My fondest memories of graduate school involved organizing on behalf of my labor union for academic student employees. As a “teacher assistant” who taught my own undergraduate courses, I knew firsthand the widespread dysfunction pervading the University of California system. A proverbial house of cards holds up the introductory-level coursework at UCLA, where scarcity-minded graduate students fight to survive in one of the highest cost-of-living cities in the country.
Quickly, I learned the importance of organized labor. The most important lessons I gained, however, were not ideological or political. As I reflected on my UCLA years during this Labor Day weekend, I realized my insights could prove useful for reframing how we perceive the utility of labor unions in 21st-century America.
Everyone Is A Pillar
Before getting more involved in my union, I assumed it was a numbers game. More members meant more power at the bargaining table. But meeting fellow graduate students in their natural environments, whether it be the classroom or the laboratory, granted me insights into the diverse communities making up UCLA.
In order to learn more about Departments, I would have to identify at least one individual who would be willing to share their personal experiences and institutional memory with me. One day, I met a heavily-involved Linguistics student. During our long conversation outside the Linguistics building, I was struck by how her invisible labor upheld the community in her Department. From organizing socials with professors to connecting her colleagues with teaching resources, she worked hard to ensure the Linguistics Department operated beyond expectations.
Her stories touched me, especially when she shared how each of her colleagues contributed to the Department. One colleague brought snacks and coffee for the shared office space. Another would organize fellowship application bootcamps. Everyone filled in perceived gaps and addressed Departmental needs based on their interests and expertise.
Perhaps most striking to me was her differentiating invisible labor, which she defined as the tasks that she believed the University or an administrator should be accomplishing, and community labor, which involved the work that didn’t feel like work: Building an ecosystem with her colleagues.
The former should be compensated or taken care of by others, she claimed. The latter should be replicated across Departments to build mutually-affirming communities.
It might be intuitive to believe everyone should contribute to the well-being of their workplace. Putting this into practice in a heathy manner, however, is the challenge we should all strive toward. Rather than perceiving any additional task as "more labor," we should do the work that fulfills us, brings joy to others, and strengthens our workplace bonds.
Asset Mapping Is Good For The Soul, Too
In my experience recruiting new members, I had the opportunity to pop the English Department bubble. I met fellow graduate students from across the University and walked into buildings I would never enter otherwise. Without my labor union, I would not have met anyone from the School of Engineering, including Samuel.
Throughout my conversation with Samuel, I learned the unique issues plaguing Bioengineering. Initially, I didn’t assume we would connect on a deeper level than being two graduate students attending the same University. But when we touched on his challenges with University administration, I realized we were struggling with the same esoteric issue involving California residency. For the first time, we could vent about the bureaucratic obstacles that relatively few people in my Department faced. Over time, Samuel and I helped each other with filling out paperwork and connecting to the proper administrators.
As I reflect on the actions that led me to Samuel in the first place, I realized I was not viewing the myriad Departments on campus through an asset lens. I saw Bioengineering with low membership numbers, and I decided to approach its graduate students. After meeting Samuel, I began collecting information to reframe how I thought of each Department.
From an organizing lens: This Department has a large international student population, and therefore it would be beneficial to discuss housing issues. From an asset-mapping lens: The international student population in this Department can connect with that Department with a high number of Los Angeles residents to gain insights and mentorship. Moreover, these international students can potentially connect to other students who struggle with transitioning to the United States and support one another.
This approach not only benefited my organizing, but it also enhanced my relationship to the University community. Beyond associating Departments with academic majors and membership numbers, I began to see the human qualities that made up these communities.
“Theory Will Only Take You So Far”
When I reflect on my more negative experiences in labor organizing, I realize they often involved my brushing up against projections from idealogues. In 2019 when I began incorporating CSLAP as a nonprofit organization, I shared my newfound initiative with a few peers.
A fellow organizer scoffed and ranted on the futility of nonprofit organizations in a capitalist system. By extension, I was becoming part of the problem by spearheading a nonprofit in a community like the Rio Grande Valley, especially in the infamously inequitable realm of college access.
I received more than several similar comments from peers who projected onto me stereotypes of my Ivy League education (“You’re opening pathways to the bourgeoisie“) or my white skin (“That’s too white savior for me”).
Although these comments hurt at the time, I have since realized that these organizers were operating primarily on an academic theory of labor and organizing, with a tinge of left-wing politics. They viewed me not as a pillar nor as an asset, but rather a walking-talking class traitor in the making.
Frankly, these organizers were not productive. In addition to fracturing relationships within the union because of arbitrary purity tests, they did not have the fortitude to expand our coalitions beyond people who thought similar to them. I learned a lot from them. Primarily, how not to organize.
Most importantly, my negative experiences demonstrated to me the dangers of upholding the beauty of ideas before the needs of people. By grounding my community work in my love of people, I have found more fulfillment in my day-to-day work in my nonprofit organization.
Although I agree with the notion that nonprofits exist because of gaps in existing systems, I will gladly continue to fill in these gaps to make tangible differences in people’s lives and build the communities I witnessed in Linguistics and Bioengineering. Operating within imperfect systems so may strive to perfect these systems: That is the work.