The “Dignity of Work”

“How I wish everyone had decent work! It is essential for human dignity.” – Pope Francis

“A lot of jobs don’t allow you to be who you are. There is dignity in work only when it is work freely accepted.”  Albert Camus

At the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, there was great anxiety about the economic situation. Many people experienced lay offs from their jobs, and those just above the poverty line had slipped into poverty. Those in the “front-lines” were at the greatest risk for infection, as their employment didn’t allow for remote work. In America, there was no safety-net in place, under a leadership in denial of a deadly Pandemic, that has now taken the lives of over 1 million Americans and over 6.3 million people worldwide.

I was still working on finishing my PhD, and at the same time feeling the uncertainty of what was next in life. As my previous posts indicated, like many other students, I had to return to my childhood home largely due to that uncertainty and a difficult housing situation which caused great distress and disturbance after completing my fieldwork in Pakistan. I ended up staying in Wisconsin until I finished with my doctorate. Many students had to make such difficult decisions on where to reside during the Pandemic with University closures.

Upon completing my dissertation, defending, and submitting all requirements, and graduating in August, 2021, I made a very risky decision returning to DC with limited finances, no home, no stable income, no place to go. I needed to return. My “entire world” had been in DC for the past 12-13 years. And after a challenging and surreal “ending” to my PhD journey, I needed to get “my life” back. But I was at a familiar place, very similar to when I graduated with my Masters in 2009, when I decided after five months of applying to over 300+ jobs, I’d pack my pant suits and 10 lb labtop and head to DC, where I always dreamed to work and settle. I felt it couldn’t be so hard to find even just a research assistant position after I finished a tremendous PhD project with a stellar resume and all the experience I accumulated while doing the research. But at the mental and emotional level, my mind was at a state where I feared that I would have to be scrubbing toilets.

During that time, I happened to watch the limited series, on Netflix, “The Maid.” It was about a young girl stuck in a domestic violence situation, trying to find her way, without a job, and the need to take care of her three-year-old daughter. She eventually found a job as a housemaid, scrubbing toilets and cleaning homes. She was a creative writer, so she wrote about that experience, by hand, in her journal, as she did not own a computer. Bustle described this story as “an eye opening exploration of poverty in America.” I think this was a very important story at an important time in America’s history, and I believe many Americans could connect to her challenges at a personal level, which is probably one reason why it was trending on Netflix.

I know I felt really connected to the story, even though my “privileges” were screaming at me…from having loving and supportive parents, to not having a kid to take care of while being unemployed, having three degrees, and a strong resume of accomplishments and experiences. But I was grateful that I was having specific types of experiences that could help me empathize with that story that many people in America shared.

Admittedly, I did think that after my PhD, I would land something entirely relevant to what I was doing the past 15 years, in my academic and professional life, and immediately. I began the job hunt two years before graduating, but at a very slow pace, and with the Pandemic, the 2020 challenges, a consequential election season in the US, and untreated mental and physical health conditions, the anxiety and uncertainty of the future, and most importantly, the focus and the need to finish my doctorate, it became more clear to me that I wasn’t going to land something that would allow me to continue my academic and research agenda. This is very hard to accept. This has been so hard to accept. This has been devastating and utterly heartbreaking for me. I am still working on making peace with that, while still holding on to that “identity capital” I nurtured for so long.

I do believe, on that end, I may have to start over again. Not all the way. But in a lot of ways, rebuilding what I had built during my doctorate degree: the networks, many of the skills related to software use, research methods, theoretical foundations, and more. I will have to refresh all of it even now… after almost of year from my PhD Defense. I think. unfortunately, this challenge is also connected to the level of depression and cognitive trauma I have endured with the PhD experience + Pandemic life.  Achieving economic and financial stability had become the priority. I noted this in a previous post perhaps, but it was such a profoundly surreal and anxiety-inducing experience to finish my doctorate. Because upon finishing, with no idea on where to go and what I would do, as I noted earlier, I literally thought that I would have to “scrub toilets” for a living. After all that hard work. After all that struggle. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with “scrubbing toilets.” But my training shouldn’t make me believe that this was the only thing I was capable of doing.

And I did land something eventually, seven months after my final submission of my dissertation. And after 150+ job applications across various relevant sectors.

