to the kitchen. After I finish changing, it is around 6:50 AM, a perfect time for me to start my shift. Waking up early and working for production instead of working at night for the service is what I have always wanted. However, my mind is so weak at this moment, all I want is to go back to my bed. I walk through the Feast and Fêtes station. One of the walk-in fridges is right behind this station. In front of it are all the cases of the extremely fresh produce that were just delivered. A blast chiller is on the right side. When the kitchen is too quiet, it means people have forgotten to turn the blast chiller on. To get to the pastry kitchen, I have to walk through the culinary kitchen. With its two 20 by 7- foot stainless kitchen tops. I also stop by the dish area to find extra detergent that I can steal for our kitchen, because we wash our utensils and all the bowls ourselves.

The pastry kitchen is only half the size of the savory kitchen. It has a ten-foot-long kitchen top on the left side against the wall of the kitchen, this area is where I do my tasks. Two double door cabinets above the kitchen top, three drawers and two single-door cabinets on the bottom left. The bottom right-side lowboys have fruit, fresh herbs, micro greens, and edible flowers. The hand washing sink is on the right side of the kitchen top. Behind me is a marble island kitchen top; usually three to four people work here. It includes the dough station, the canelé station, and the station for two sous chefs. All the way back is another kitchen top for the pastry cooks who make tuiles and cook the base of our frozen dessert, because this area is right in the front of the oven and very close to the stoves.

The chocolate room is my favorite place in this kitchen, I love the aroma of chocolate. I thought I was in heaven when I first opened the door of their chocolate room. People in this kitchen are in charge of different dessert components. I do not belong to any of the stations because I only work four days a week. So, I am here in charge of most of the biscuits, cremeux, mousses and the ganache of petit fours. Also, I reorganize the fruit and herbs every day. Beside these, I also help everyone else after if I finish my tasks early.

This is a very fast-paced kitchen. It was always my dream to work in a pastry kitchen and finally my dream has come true. However, I now realize it was more difficult than what I thought it could be. Even though I am pushing myself every day to work faster, I still get rushed in different ways every other second by my sous chefs. In the morning, they give me about 4 to 6 tasks. For example, bake 4 sheet trays of White Biscuit and 5 sheet trays of Flourless Chocolate Cake, make 6 kilograms of Apricot Mousse to finish building four sheet trays of Apricot Cake, unmold Coffee Mousse that was built into tubes before 11 AM, and make two flavors of ganache for bonbons. I must communicate with my chef and plan well before I start working. However, before I start on these tasks, I need to make sure all the fruit is reorganized. The fruit is a pain in the butt. We store fruits in three places, lowboys below the kitchen top where I work, a speed rack next to the tuile station, and another speed rack in our walk-in fridge. It is easier in the summer because our restaurant does not offer Restaurant Week deals. Rich people are out of the city for their summer vacations. In other words, “we are slow,” which means less fruit for me to organize in the mornings. The speed racks and lowboys are not as crowded as they are in the winter. Berries turn bad very fast because of the rain these days. I must keep the older berries in a cambro in our walk-in fridge when I organize them. At the end of the day, with another 10 percent of the sugar added, we make flavorful wild berry puree out of it.

Finally, after organizing the fruit, I am ready to begin my tasks of the day. I normally start around 8 AM. We have only two ovens that work well. The top oven, with six racks, is always needed for the dough station. At 9 AM, the bottom oven will be occupied by 300 canelés so it is better for me to finish my baking tasks before 9 AM. However, it is not easy for me to finish two tasks in one hour. If I still need to use the oven after 9 AM, I must negotiate with the person who is in charge of the dough station. It happens almost every day. When it gets to 9:15 AM, you will hear someone call out “change sanitizer.” We must stop whatever we are working on and dump the sanitizing liquid in our station into the sink. I refill the sanitizer most of the time because everyone else looks busy with their tasks. Now, the kitchen is getting noisier. My heart beat goes faster too. The noises are intense from the Kitchen Aid mixer, Hobart mixer, large hand blender, torch, oven timer, other people’s personal timers and my timer. Plus, culinary chefs will come to our kitchen and say “good morning” or ask questions. Someone comes to get some flour, someone comes to use our larger scale, or someone comes to bring some scraps from their production for us to try. If my French sous chef walks past me, he would say: “Pretty much done?” and then “allez, allez, allez,” In addition, we have to wash our own equipment and utensils that we use because we don’t want them to be washed together with equipment and utensils from savory kitchen. Otherwise, our products might have an herby or meaty aroma. I hear terms like “organize dish” every hour. It means all of us must stop our work on hand, go to the dish sink and help the dishwasher organize the dishes. Sometimes I just want to find somewhere quiet and stay there for about 5 minutes. Sometimes I go to the restroom to take a deep breath and go back to work. Most of the time, the tasks on my list block me from walking away from my station.

Coffee Tube is the main component for one of our desserts. It is built of chocolate mousses with coffee cremeux in the center. We roll sheets of soft plastic and build the tube dessert inside them a day before. Sometimes I get to build them. This time my job is to cut them in two different lengths, 5 cm and 8cm, and then unmold them. I need to have my mise en place first. The most important thing is a chilled full sheet tray-size marble. It keeps the tubes from melting so fast in the hot kitchen, so we can avoid having to refreeze them, which will change the texture of the mousse. I’m very short and thin and it is really hard for me to take out this huge piece of super heavy marble from the bottom shelf of the lowboy. I need to bend down a little bit, and put down my chest, but also make sure that my lower back is straight. This way I can protect my spine from dislocating because my spine gets dislocated easily. It has already happened four times in my life. The tubes will be sprayed with a thin layer of clear glaze after they are unmolded and well organized on full plastic sheet trays. When evening shift workers come, they will apply sticks of chocolate horizontally onto the tubes. The person who will spray the tubes often asks me about how long it will take me to finish them because most of the time I deal with more than one task at a time. I only tell her an approximate time of about 30 minutes. I place the tubes that are cut into the blast chiller before I unmold them. It takes about 15 minutes for them to be fully frozen like rocks and this is the stage that I want. I can start to do some mise en place for making the Apricot Mousse, then come back for the tubes.

Sometimes I forget to take out the frozen apricot puree to thaw ahead of time for the Apricot Mousse. I have to waste another 15 minutes to melt it down in the microwave. You may ask me why I don’t scale it out and heat it up in the pot because it only takes five minutes. This is because my sous chef said that the water in the puree evaporates more if I heat it in a pot to melt it down. It will change the final texture of the Apricot Mousse. To make 6 kilograms of mousse is not an easy task for me. The prepping process is not hard, I just need to have my puree warmed up and mixed with the gelatin, and then I whip the heavy cream and keep it cold. I also need to make the Italian meringue but first I need to take out the tubes and unmold them. My satisfaction is exploding from my heart when I see how these tubes are perfectly unmolded. The surface of the tube is shiny like plastic sheets. I want to enjoy this moment a little bit more but I cannot just stop there for this lovely feeling. I have to move on to the Apricot Mousse.

