In Honor of Work

Labor Day 2021, is a good time to reflect on the meaning of work. This post was inspired by a children’s story about an owl and a squirrel to ask the same questions of work and workers that the owl asked of the squirrel.

Who is a worker? Anyone that undertakes effort that in some ways benefits other people.  There are paid workers and unpaid workers, people who work for their families and people who work for strangers, people who work as part of a community and people who work alone.  Work is not defined by a paycheck.  That’s a job. (It was the squirrel’s work to keep cats from climbing trees and getting stuck, to slow down cars, and to store acorns for the winter.)

When is a worker? One is a worker when there is commitment. Even if the current job is not part of a long term commitment, a worker makes a promise to show up and do the work at hand, whether as a paid employee, a volunteer, or a family member or caregiver. Some people not currently employed are workers in search of an opportunity, or former workers who are enabled to desist from working by retirement programs and Social Security or who had to leave the workforce because of illness or disability. But most of them see some kind of work, however limited, as part of their future. Many retirees return to work as expressive rather than a source of income, embarking on second careers, care giving, or volunteering as they search for another source of meaning and community.

How is a worker? A worker is in a good space, satisfied and fulfilled when the work is meaningful, expressive, and appreciated, when the worker looks forward to the next day’s work (or night’s) as a place to feel useful and develop and practice the skills the job requires, when there is a sense of community and common purpose..

Where is a worker? In a pandemic era, that question is harder to answer.  Workers may be working from home at least part of the time, and struggling to maintain their sense of community of a group of people with a shared mission A worker, paid or volunteer,  is often someone who goes where his or her time and skills are needed.  This Labor Day we especially need to honor the US. Military who handled the rescue work in Afghanistan and the workers and volunteers deployed for the earthquake in Haiti, the wildfires in the west, the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. As well as the health care workers hanging in through the long and challenging COVID pandemic. 

Why is a worker? All of the above!  That was the owl’s important question for the squirrel, why he gathered acorns, teased cats, and ran in front of cars. This year marks the first Labor Day in my long memory when there was a serious labor shortage, creating an opportunity for those who are mobile, fully vaccinated, and willing to try something new or explore their options.  We may work to earn a living, but the kind of work we do as  workers, owners, caregivers, and volunteers is also a source of meaning and purpose, an important locus of our networks of colleagues and friends, a chance to develop our gifts and skills and practice them, and a way to enrich the lives of others. If your work is not doing that for you, perhaps it’s time to rethink what you are doing.

The Communities We Build Together

I have spent the past four years as co-president, of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.    I have been a member of the League for 53 years serving both the local and state League in many capacities. The League is a force for good, a place of calm and thoughtful discussion in a whirl of nose, partisan  rhetoric, ,and a lot of half-truths and outright misinformation on social media platforms.

My three daughters and I have given much thought to our chosen communities. For my oldest daughter, it is her professional association of college and university graphic designers, of which she is currently president, and Jazzercise. For my middle daughter it is the national and even global community of singers/songwriters and musicians. For my youngest daughter, mother of three daughters, for the past  dozen years it has been dance moms and girl scouts.  For me, it is my congregation and its faith tradition, my profession of economics, and the League.  Each of these has served to shape my vocation and find my place in the world to be useful, to find meaning, and to be grounded in community.

Each of these three communities exists to serve and promote shared values and purposes.. For the League, those shared values are  democracy and democratic process. The idea of covenanted communities in which decisions are not handed down by authorities but worked out in the give and take among members, who determine what values the group shares, what purposes it serves, and how those values and purposes are best expressed in concrete situations. The idea of covenant is a gift of the Jews and the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Latin roots of the word community mean building together.  The chief rabbi of Britain wrote a book in 2007 called The House We Build Together. A democratic nation, he says, is a house we build together. We build it from the ground up in the civic organizations, schools and churches and neighborhood associations that we have built together, learning to work through differences and find common ground. Some of that building is glamorous and exciting when League members get to  testify, lobby, and empower voters through helping them register and find reliable information about candidates and issues..  Some of the work of that community is as pedestrian as routine maintenance, painting the walls, shoring up the foundations, patching the roof, For the League, those tasks include producing the newsletter, organizing meetings, managing the finances,  attending Zoom meetings, and monitoring pending legislation.

At the two statewide gatherings each  year, members engage in community building—a celebration of shared values, a renewal of commitment, a pause to see each other as people, companions on the journey, fellow builders of the house even as we work together at our own version of shoring up the foundation and patching the roof. I know most of the 85 members of my local League. I have come to know at least 100  members of other Leagues around the state in the through my work at the state level. 

The League, along with church, family, close friends, and neighborhood, is my community. It inspires challenges, and encourages me to use my gifts and to learn to collaborate and seek common ground both within the organization and beyond as we try to influence public policy and protect democratic process against external threats. It is my hope that each of you has found or  can find at least one community that offers you the same kind of opportunities, challenges, and support.