There is dignity in helping support a mission beyond yourself. It is an important reminder, but a difficult one after you complete a doctorate that was meant to advance your individual research. My dissertation work and mission prior to accepting this assignment was also one that had a mission beyond myself. A very beautiful mission I believe. And that mission remains incomplete. But it has not been aborted.

I think it is easy to forget where you were before. To forget how difficult things were. To see that the grass was greener on the other side and it probably was in some ways.

Sometimes, for some of us, that’s all we have. Work. Many would argue family or friends are first. Health of course is first. But I actually loved it when one of the Characters in “the Maid,” the owner of the house where she cleaned, noted this. Work is actually something that brings us a sense of dignity.

Work was the “Azaadi”, the freedom that I was seeking by completing my doctorate

Work is financial independence. However, I am not sure it is a freedom from social and cultural forces that form barriers towards our authenticity. In some ways, it should be.

Yes, I am accountable for where I am right now. We must accept our accountability. But also recognize that it’s not just on us, we have to work with the system. And I am completely worn out of a system that I feel had been failing me. I have to be fair to the system and be grateful when it is clear the system does not work efficiently for “people like me.” There has to be some accountability towards a system that works against people with disadvantages coming from multiple competing identity intersections, especially mental and physical disabilities, and coming from underrepresented backgrounds. 

I told myself that if I have to “clean toilets,” I will do that, not because I need to… but for the dignity. The dignity of a paycheck. The dignity as a woman for a sense of financial independence, of a hard earned day of work. Because it isn’t savings, it isn’t family support, financial aid, grant money, or loan money, or scholarship. It’s a paycheck from hourly wage work.

There is a difference of the type of work we pursue. The “Industry” world feels so different from the Academy. But you know, I was really dismayed when people wouldn’t qualify my PhD experience as “work experience.” It was Professional work. My dissertation was “work.” Even what I am aiming to advance from the research right now, on an ad hoc basis, is “work.”

I am working. I am working hard.

But there is indeed something different I have felt about hourly wage work, or full-time salary employment positions. Totally different. That is partly why it is such a hard transition to go from Academia to industry – full time employment. That is partly why I couldn’t do both, I had to choose between one or the other before, when I left my full-time position 9 years ago to complete my doctorate degree.

Similar to Alex in “The Maid,” I do consider myself a writer, even if others don’t see that in me. I have had many many courses on writing, and I have improved considerably, and I know I am in my late 30s now, but I know I have not reached my peak yet… I know I am not there yet with my fullest potential. In terms of vocabulary and grammar, especially. I have been told I am a “good,” “prolific,” and “profound writer” by multiple people. I have been told that my dissertation and first primary-authored publication are well-written pieces. I have been told that some of my blog pieces are powerful and well-written. One scholar read a poem of mine back in college and told me it was “powerful.”

I haven’t been able to convince myself that I am there yet, because I want to be better. It is why even after more than 20 years of education and higher education, I was envious of Alex after knowing she was enrolled in a creative writing program. I started this blog so I can hone my creative writing alongside my academic pursuits, as a self-apprenticeship. I wasn’t able to do it on a frequent and regular basis. Sometimes I think, had I done that, I could have had a small side hustle perhaps that could have helped me in between jobs/education. It was the writer’s imposter syndrome that prevented that. It was the mental health problems that got in the way of so much I know I am capable of doing …(which is why I think this is a larger problem) … same thing with that aspiration of starting a YouTube channel, which I feel I still haven’t developed the strength and courage of pursuing, something I have wanted to pursue for a long time. I wanted to do this all both as a self-apprenticeship and a service to others. Another writer a few years ago told me that I am good and that I should consider going mainstream. That really meant a lot, but in my heart, there is a preference for being “indie.” Still figuring this out…

Depression gets in the way of so many things. Including achieving your dreams. That and perhaps Capitalism. 🙂

Work, whatever it may be…washing floors and cleaning toilets. It’s work. I’ll do it even if it just gives me that 37.50. I’ll do it for dignity. I’ll do it for the humility and the character. I didn’t have to do it. But no matter how much I end up making and achieving in life, the experiences I had will remind me to always stand with the working people.

And I will keep writing….and writing…even if it is a Facebook post or on my blogs… I will write creatively….I will write academically…I will write on policy and politics… I will write as a social scientist… Even if I am not perceived as such...
Even if by day, after getting a PhD, I felt I had to clean toilets.