Italian Meringue, the key ingredient in the mousse, is made with egg whites whipped up with sugar that is cooked to 240 F degrees when the sugar syrup just becomes firm but shapeable. I walk back and forth between the Kitchen Aid mixer at where I work and the stove to make sure that the egg whites are not over whipped and the sugar is also cooked properly to the stage before I pour the sugar into the whipped egg whites. Once the meringue is made, I have to use it right away to make the Apricot Mousse because the air pockets in the meringue will break when the machine stops mixing. I need the largest bowl in the kitchen, the longest whisk and a spatula to fold all the ingredients together. Mixing the meringue with the puree is my first step. To mix it well, I have to be very aggressive with the mixture. When more and more meringue is added, my right arm starts to get sore from my wrist to my elbow, and then to my shoulder. I feel the mixture is getting heavier and heavier. I feel my muscle is crumbling inside my arm. I continue to use my strength to fold and fold and fold and fold until I feel like the mousse is pushing against me to continue my movement. Then I use my left arm to continue this folding process. Luckily, I am ambidextrous in the kitchen. After I finish folding in the Italian meringue, I still have to fold a huge batch of whipped cream into the mixture. The more cream I add, the more tired my arm becomes. My body heat is coming up from my back, I start to sweat. I have to alternately use my left hand to fold the whipped cream in. I also make sure the bowl is rotating while I am folding. But the mousse begins to come up to the rim of the bowl and my hands are getting some of the mousse too. The stickiness on my hand and slippery rim of the bowl bother me in every movement. I have to stop my work to clean my hands and the rim of the bowl. The hunger from my stomach always comes out at this kind of moment. At 11 AM, it is time to change our sanitizer again... I continue to finish folding the mousse with a rubber spatula to make sure that the cream and the meringue are nicely incorporated with each other. My body tells me my arms are not my arms anymore, but my mind tells me that this beautiful look of the texture of the mousse is gorgeous.

It is hard to maintain cleanliness for a large kitchen, so we decide to clean it both before lunch and at the end of our shift. Cleaning is another big task. We make sure all productions are organized, we have to scrub all the equipment, fridges and freezers with soapy water and then dry up. The handles are the dirtiest spots. Scrubbing handle areas one time is not enough. I have to scrub them at least two rounds with very soapy water, and then I use the sport towels to wipe them down one more time with pressure before I dry them up. Not finished yet, I still have to check the cleanliness of handle areas again before we leave the kitchen for lunch because people are still putting their productions into fridges or freezers with their dirty hands. At the end is sweeping and mopping the floor. We need to make sure every corner is cleaned up. When I sweep or mop, I always bend my knees and try to clean the best for the bottoms of our table tops. To make everything clean, nice and perfect is where I find my satisfaction. My lunch break is normally about 15 minutes. I love sitting down peacefully for some rest. The best feeling is when I know that I have already finished most of my tasks and I learn more about pastries each day working in the kitchen. I always end up exhausted because of the heavy production that was assigned to me, but just like some of the pastries we make, working here is bittersweet.

Liza Genao

Honorable Mention, Nonfiction
Liza Genao  New York City College of Technology

The Life of an Administrative Assistant

source unknown

I work for the Greater Ridgewood Youth Program in Ridgewood, Queens. The neighborhood consists of mostly Hispanic or white people. The population I work with are young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who are currently disconnected from employment or school. Working with people in that age range is a bit interesting because my age falls right in the middle, so I definitely need to draw boundaries at my job. This program helps them learn work skills, professionalism, and how to keep a job long term.

This program interested me because I once was in a lot of the interns’ shoes. I ended up dropping out of high school and got a GED and got back in my feet. I want to be a role model for people in my age range because we are the future. My job consists of doing paperwork, filing, and also entering information on an online system from our funders, the New York City Department of Youth and Development. The program is a 12-week internship where the interns are at our agency 5 days a week for 4 weeks. During that time, they participate in workshops to learn new job skills, how to write a resume, cover letter, thank you letter, as well as things like anger management, healthy living, and how to budget money.

Also during that time, they are connected to a worksite that is as close as possible to their interest where they will be doing their internship from week 5 to 12. At the end of the internship, a ceremony is held to celebrate them finishing the program. However, they are still connected through something called a follow-up period for nine months, where they still keep in touch with their specified professional advisor until they find a job or go back to school. Even after the program, we have Alumni events where graduates come together and reconnect with us.

Before the cohort begins, we are in the recruitment phase which is when my boss and I stay at the office and handle people coming in to apply for the program, the rest of the team goes out to recruit in the neighborhood. My job is to guide the applicants to the application room and give them an application and self-assessment. Then, they meet with my boss for an interview. After the interview, if they seem like a good fit for the program, they are directed back into the application room to take a T.A.B.E test which tests for the adult basic education level of at least a 6th grader. If they pass the test, they are then connected to a professional advisor who first reads their self-assessment to get to know them and then does an intake assessment with then as well as an outcome goal chart.

The rest of my time during the cohort is spent collecting timesheets from 30 interns every week and calculating their hours in order to do payroll. Doing payroll is a very demanding task because you have to make sure everyone gets paid the correct amount of money that their timesheet reflects each week and you have to do it by a certain time, however, I like doing it. I also spend the rest of the cohort making folders for each intern to put all of their paperwork from the time they first came to our office to the time they graduate for DYCD to do an audit every few months.

On my first day of work, my boundaries were tested because one of the male interns tried to follow me for lunch and flirt with me. I expected this to happen because we are so close in age. However, I politely but firmly told him what my position is at my job and we have to keep boundaries. I was able to let him know from the beginning to not cross that line but in a way where he was still able to interact with me on a professional level throughout the cohort.

Another experience I had was when a participant tried to blame another coworker and I for her pay being delayed. She took her time sheet home, which is against the rules, and I was unable to verify her hours for that particular week. My saving grace was that my boss and I do payroll very closely and I am very open with him about what I do with paperwork and when I am missing things that I need. Also, she sent a text message to another staff member stating that she had the time sheet and then tried to lie to my boss. I took the situation with a grain of salt because my boss already knew the facts of the matter but also the fact that this participant likes to make up stories was already known by all staff and it was case noted as well.

Julia Andresakis

First Prize, Fiction
Julia Andresakis  Film, Brooklyn College

Dino’s Diner

Tanya,   Dan McCleary, 2004

Lulu sets me straight within twenty minutes of my first shift.

“Listen,” she says, though she looks ahead toward the door and not even at me, like I haven’t earned her full attention. “Don’t get in my way and I won’t get in yours.”

“Right,” I answer. “I’ll be as unobtrusive as possible, promise.” She sighs.

We’re both behind the register, and it’s close to four in the morning, so there isn’t all too much action going on. An older couple sits in a booth in Lulu’s section, and she’s refilled their coffees at least half a dozen times. At some point, I hear them tell her that they’re good on coffee, that they’d rather be left alone for a while. She comes back behind the counter in a huff.

“They come here, like, three times a week, and stay for half of my stupid shift.” She still looks to a wall in front of her. I can only tell she’s talking to me by process of elimination: I am standing two feet away from her, and, though it’s gruff, her voice is low.

“They’re so engrossed in conversation,” I say. “That’s sweet. I wonder how long they’ve been together.”

“I’m pretty sure she’s a mistress,” Lulu replies. Both the man and the woman look to be in their mid-eighties. I see a ring on his finger and not on her’s, though that’s not incriminating evidence. Because I truly have no response, I say nothing.

We’re silent for a while. Five, maybe twenty long seconds. Maybe a whole minute. Lulu speaks again. “They don’t tip very well. Or, at all, actually.”

“Oh, that’s the worst,” I sympathize.

“The guy creeps me out,” she continues. “I don’t think he’s made eye contact with me once. It’s like he speaks to my shoulders.”

“Or your…”

“Yeah. Perv.”

We both take to leaning on the counter. She’s zoned out somewhere, thousand-yard-stare style, and I occasionally glance over her section as well as my own. On my side, there’s a woman in this smart outfit, this pale gray pantsuit, tending slowly to her cinnamon toast. She’s rifling through some newspapers with a thick red sharpie. At my last diner, I grew accustomed to professional early-risers, lawyers or brokers or newscasters, so I know to leave her alone to her work.

