Blog / 2019 / Job with Justice Travel Log, Part 3

April 8, 2019

I’m contributing to a book about collective bargaining and how it can be used by more than just labor unions. Since I’m painting portraits of the workers whose stories are featured in the book, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling to meet these workers and photograph them.

What follows are some of my notes from my travels. There’s a part 1 about West Virginia and DC as well as a part 2 about Mississippi and Missouri.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

March 7

The way the interviews have been set up is that I ask two questions at the top and then Smiley or Sarita (the co-authors of the book) dive into their list of prompts. The first of my questions is always: What is your favorite color?

This is practical for two reasons:

  1. It helps me choose a palette for the piece. (And I desperately need this help, because otherwise I would always default to “rainbow magic” which would make my portfolio saturated but repetitive!)
  2. The color question starts the interview off in a comfortable place, with a query that’s not too involved.

My second question is one I learned from a judge I painted at the beginning of my career. During voir dire, Janice Wilson liked to ask potential jurors in her courtroom: Who knows you best and how would that person describe you?

The answers are always more revealing than we might imagine, in part because putting words in someone else’s mouth allows us to talk about ourselves in an interesting way.

work in process by Gwenn Seemel
photo by Gwenn Seemel

In Philly, we met up with Deloris, a domestic worker. Her answer to my second question surprised her. She responded that, in some ways, her employer knows her better than her own family. She has been working for the same person for over 20 years, first as a nanny to the children and currently as a caretaker to her employer’s aging father.

The intimacy of the work Deloris does is hard to fit into our weirdly disconnected world. It reminds me a bit of what I do as a portrait artist. Obviously, the rapport created by my role is not longterm like Deloris’ but there’s still a parallel. She provides physical and emotional support on a daily basis; I make the effort to really see the person I’m painting. We’re both paid to care about people.

Deloris was in Philadelphia when we met up, but she’s a New Yorker, and she was involved in the creation of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights there. This law gives domestic workers certain basic protections that they had previously been excluded from, as well as the right to overtime pay and a certain number of rest days.

As part of the campaign for this Bill of Rights, Deloris explained that workers rallied under the slogan “Tell Dem Slavery Done.” This alludes to the occupation’s origins in slavery, while also pointing to the unjust conditions that many domestic workers face. The slogan pierces right to the core of the injustices that continue to poison our society. It makes me sad (because of the truth it expresses) and hopeful (because it is such an unapologetically powerful statement).

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