Nobody is a Nobody / by Jahan Sharif

Photo by  Ghazal Sheei

Photo by Ghazal Sheei

Today’s Jaja in was supposed to be about why President Obama is responsible for my eventual departure from television. But that will have to wait, because rarely does awareness collide so violently with reality, as it did for me this past Thursday evening.

What do we do when we learn that power has been wielded unjustly, unethically, and forcefully to abuse another, more vulnerable person? That’s the question I face. 

Last weekend, I read Rebecca Solnit’s fabulous new collection of essays called, Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters. One of the pieces, originally published in Harper’s called Nobody Knows, is about the relationship between knowledge and power, and the circumstances under which the former becomes the latter. She says, “Perhaps it’s not that knowledge is power, but that some knowledge has power and some is stripped of the power it deserves.” Knowledge loses its power when it is held by people who are not heard or valued in the structures where they operate. 

I know this is true from my own personal experiences, but Solnit tells a better story. She starts her essay when she was eighteen years old. She was a bus girl in a diner, and was regularly sexually harassed by the cook. One day, while holding a tray of clean glasses, the cook grabbed her. She screamed and released the tray causing the glasses to shatter and make “a cacophony.” The owner of the diner rushed over and told off the cook for what he’d caused. “The glasses” she said, “were audible and valuable in a way that I was not.”

On Thursday, as I was coming out of the restroom, one of the cleaning ladies at the coworking space that I’m a member of stopped me to tell me that she’d just been fired for “not working hard enough.” 

The cleaning lady fits the stereotypical profile: She doesn’t speak english, is an immigrant, is not well educated, has few professional connections outside of her existing community, and she doesn’t work directly for the company that owns the space that she cleans (this is a very common setup). If she is like the millions of other unprotected service workers in this country, and around the world, then she works through a series of middlemen that decide everything for her: If she works, when she works, where she works, and how much she’ll make.

I don’t know the exact circumstances or conversations that preceded her and two other people’s firings, but I’m reluctant to believe that “not working hard enough” is the true reason, especially when I’ve seen all of them on their knees, hand-scrubbing steps and caulk multiple times a week. 

I also don’t know if she had planned to tell me she’d been fired, or if she told me on an impulse because we happened to run into each other moments after it happened, but regardless, I realized that in this context, I could be to her what they the tray of clean glasses was to Solnit.

So that brings us back to my original question, What am I supposed to do with this knowledge? 

Some would say that I don’t know enough of the story, that I don’t have all of the facts, and so it’s better for me “not to make trouble.” Others recommend I stay quiet because I gain nothing. Many would caution me about the risks I might bring onto myself for speaking up.

All of these concerns are valid, but Solnit has another important point. She says, “We talk about empathy and compassion as virtues, but they are also practices of valuing and paying attention to other people. In this way, we understand others and the world beyond our own experience. I pay attention to you because you matter, and if you ignore me, it’s because I don’t.”

It’s true, I learned of the firings because from the beginning, I went out of my way to form relationships with the support staff, deliberately working to counter the insulating tendencies of power. I said hi in the mornings, learned their names, and made conversation. And through my actions, I showed them that they mattered to me. 

But those aren’t the only reasons for why I’ll be bringing their stories to management in the coming days. These cleaning ladies and I are the same. For years, as a freelancer, I have been abused. My wages have been stolen multiple times, my employment can, and has been, terminated arbitrarily and without notice, and I am rarely given the resources I need to do the job I was hired to do well-- and yet I suffer the consequences and endure the blame for any work not perfectly done. 

This is what life is like as a nobody living in a world that values and protects som(e)bodies. If courage is a byproduct of empathy, then from its inverse-- the inability to make that connection-- comes ignorance. And ignorance has been a “dam holding back the consequences.” 

But things are changing. Those who are usually silenced are finding their voices heard: the #MeToo movement, R. Kelly’s accusers, the union strikers, millennials in Hong Kong, Rebecca Solnit, the cleaning ladies, home health care aides, the working poor, the upwardly mobile young professional, you, and me. It’s happening everyday, on factory floors in Detroit, in boardrooms in New York City, and in coworking spaces in Los Angeles. History proves us right every time, that when we work together, when we listen to each other, and when we stand together, we lift up that which we know is true: That “nobody is a nobody.”

Everywhere, USA
October 2019