But after a few minutes, Red Sharpie flags me down by quietly staring at me, waiting for me to meet her gaze. Her nod is slight and I can’t explicitly tell if she’s asking for the check. I walk over to her.

“Can I have another?” she says, pointing to her plate.

“Another order of cinnamon toast, got it. Anything else?”

“Can I actually get two?”

“Two orders of the toast, got it.”

“Cinnamon toast, right?” she urges.

“Yes,” I clarify. “Two orders of cinnamon toast.”

She looks relieved. “Thank you.”

I smile and turn to put in the order when I catch her beginning to speak again. I turn back around.

“I’m just stress-eating,” she says.

“Believe me, I do that all the time.”

“I’ve got this case I’m working on and I’m off caffeine so I’m making do with a sugar high.” She takes a sip of her orange juice and her iced water, both glasses hardly touched.

“Oh, are you a lawyer?” I ask.

“I work for an adoption agency and they’re pushing me to approve this couple, but I’m not so sure they’re a good fit…” her voice drags off and she rummages through her paper, some local one I’ve never heard of. “Sorry,” she says, looking up, abrupt. “I’m just complaining. You don’t need to hear this.”

“No, no,” I assure her. “I’m always interested in customers’ stories. It’s a reason I love working in a diner; you collect all of these anecdotes from people whose lives you can’t even begin to comprehend.”

She carefully considers my words and nods. “So, I’ll just take the cinnamon toast.”

“Of course.” This time, I make it to the kitchen, put in the order, and come back to meet Lulu at the counter.

“Oh, I’m so desensitized to that by now. I don’t take it personally. And she seems pretty stressed out,” I explain.

Having nothing better to do, I wipe the counter with a rag.

“Sheesh,” she says. “That was rough. I hate people who yammer on to you about their business and brush you off the minute you respond.”

Lulu, almost aggressively, takes the rag from me and starts cleaning her side of the counter.

“Still, it’s like, we’re human beings. I feel like crap every time I walk into the place and I’d get fired if I was rude—“

“—More coffee?” shouts the older man.

“—Wait a damn second!” Lulu yells back.

She turns back to me. “What I’m saying is, I think it’s sad that we’re expected to just get used to subpar treatment. I used to try so hard to push back on that.” She says her last bit almost wistfully. It sounds odd coming from a girl who can’t be older than twenty-four, with so much resignation behind it.

“I don’t view it as a concession,” I tell her. “I just, sort of, aligned my beliefs with what this job requires. I try to be kind to everyone. I give them the gifts of patience and understanding. In that way, I’m the same inside and out of the diner.”

She sighs again, deeply, like her whole body is deflated, and rests her head on the counter.

“No offense,” she begins. “But I think that’s kind of pathetic.”

Before I can articulate a response, she collects herself and refills the couple’s cups. She goes into the kitchen afterward, toward the back door.

I don’t see her for the rest of the night, so I have to scrounge up a bill for the couple when they want to leave. They leave no tip. Red Sharpie, at least, gives me a couple of dollars, so I put half in Lulu’s jar.

I’m early for my shift some day the following week, and I go to hang my jacket in the backroom’s coat rack when I see something peculiar — a corner of navy blue nylon sticking out through the supply closet, caught in the door hinge. It looks like it could be someone’s puffer jacket that somehow fell off its hanger and got swept into the closet, and so I open the door. Framed by the gallons of cleaners and mops, I see a sleeping bag rolled out along the floor. “Hey, Rick?” I call out to the guy who runs the place, who I’ve seen only two or three times.

“Yeah?” he calls back from the register.

“Can you check this out?”

“Give me a minute.”

I’m still staring into the closet, confused and concerned and curious, when Lulu comes in through the back and gasps. I jump instinctually, thinking she’s spotted another mouse, but instead, she runs to me and I take a few steps back.

“Are you kidding me? I didn’t lock it again?” she says, kicking the bag further up against the jugs of bleach and closing the closet.

“That’s yours?” I ask.

“Well, it’s not Rick’s,” she mutters. She pulls a lanyard out of her pocket and frantically flips through keys and charms. I watch her do this until she isolates one and jiggles the door shut.

Rick walks into the room and takes a second to locate me. He seems surprised to see Lulu, since he’s usually gone by the time she and I are on the clock.

Lulu leans against the closet, bumping into the coat rack, and I steady it before it topples over.

“What’s up?” he asks.

“Nevermind,” I say.

“Are you sure?” he says, with a tinge of impatience in his voice.

“Yeah, thought I found a scarf that a customer left somehow. Turns out, it’s just Lulu’s,” I say because it’s the first thing that comes to my head.

Rick grunts and heads back to the register. I turn to Lulu.

“What’s the deal with the bag? Are you sleeping here?” I ask, lowering my voice.

She grabs my forearm and leads me into the women’s bathroom. I protest for a moment, but I can sense her urgency and acquiesce rather quickly. We’re standing around a puddle of toilet water and I look to the ground every couple of seconds to make sure I don’t ruin my white sneakers.

“Sorry,” she begins, throwing paper towels onto the puddle. “I only sleep here sometimes. When I’m too tired at the end of my shift and it’d be dangerous for me to take the bus home.” She looks up at me, the first time I think she’s ever really looked at me, with these pleading eyes. “Rick’s never here and this place has better security than my apartment complex, okay?”

I don’t know how to respond.

“Please.” She grabs my hand. “Don’t mention this to him, yeah?”

“Lulu, it’s none of my business. Of course, I won’t say a thing.” She exhales, releasing my hand to pat me on the shoulder.

“Thank you. Thank you. God, thank you.”

“All right, don’t cry over it,” I say, gently removing her hand. I glance at my watch. “C’mon. We’re on.”

We walk out and Rick is already gone, leaving the register unmanned. We head on over to the counter and take our usual idle positions. We deal with a slower morning crowd than usual because of the sudden hail, so we stand around in silence for close to forty minutes.

“I’m sorry for calling you pathetic,” she says suddenly.

“Huh?” I say, not sure which instance she’s referring to.

“That time last week. When you said that bit about giving customers the benefit of the doubt, even when they’re terrible to you.”

“Oh. That.” I wave her away. “You had every right to feel that. We tend to deal with a lot of crap.”

She opens her mouth as if she’s ready to protest me, but she stops herself. “I’m just so tired,” she says instead.

“Me too, Lulu,” I say. “The least we can do is make it easier for each other.”

After a long moment, she takes two clear plastic cups and fills them both with the iced tea in the dispenser behind us. She hands one to me and we tap our drinks together.

“To making things easier for each other,” she proclaims.

“To making things easier for each other,” I repeat.

We sip our drinks in silence until Lulu puts her head down. I follow suit. The diner is empty and the weather intensifies.

With our heads resting on the counter, we stare through the glass walls, watching the shards of ice crash into the concrete as the sky begins to lighten.

Sonji Chin

First Prize, Fiction
Sonji Chin  Psychology, Borough of Manhattan Community College

Scarlet Collars

Illustration for “Whores but Organized”,   Molly Crabapple, 2019

Electricity reverberates in the air. We, the lepers, ascend from underground stations to the municipal court of 314 West 54th Street. They will hear us. Side-by-side, arms linked together. We march to the building where too many of us have been detained for a supposed crime of our own doing. A court that sees us as “victims” but treats us like criminals, a justice system that punishes our labor and a society that demonizes us. Tension hangs all around, like the gallows that are inside of the building—waiting to strip our humanity away—if they even recognize us as human. We pull out our signs. We will make ourselves known now. One woman’s sign reads: “Arrests only save police budgets”.

Her eyes are hollow as if death has encountered her too often in her life. I think Maribella is her name, maybe she went to school with me. Someone pulls out a bull horn, calling for everyone to make some noise, that we will not be ignored.

They then chant, “Putas Pero Organizadas” and right after “Whores But Organized”. We, the crowd, shout it back towards the building, as the doors begin to open. Officers with machine guns start to form around the entrance. The air grows heavy and galvanic, something is going to happen. The officers yell at us to leave, that they could arrest us for trespassing. We chant back, “This is public property, we are here for our people!” The person with the bull horn says, “If anyone has anything to say, say it now and loud! Come up and I’ll hand the horn over to you.”

My heart beats in a frenzy, as I weave through the crowd, my sign in hand, taking the bullhorn. I look directly in the eyes of an officer, the one that knows me all too well.

“My name is Estrella Rodriguez. I am the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant woman, who worked as a nanny for my whole life. Taking care of rich children so I could have a better life in this country. My father is a Puerto Rican man who worked as a custodian for fifteen years at a private school so I could have the best education. I did not come from any wealth, I came from parents who wanted their children to live a life they loved. I went to Columbia University, an education that would change not only my life but my family’s. I was freshly eighteen when I went into my first semester, working in my education and damn near full-time as a waitress. My parents could not afford to help me pay, they had my siblings to worry about. They gave me their love and encouragement but I was on my own. Being a journalism major wasn’t cheap, and the more I worked as a waitress the more my grades started to slip. I had to turn to sex work. If anyone has a story similar to mine, please raise your hands.”

A wave of palms sprouted, scraping the sky above. My breath caught, as my voice turned shaky.

“It started as working in a strip club, but after that became too much to bear I became an escort. Men would come, treat me fabulously, pay for sex which only lasted for about five minutes, and would end up talking for the rest of the session. I would hold these men, as they would cry and express themselves in front of me. This was more than sex, this was intimacy. The intimacy that is not socially approved for me to express, just like it not being socially approved for me to use my body to make money. My sex work is work. The emotional, mental, physical, spiritual labor of my job and the fear of stigma and imprisonment were always on my mind. I know I am not who you expect me to be. A smart Ivy League girl, who is a woman of color and pansexual. The odds are against me on that. But an Ivy League girl who is a sex worker, people can’t seem to wrap their minds around that. I am dynamic, I have both my brain and body to guide me through this world. These two parts of my identity or any parts, are not mutually exclusive!”

Suddenly, the sky turns dark. A torrent of water falls from above, in big, fat droplets. The petrichor is released from the steamy earth. A sea of red umbrellas materializing like pristine poppies proliferating in Paris. A man from the crowd walks over, shielding me from the rain with his umbrella that we now share. I smile, this red umbrella being our symbol as sex workers, to be one another’s allies when no one would support us. We are strong individuals but everlasting as a community.

I whisper, “Thank you”, to the man and I bring the horn back to my lips.

“We stand here now to protest for the rights we deserve to have. The right to a safe work environment, the right to not be arrested by law enforcement, the right to seek out help and aid without fear of being charged with a crime. I am a part of Decrim NY, a group dedicated to ending discrimination of sex workers. Our goal at the moment is to pass Senate Bill S6419, also known as Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act. This bill amends the current law of prostitution and sex work between consenting adults in New York City, which is effectively changing the state of sex work in this country. My experiences of sex work have changed my life, I was able to pay off all my tuition bill, afford ever-increasing rent, and the ability to make my hours. Instead of being a slave to the banks, I was able to escort for my college experience and be free. I now write as a freelance journalist and writer in support of sex workers. Issues like LGBT, race, class, HIV status and so much more influence how we as sex workers move through this world. To the courts, see and hear us. We are your daughters, sons, friends, partners, fellow humans. To those in prison because of sex work, we support you and advocate for your rights. To the country, we are here. We will not leave. We are you. The more prevalent sex work becomes in the national consciousness, we will be here. Be on the right side of history for workers’ rights. To my last point, the relationships that sex workers have with their families if they have families, changes. My parents found out I did sex work after I graduated from college. Currently, my parents have come around to understanding my work.”

The crowd cheers and I give a small smile before I drop the bomb. Tears well up in my eyes, as my voice trembles with the next sentence.

“My big brother, whom I love dearly, the person who accepted me the most, did not understand. He stands before me, today, as an officer who is against sex workers, but now me. Abel, I know you hear me. I know you see me. It’s your baby sister. I am the same person, I am no less of Estrella than I was before I told you. I love you. I hope you’ll love me again. We, sex workers, are changing the course of history, everyone.”

I raise my sign in front of my chest that says, “Sex Work is a Regular Ass Job”.

“My sign sums up our work. We are not sinners nor saints, we are simply human. We have problems with our jobs, but there are also times where we are proud of our work. We wear our scarlet collars, like those in society wear their blue or white ones. This is our baptism of coming into the public eye, our red umbrellas are our coat of arms. We are not who the world expects, we are not ashamed of who we are. Thank you.”

The audience erupts in cheers, as I hand the bull horn to another speaker. The emotions overtake me, as tears drip down my face mimicking the rainfall. The man with the red umbrella sees my sorrow. He gives me a knowing look, and I just hug him. I don’t know him, but I know that we are a family. This life is not easy, change is never easy. Walking through the crowd, I stare back at Abel. I catch his eyes, but he looks away, turning his back on me. I hope one day we’ll be together again. At that moment, the rain lets up. A rainbow takes its place in the sky, as I wipe my tears. I stand with my brothers and sisters, waving our signs to make our mark on this moment in time. We will be heard. We will be seen. We will have rights.

Jovon Pryce

Third Prize, Fiction
Jovon Pryce  Chemistry, Hunter College

Packed Trains and Empty shelves

Human Fly, U.N. window washer, Bedrich Grunzweig, 1950.

Happiness is the manifestation of satisfying rewards, loving relationships, and fulfilling endeavors. It is no wonder, then, why you are not happy. Happiness is the root of all joyful lives. Without it, is life really worth living? Surprisingly, laborers have proven that they don’t need happiness in order to survive. They’ve become accustomed to waking up early and rushing to a meager job on a packed train—rushing to clock in. At days end, they scramble to collect their things—rushing to go home. When they finally make it home, they often find that they’re hungry for food, but money will be scarce when determination to excel has been expelled by disinterest in one’s profession. So, their cores are left devoid of food and fulfillment.

With a heavy sigh, you close the book. Staring at the bland cover, you hope that the hardback will be able to contain all the truly depressing information inked on the pages within. You can’t make out the title as it has been etched away by time, fear, and the hatred of past readers. Readers who could surely relate to the words on some personal level, as you just have.

A quick glance at your watch reminds you that you only have twenty-five minutes to get to your least favorite place in the world. You wonder if it’ll happen again today. If, on your way there, your mind will drag you to the future, where you’ll be standing over a still body lying on a flat table, and you’ll move expertly, scalpel in hand, carving to save a life. The thought fills you with dread.

If you are taken to that place, you’ll surely also think of that other place. The one where your sitting in front of a desk, pen in hand, expertly carving words along still paper. Ah, the smell of ink coats the room, and it fills you with peace.

Both thoughts will fade as the silence is broken by the ding of the trains arrival. You will stand along with tens of miserable faces, moving towards the doors. The crowd outside will part before rushing in to replace your collective gloom with their own. This is certain. The certainty of it all fills you with anxiety.

The look of the people around you makes you realize just how loudly you’re breathing. “Swallow the nerves,” you whisper to yourself. But it gets stuck in your throat and you cough. They’re staring even more aggressively now. Awkward. Ignoring it, you look over at the bookshelf, right at the empty spot at the bottom where you got the bland, miserable book. You smile at how fitting that spot so close to the bottom is for such a lowdown, terrible book. You stare at the emptiness. You think of your parents, who sacrificed everything to bring you to this country, far away from the familiarity of their own home. You think of their expectations for you; become a doctor, make money, save lives. Their hope sucks away your own. As you think of the hours you’ve spent toiling through medical books, studying, practicing, preparing, you’re filled with fatigue. But then you remember that they’re books first and foremost, despite the mundanity of their topic. A smile cracks across your hardened face. You look crazy, certainly.

“You’re very gifted at writing,” your teachers told you. They said it so much that you actually started to believe it. “Don’t think you’ll make any money doing that,” your brother and mother’s words, spoken years ago, echo in your mind. Alas, it was too late. Back then, you had already designed a makeshift journal by stacking loose-leaf and tying it together with thread. You made a practice of writing down the days occurrences in it and sharing it with your family. After three days you ripped it apart because something that now seems meaningless happened. Looking back on memories like that fills you with regret, occasionally.

They’re wrong—your parents. You are gifted, you decide. Maybe you can’t make money writing, but you’ll be a lot happier dealing with ink than blood. Probably.

Reason rushes to tear into you for daring to think of such absurdity. The safe thing to do is to finish college and pursue a career in the most lucrative, expansive field possible: medicine. Jobs are always readily available there. After all, people will always get sick. On the other hand, writers are like rats. Everywhere you turn there’s a blogger, a poet, an author, screaming to be read—to be heard. Nothing makes you any different.

Twenty minutes to go. You rush to the receptionist’s desk. Her hair is pulled back tightly into a messy bun, and her hands are working furiously, attacking some poor book with a ballpoint sword—pen, you correct yourself. She sighs and sets the pen aside, waiting for something to happen.

“Well, are you just gonna stand there looking pretty, or do you need something?”

It takes a moment before you realize she’s addressing you. The subtle beauty of a woman at work distracted you, clearly. You weren’t staring at the low hanging curve of her shirt’s collar—nope. Messy hair and sloppy clothing, the tell-tale signs of a hard-working individual, or a lazy bum; you’ll have to decide later, after you take a look in the mirror.

Somehow, you manage to croak out a weak, “how are you?”

She looks annoyed now. “I’m great, how are you?” You get ready to tell her you’re having a midlife crisis when, suddenly, she shoots her hand out to shield herself. “I was being sarcastic!..I don’t really wanna know, dude,” she admits. Quiet sets in. Awkward. Disappointedly, you let the silence sit between the two of you.

Sighing deeply, she states, matter of factly, “I was working on a piece, since you asked.”

Curious, you press on, “A piece of steak? Cause you were slashing that book to pieces…” you tease. She stares back, abhorring your presence. Her glare is matched by your grin.

“Let me read it,” you demand.

“No,” she shoots back. Her apprehension masks something. Is that fear?

“Why not? All good writing deserves to be read.” Your statement betrays you.

“You say that like you know anything about writing, kid,” she retorts.

Preferring not to give away your most closely held dreams, you ponder how old she might be. She called you a kid, because she wants to belittle you?...Or, because she’s old and miserable, instead of just miserable? But you realize that she can’t be that miserable if she can do something so passionately: hack at paper. Slender arms and a high-pitched voice tell you that she can’t be much older than you; however, the bags under her eyes and wrinkles nested in their corners challenge that idea. The corners of her mouth have wrinkles, too, the kind you get from frowning a lot. She keeps glancing back at her piece. A quick glance behind her reveals stacks of books, litters of magazines, and trash heaps of crumbled paper. It immediately registers that this poor receptionist is a writer. So, she’s miserable after all, you decide. A librarian gets to be around books all the time, but you doubt that would be enough for someone like her—or someone like you.

“I’m writing America’s next greatest novel, if you must know,” she finally says.

Oh! Intrigue races across your face. Disbelief follows. How could she be writing what you keep stashed under your bed, behind your adidas box of sneakers? “Yeah right,” you respond, hoping she’ll reveal more.

Feigning modesty, she shrugs and begins, “Well, I’ve been writing since I was four! I’m actually really into it, plus I’m a fantastic writer,” she gushes, “I’m not alone in this thought either,” she wags her finger to assure you of that. “My teachers have been urging me to commit to this path since elementary school...I was scared to at first, but I ultimately decided to, as you can see. This here,” she holds up what she’s been writing, “this is my pride and joy. I call it ‘Elephant Run.’ I can’t reveal any information right now, for security reasons, but it’s sure to change the world.” She finishes her spiel, smiling ear to ear. The smile fades when she realizes that everyone’s staring at you two—at her, really. This makes her realize how loudly she was talking and is now breathing.

Still, that doesn’t make your smile fade. You smile because when she spoke, her face lit up, her eyes shone, the little imperfections by her mouth and eyes disappeared. She was filled with happiness, certainly. Though she’s miles behind on her journey, she moves forward, cutting paper like steak, angrily responding to guests, proudly telling her life story to strangers. The thought of it fills you with hope.

Just as everyone is ready to return to their boring old lives, you laugh hysterically. All eyes shoot back at you. She winces, embarrassed for you and herself. “I think you’re a fantastic writer,” you exclaim. Her cheeks flush a rosy red and her sanguine lips part to say, “How would you know? You haven’t even read my work...” Her response speaks volumes, though she whispers it. Despite how confidently she spoke before, there’s still uncertainty underneath her facade.

Placing a hand gently over hers, the one clasping the piece, you answer, “Because you seem happy doing it.” Your answer is more for you than it is for her; it’s something that you wish someone would tell you; that it’ll all be worth it as long as you're happy. Although chasing a dream is risky, the security of your low paying, monotonous job just isn’t worth the suffering you endure. Never mind the possibility that you won’t make a lot of money—you already don’t. At least you’ll be poor AND happy. Moreover, you might just make it big and become rich. Ha-ha, who knows.

The receptionist smiles appreciatively, and nods to your other hand. “So, are you going to get that before you go?”

You manage a confused, “huh,” before looking down to see that wound tightly between your sweaty fingers is that cold, old, depressing, and now truthful book. Had you taken it without realizing? Nevertheless, you were already running late, and returning it would take too much time. You could leave it with her, though she seems like the type to get annoyed by that sort of thing, but for some reason you want to take it. “Yes.”

Rushing out of the library, you barely manage to hear her yell out, “I promise to let you get a sneak peek sometime.” You smile, hoping that, that applied to more than just her book. Boy, was she cute, in a dorky kind of way.

It takes two swipes before the turnstile registers your metro card. Twelve minutes to go. The train takes two, what luck. There are no seats available on the train, so you stand. The book in your bag weighs you down, along with the name tag around your neck and pouch around your waist; you had to get dressed early since you were running so late. The train is packed. You can smell the homeless man sleeping in front of you, taking up several seats. He’s not the only rotten thing on board, though. Laborers, returning from work, reek of sweat and misery.

Come on, come on, you urge the train forward. DING. The train comes to a halt, and a resounding voice reports that there is traffic up ahead. A collective groan fills the train. The sound of people moving wakes the homeless man up. Pulling a dirty baseball cap from behind him, he gets busy. This is his job—begging, that is—and, boy, is he unhappy about it.

“Can anyone spare a quarter?...” No one responds, probably because he grunted each word as if he were angry that they hadn’t already offered up their wallets. He begins telling the story of how his life fell to such depravity. Tired workers turn their backs, some passengers turn up their music, but some naive persons tune in. You can see them listening intently as the man weaves his story. He’s just like any of you. He had a nine to five and worked all his life, but his job let him go. One day, just like that, his life went to shit. Pointing at several passengers, he tries to connect with them, to convey the point that it could easily be them in his shoes, begging for change.

“I worked for my employers for years, passing up on my own dreams,” he explains, pausing between words to cough. “It was a decent job, nothing to brag about, but nothing to cry at night over either—cough—I was supposed to be a doctor you know! Save lives and shit, now I’m the sick one—cough. Ugh, the irony, ha-ha... I gave everything to that job, because I saw it as a way to avoid this type of life. But it just used me, wrung me dry, chewed me up and then spit me out. That’s what most of them will do to ya. Especially when your hearts not in it. I’ll tell you one thing though… I’d rather be here than there! So, don’t look at me like that. Don’t look at me with pity. I’d rather feel your contempt… I was a hardworking man, and I still am. I’m not asking for handouts… This is just so I can get back on track to my dreams, really.” He finishes and wipes the spit that accumulated and momentarily moistened his dry lips.

A few people toss some money his way, holding the bills at the very edge as to not come in contact with his hand. The man grabs the money excitedly, taking no care to avoid contaminating their clean hands with his own. You laugh at that. It doesn’t seem like anyone else will contribute to his plight at this time, so he climbs back onto his bed. He is filled with resignation.

Fortunately, the train starts moving again. Later, the ding sounds again and you’re at your stop. The crowd shifts once more, preparing to exit. You feel something tugging on your faded black jeans—work expects you to wear completely black trousers, 09 black, they call it, but you’ve been putting off buying a newer, darker pair in an effort to conserve money. You look down and find filthy brown hands holding onto you. Cracked, dry lips part to say, “Spare a quarter, kid?” You are filled with pity. You rummage through your back pocket and draw out a dollar. Handing it to the man, you smile down at him and say, “Keep the change.” You think he winks at you, but he’s really rolling his eyes.

The doors slide open, and the crowd outside parts waiting impatiently for your misery to evacuate their den; instead you step out filled with the pride that comes from helping someone out. You can’t help but feel like the kindest, most thoughtful person in the world right now. Then, you imagine that you might need that money later. You think of how that one dollar is one-fourteenth of your hourly wage. You are filled with worry.

As you get to work, you think of your job’s “three standard phrases,” the most important of which is: “Hello, how are you today?” It’s a polite way of greeting customers, even though most of them just ignore you. You think of how useless it all is. This sentiment is shared by most of your coworkers, even the managers. Nonetheless, you clock in four minutes late. Thanking God, or maybe the corporate executives, for creating the five-minute grace period policy, you rush up the stairs.

You pass the low hanging heads and sad eyes of some coworkers. Too tired to speak, they ignore you. You’ve barely started but you’re already feeling lonely. It forces you to think back to the library. You consider whether that receptionist is still working on her piece, carving elephants out of steak. It makes you smile. You nearly walk into a wall, “Ouch.”

The momentary relapse into reality lasts until you make it to the store floor, where a supervisor is waiting to give you instructions. Looking over at the stores advertisement for their new selvedge denim reminds you of the book you recently salvaged. Back into the library you go. Your mind drifts back to that empty, dark spot at the bottom of the bookshelf where you got that sad, unbearably honest book. You can hear the supervisor shouting orders, but you’re not really listening. You think of the space’s emptiness. You desperately want to fill it with something—a book! Yes, to fill that space with your own book would be marvelous. A good book, too. Something cheerful, nothing like the one you removed. Because you are certain that most books at the bottom shelf are gloomy, you want to break the rhythm of it all. Because you wished you could break the rhythm of your own life. You wish your manager would stop yelling. You wish you weren’t stuck in a low paying, mindless retail job. You wish you could give the homeless man a dollar and not regret it later. You wish you didn’t rush to places. You wish it was a pen in your hand and not your pouch. You wish you could share a sneak peek of your bottom of the shelf book with the receptionist.

You desperately want to fill that empty book space with a book. That desperation fills you with determination.

“Are you even listening!? Maybe you don’t belong here!” Your manager screams, frustrated with your negligence.

Just then a customer straddles over. Your manager is right, no doubt. You don’t belong there. He doesn’t belong there either. He just isn’t brave enough to admit it. He waits for an answer, but, instead, you turn to the customer. Taking in a deep breath, you steady your heart rate, preparing yourself, and finally you shout, “HELLO, HOW ARE YOU TODAY?” The customer, manager, receptionist, and you, are all filled with confusion—for now, at least, that much is certain.

The pain of your job, sadness of the homeless man, misery of the train laborers, emptiness of the bookshelf, the hope of the receptionist’s dream, as well as your own, fills you. It all fills you.

Liza Genao

Honorable Mention, Fiction
Liza Genao  New York City College of Technology

The Life of an Administrative Assistant

source unknown

I work for the Greater Ridgewood Youth Program in Ridgewood, Queens. The neighborhood consists of mostly Hispanic or white people. The population I work with are young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who are currently disconnected from employment or school. Working with people in that age range is a bit interesting because my age falls right in the middle, so I definitely need to draw boundaries at my job. This program helps them learn work skills, professionalism, and how to keep a job long term.

This program interested me because I once was in a lot of the interns’ shoes. I ended up dropping out of high school and got a GED and got back in my feet. I want to be a role model for people in my age range because we are the future. My job consists of doing paperwork, filing, and also entering information on an online system from our funders, the New York City Department of Youth and Development. The program is a 12-week internship where the interns are at our agency 5 days a week for 4 weeks. During that time, they participate in workshops to learn new job skills, how to write a resume, cover letter, thank you letter, as well as things like anger management, healthy living, and how to budget money.

Also during that time, they are connected to a worksite that is as close as possible to their interest where they will be doing their internship from week 5 to 12. At the end of the internship, a ceremony is held to celebrate them finishing the program. However, they are still connected through something called a follow-up period for nine months, where they still keep in touch with their specified professional advisor until they find a job or go back to school. Even after the program, we have Alumni events where graduates come together and reconnect with us.

Before the cohort begins, we are in the recruitment phase which is when my boss and I stay at the office and handle people coming in to apply for the program, the rest of the team goes out to recruit in the neighborhood. My job is to guide the applicants to the application room and give them an application and self-assessment. Then, they meet with my boss for an interview. After the interview, if they seem like a good fit for the program, they are directed back into the application room to take a T.A.B.E test which tests for the adult basic education level of at least a 6th grader. If they pass the test, they are then connected to a professional advisor who first reads their self-assessment to get to know them and then does an intake assessment with then as well as an outcome goal chart.

The rest of my time during the cohort is spent collecting timesheets from 30 interns every week and calculating their hours in order to do payroll. Doing payroll is a very demanding task because you have to make sure everyone gets paid the correct amount of money that their timesheet reflects each week and you have to do it by a certain time, however, I like doing it. I also spend the rest of the cohort making folders for each intern to put all of their paperwork from the time they first came to our office to the time they graduate for DYCD to do an audit every few months.

On my first day of work, my boundaries were tested because one of the male interns tried to follow me for lunch and flirt with me. I expected this to happen because we are so close in age. However, I politely but firmly told him what my position is at my job and we have to keep boundaries. I was able to let him know from the beginning to not cross that line but in a way where he was still able to interact with me on a professional level throughout the cohort.

Another experience I had was when a participant tried to blame another coworker and I for her pay being delayed. She took her time sheet home, which is against the rules, and I was unable to verify her hours for that particular week. My saving grace was that my boss and I do payroll very closely and I am very open with him about what I do with paperwork and when I am missing things that I need. Also, she sent a text message to another staff member stating that she had the time sheet and then tried to lie to my boss. I took the situation with a grain of salt because my boss already knew the facts of the matter but also the fact that this participant likes to make up stories was already known by all staff and it was case noted as well.

Raki Jordan

First Prize, Poetry
Raki Jordan  Writing and Literature, LaGuardia Community College

Made to Maid

Negro Woman in Her Bedroom,   Gordon Parks, 1942

Mama always said Grandma never had a sense of rest.
She would get up at the crack of dawn
And iron and clean, and cook and scream
at cranky too tired kids.
She would set the plates—wash the plates,
prep the lunches, pack the lunches. Wait for the milkman
to come—clean the house, bake the bread, make the beds,
hang the sheets, thaw the chicken; And kiss the cheeks
of her children going off to school. Then she’ll go ahead
and brush her teeth—pick her hair, wash her body,
iron her clothes, eat some scraps, pack her lunch—
gulp down coffee, and run off to work.

“All that within an hour,” Mama said once, all that and off to work.

8 to 8 she would work—every day.
12 hours she would scrub floors, clean windows, watch kids—
feed kids, clean rooms, cook meals, shop for food—
get groped by bosses—get yelled by wives—dust the shelves,
wipe the walls, water the plants. Wash the clothes—spread the sheets,
brush the dogs—tame the cats—walk the pets—organize labels—stack cans,
deliver messages, write letters, read stories, sew clothes—patch coats.
Cracked her back—popped her knuckles –
repeat –
        repeat –
                repeat –

Then she’ll go home
And do everything over again—
but faster, less obedient, more stern—more tired,
less patient, less powerless, more wrinkles, more back pain,
less sleep, less time, more aches, more hate—less rest—
less rest—
        repeat –
                repeat –
                        repeat –

Mama always said Grandma never did smile,
And when she did, she found herself descending into heaven;
disbursing from her weary too tired body, into the abyss of formless

Isley Jean Pierre

Second Prize, Poetry
Aminata Gueye  Lehman College

Inside Adja’s Salon   Oulimata Ba,, 2015

The Stories We Tell Across the Atlantic

Three teenage boys with dark skin sit on cracked beige steps laughing in front of their apartment buildings
An older woman in a light blue dress and matching headscarf sits in a folding chair
outside a ninety-nine cent store and braiding shop

She adjusts her wax fabric dress, with hands adorned with dark henna tattoos
when a possible customer walks by
Brisk, cold air carries the sound of the Wolof language as calm chatter
throughout 116th street in Harlem

She yells, “Ready Miss?” To any woman with dusty brown skin
That passes by her quickly
Cracked hands holding out a thin business card
“Aïssatou’s African Hair Braiding”

We know her and we know her story
Beginning her day with whispered prayers
In the Middle, she braids, twists with shoulders hunched and an aching neck
And Ends her day with strained wrists, stirring the family dinner in a pot

In the shop, she sits among a mountain
Packets of braiding hair and conditioner
The broken heater at the corner taunts her of
The stifling heat of Senegal she misses so much

We know her and we know her story
The one she tells us when we complain about America
The one she tells herself when she misses family or an ancient village
she left behind for a better life

“There was an undocumented man a few years ago; An African
He lived in the Bronx, not far from the Yankee stadium
Everyday, for years and years he would pray, beg to God
To get his papers to go home, His Green Card

One day at work though, his home caught on fire
His wife called him as the flames burned
Told him that her and their kids, there was no way out
When he made it home, there was nothing left but gray smoke

His neighborhood raised money for him
And they gave him his papers to bury his family back home
We all pray for our papers, we all beg to see our families but he didn’t know his documents
Would be because of what happened, right?”

She tells this story as her feet burn from the eight hours of standing
And when her spine feels twisted and mangled
Reaching around an afro to braid into a cornrow
She tells this story when her fingers remain stiff, telling her they cannot go on

She tells this story when her Immigration lawyer tells her
To be please be patient
And when her sisters call her across the Atlantic
Asking “when will you come home?”

She tells me this story regularly, my mom
Perhaps she believes I forgot,
Most of all though, she tells it to herself
So she can wake up tomorrow, ready to work again

Ilana Blumenthal

Third Prize, Poetry
Ilana Blumenthal  Queens College

Celestial Bodies

Occupation: Manufacturing: Iron Products,   Joshua Dylan Brauns, 1990s, LaborArts

My mother came of age in an America
fixated on the sky,
and she had been facing upwards
well before Armstrong found his footing.
You see,

my mother was made for math
and between triple-checked equations
and a scorn for gravity,
her fingers have scraped the sky—

I was born after.

after my mother’s neck ached
from watching men rise,

and her voice grew hoarse
from being spoken over and keeping quiet—

after the moondust settled,
and it was a man’s footprint left behind.

At 6 pounds and 11 ounces,
she thought I deserved all the stars
in the sky,

but thought nothing of whether she did too.

I was the third time she saw the universe expand—
the moon landing, my sister and me—
each sublime and cataclysmic.

I was born two weeks too early

and two months
before my mother’s department
and job disappeared.

You see,
my mother and I
learned to walk tall
and speak up

and I am still practicing to this day
keeping my back straight

Cinthia Encarnacion

Honorable Mention, Poetry
Cinthia Encarnacion  LaGuardia Community College

The Women of my Family

Collage by author, March 3, 2019

work, for me there is no better way to describe it than the image of my mother every day getting up at 5 am to take the bus, then the train and walk a block to her work. Her perseverance and fighting spirit when she leaves for another job and when she finally arrives home disheveled, with her feet swollen and her eyelids drooping, she still has time to give me a smile and help me in whatever I need. The image of my grandmother preparing the food, serving the table, washing the dishes in a house that is not hers, because that is her job, taking care of others with vocation and dedication, but who cares for her on the way home? When the cold winter breeze hits your face and the long way home wears your bones. Just as my aunts take care of my little cousins, they wash and iron each piece of their little clothes with love and devotion, bathe them, dress them, fix their hair every day, prepare their lunch boxes to take them to Daycare before going to work. They do all this and much more without neglecting their role as mothers, daughters and sisters, they are still women and for me there is no better example of overcoming, work and effort than they, the women of my family … Dedicated to my mother who teaches me every day to get up and raise my voice for what I think is fair, to my grandmother for her good example of persisting and never giving up, but especially to all those other women who like women of my family are “Home Attendant” because that is much more than just a job.

Briana Calderon-Navarro

First Prize, Visual Arts
Briana Calderon-Navarro  Studio Art, Hunter College


Chasing Threads Home  installation and video.

A desire to examine my role as an artist trapped within a global economic system that defines the world in capitalist terms, has led me to connect my personal history to video and installation art. This is a three-part installation titled Chasing Threads Home, consisting of two handmade swimming pools and a five-minute video documentary. The video is essential to my artistic process, and I hope this component will be reviewed as part of my submission to the Labor Arts Contest. Please take a moment to watch the video here.

The clothing on the floor comes from a donation outlet warehouse that sells garments by the pound. I scrounged these bins for clothing made in Latin American countries affected by United States imperialism. My findings are displayed here: children’s clothes made in Guatemala, denim from Mexico, abandoned shirts from the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. My objective is to visually identify the way capitalism treats the other. These textiles remind me that the United States welcomes the labor of Latinx people into its economy, while simultaneously enforcing immigration policies that dehumanize working-class people of Hispanic origin.

I am a witness to the challenges my parents faced after immigrating here from Mexico. Through my art I expose these familial wounds. In 2014, my father could not afford to refill his heart medication and he passed away from a heart attack. The painting on the wall represents his struggles with debt, and how grief impacted my journey. Together, the two works in this installation create a mirror effect: the images loosely reflect each other to convey that the story of one individual is usually more than an isolated incident. When approached from a multinational context, local tragedies become amplified by systemic sociopolitical issues.

Second Prize, Visual Arts
Areeba Zanub  English, Brooklyn College


Made In  Prismacolor pencil.

April 24, 2013 the Dhaka garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed. 2,500 injured and 1,134 men and women died. And before their death? A life of exploitation, making $0.13 hourly for garments that would sell for way more. I watched the documentary “The True Cost” in my Anthropology class and the phrase “Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying” made me feel guilty. With mass consumerism around the world, fast fashion constantly surrounds us daily, and many people including myself have knowingly/unknowingly bought from a company that exploits workers and resells their cheap labor for much more.

“Made In” (8.5" x 11") is a piece that recognizes the cheap labor that goes on in the fast fashion industry and the Dhaka garment factory disaster. I used Prismacolor pencils to draw the man in the piece, and then collaged some of the “made in ___” labels onto his desk where he is working. The man’s shirt is not visible because many who work in these factories cannot even afford the brand they are producing themselves! We read these “made in” labels and forget that they were sewn on by individuals working in harsh conditions, risking their lives and barely making ends meet. They’re goal is survival and when we shop at these brands we are paying for their exploitation.

Creating art (in any form) about issues such as these merges aesthetics and social justice together, this is what I wanted to do with “Made In.”

Third Prize, Visual Arts
Sigrid Stode  Art and Design, Queensborough Community College


Carrier of Peace  Ink and markers.

This is a Pointillism ink-drawing with marker coloring made on 130 g/m2 and 20.3 x 25.4 cm paper with 0.20 mm Pigma micron pen and alcohol-based markers.

In the artwork I have submitted I wanted to depict labor workers role in the peaceful and beautiful moments we have in life. Construction workers are the labor work I have chosen to give extra attention in my drawing. In contrast to the chaos and noise that is often present at a construction site I have chosen to make a peaceful and beautiful scene to symbolize the actual result of these labor workers important jobs. It makes me so sad to think of the struggle that is associated with these jobs and I strongly believe a big part of their struggle is a result of the role they have in society being so underappreciated by our current culture. By putting the labor worker under this scene, I intended to show both the crucial part labor workers have in a working society and also how they are “invisible” because of how they’re unappreciated and taken for granted by society. In an ideal world this image is different; labor work is SEEN by society as the crucial part it has in a working and peaceful world and labor workers are treated like people that deserves the same rights as any other worker.

Shuki Hasson

Honorable Mention, Visual Arts
Shuki Hasson   Business, Borough of Manhattan CC


Falafel  Graphic design for print.

As an Arab Israeli Immigrant to the US, I wanted my work to relate to as many people from as many backgrounds possible; I wanted to pay tribute to our New York culture, inspired by my own upbringing.

The work is a street sign that can be found at every corner of this city, it is simple and intuitive. The black and dark yellow stripes resemble the markers of a construction area, a place where every hard laborer has the same color regarding of their ethnicity, one that is a mixture of dust & sweat.

The word “Falafel,” written using three (3) languages (Arabic, Hebrew & English), has three (3) meanings. The first is the diversity that makes the human fabric of New York. The second is the hard labor it is associated with—the street corner vendors standing inside clouds of smoke, serving food full of flavor, originating far from New York yet has its own home here. And the third is the “A,” Larger than the rest of the letters, at the heart of this sign, connecting those who’ve been in this land before it became the US, all the way through generations to those who are setting foot in it as you are reading this, for the purpose that drives us every day beyond the basic survival—AMERICA!—A place for dreamers & a home for doers.


Background & Credits for 2019–2020

The CUNY/Labor Arts contest aims to give students credit for thinking and writing and making art about labor history, broadly defined, and is open to any undergraduate attending a CUNY college. Begun in 2010, it encourages students to write creatively and analytically about work and workers, to make art about work and workers, and to link their efforts to the spirit of LaborArts.

We would like to thank all of the students who submitted work for the 2019–20 contest, and to congratulate the authors of the prize-winning essays and poems and the creators of the visual art featured in this exhibit. All CUNY students are encouraged to begin considering possible themes for entries in next year’s contest. Guidelines for the 2020–21 contest will be available in fall 2020; the guidelines used for this contest can be found here.

The contest is sponsored by LaborArts, with major funding from the Workforce Development Institute, and additional support from the Consortium for Worker Education. It was organized this year by Rachel Bernstein and Evelyn Jones Rich (LaborArts) and Patrick Kavanagh (CUNY).

Special thanks to the judges: Betty Cole (Visual Art), Professor Matt Arnold (Poetry), Adjunct Professor Drew Pham (Fiction) and Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh (Non-Fiction). Many thanks to the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education’s director Lucas Rubin and his extraordinary staff, including Mohammed Hossain and Anselma Rodriguez; to the staff in Director Kavanagh’s office, particularly Arelis Berroa; and to LaborArts interns Shanika Carlies and Lisa Komilova.

Due to the pandemic, a virtual Awards Ceremony was held on April 28, 2020. All photographs are courtesy of the student awardees.


Making Work Visible—A Labor Arts Contest
How to enter the  2021 Contest 

Jonathan Yubi GomezThis contest is about work and workers. Written entries (poems and essays) need to include a link to an illustration (there are many choices). Keep in mind that paid work and labor unions are only part of the story—entries about unpaid work, immigration, family and community are also encouraged.

Who? Open to CUNY undergraduates.

What? Four categories – Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Art

How much? Two prizes in each category – First prize $1,000, Second prize $500

When? The deadline for the 2021 contest was October 18, 2021. Check back in December to see the winning works.

How to enter? Entries should be about work and the experiences of workers. Each written entry needs a link to an image. Each art entry needs a written explanation.

Written entries need a link to an image related to the themes in the writing. The image can be one of the images below, OR one of the images from the LaborArts gallery, exhibits, or collections OR you can provide your own image.

  • Sample 1
  • Sample 2
  • Sample 3
  • Sample 4
  • Sample 5
  • Sample 6
  • Sample 7
  • Sample 8

Visual art entries need a paragraph (100–250 words) explaining how the work shares the Labor Arts spirit. The statement must include information about the medium (painting, collage, sculpture, etc) and the artistic tradition in which you are working.


Judging? Entries are judged according to originality, content, and style, by professors who teach undergraduates at CUNY. Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in November 2021. Successful entries show thoughtful, original work on subjects relevant to work, to the experiences of working people, and to the labor movement.

MORE ABOUT HOW TO ENTER - IF the contest entry page is confusing, here’s a step-by-step guide to that page:

1. Guidelines tab - read the guidelines.

2. Participant information tab - enter the information (your name/address/e-mail/social media/mobile #/campus/major/CUNYFirstID/title of submission/category (poetry, fiction, non-fiction or visual arts))

3. Poetry, Fiction and Non-Fiction Submissions tab - If you are submitting written work use this tab (and then skip the visual arts submissions tab).

   ♦ upload your entry (make sure the title page of the entry includes
     the image you have chosen to accompany it

   ♦ in the “Affiliated Image” box:

→ list information about the image you have chosen: title of image, date it was created, name of artist

→ if the image is from the website list the URL (link) in the box that says "image selected"

→ IF the image is from somewhere else click the box “image from Source other than Labor Arts,” and then insert the URL (link) in the box that says URL (if available)

→ ONLY if your image is not available online do you need to upload an image file.

4. Visual Arts Submissions tab - Skip this tab unless you are submitting a visual arts entry. To submit a visual arts entry: upload your artwork; list the media you used, the dimensions, and the year created; paste your description in the box. The description should explain the work - how does it share the LaborArts spirit? Why did you choose this medium? What artistic tradition are you working in?

Questions? Just ask - we are here to help - Patrick Kavanaugh and Arelis Berroa at