I am not the “Little guy.” No. Far from it. But then why, after spending so many years in a prestigious doctorate program, winning grants and scholarships, did I feel that I was only worthy of the most low-paying jobs. How could such a huge financial, emotional, mental, and physical investment lead me to this? This is what I thought.

I began my new job on a trial basis for 90 days. It was officially offered to me as a permanent position, a month and a half earlier. It was a better offer than what I expected, especially for my first job post-PhD. It is reassuring that people see the value you have and what you can bring to the table. I’m with gratitude that I was given a chance to do so. Even if it came from an unexpected place. Today, it was my 3 month anniversary today for starting this first job.

It is so important we take a chance on people and have faith in them… it is important that we dignify people with what they deserve.

I thought of a concept I read 8 years ago for a paper I wrote for a class, suddenly I turned my head towards my bookshelf, and went to the book and flipped to the exact page where I read it 8 years ago. I am inherently an Academic & no internal or external forces can take this away from me. Even if that work does not take in the training that we had the past 10 years or so precisely the way we expect it, it is okay to say that I am an Academic and a social scientist and still have gratitude and appreciate the dignity of the work.

There are times that I really miss the research, and much feels incomplete for what I have completed in the previous chapter, and I am not ready to close the door on that yet. I won’t. Even if the Universe or people are telling me to do so. And no, I don’t have to.  Nevertheless, I do remain blessed to be working for a beautiful cause that advances the academic and professional dreams of others. And I have to remind myself of this blessing of work when I feel something is missing from it… And I sense the dignity in earning. In Financial independence (even though it isn’t fully there and stability will still take some time). It was a pretty incredible feeling to be able to purchase my graduation regalia as my own, from my own first earnings on my first job post-PhD….

I never did figure out the work/social life/academic life balance before, so it’s okay if it will take time or if I never fully achieve it. There is a “dignity in work” that I’ve finally achieved after not having any sense of stability for 8 to 9 years. Its a beautiful thing.

While things at a personal and collective level feel like they are getting much better for us, we cannot forget the challenges of the past two years. We want to forget so we can move on. Most people do. Many people perhaps have and feel like they have to because of how bad things were. Understandable.

But I am from the school of thought that we can use our traumas for good, turn our pain into something that could help the public good. Two years have passed since the Covid-19 pandemic began. We cannot move forward without any considerations and lessons from the past, especially with the new set of challenges that are sure to impact generations to comes… 

Dr. Brene Brown helped me make sense of this. Even before the Covid era, I have always had a problem with the comparison of struggles and challenges. We talk about how we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others’ achievements, but this is a level of comparison that is not too often addressed or discussed. And I didn’t know how to explain the issues I had with that, as it was getting more apparent during the Pandemic. But at the end of Chapter 7 of her new book, “Atlas of the Heart- Mapping meaningful connection and the Language of Human Experience,” she addresses this dangerous comparison problem.

“Yes, perspective is critical, but sharing how we feel, even complaining, is okay as long as we piss and moan with a little perspective. Hurt is Hurt. And every time we honor our own struggle and the struggle of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results, affects all of us.”

So profound. I have always hated that one statement and all of its derivatives: “there are starving children in Africa.” So what you are enduring is nothing compared to billions of people around the world. I just don’t consider it productive or helpful in any way. What is the point of this? Does this really make people feel good or are we trying to shame people out of their own challenges by minimizing their challenges and making them feel bad? I think we need to take caution when connecting the concept of “gratitude” here as well.

Granted, there was a strong and more obvious resentment towards celebrities and wealthy figures at the beginning of the Pandemic and for a very good reason, as there will always be in crisis situations that reveal such inequalities.
Generally speaking, giving meaning and understanding our own suffering can help us remember the suffering of others. But this is something that needs to be worked on consciously and cautiously.

This quote in particular, from the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to how I feel about this:

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out…This is the way I’m going.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is a choice. And our personal traumas and experiences can help us make this important choice. 

May we never forget. I will never forget my scars from this time. The pain and suffering. The fear. The Anxiety. The Uncertainty. Some of which still remains. Because I know it will help me remember the others. And especially at this moment, after my graduation ceremonies, and finishing my doctorate which I devoted and sacrificed so much, it will remind me of the “Dignity of Work.” Remembering my own struggles and challenges will remind me to empathize with others in challenging situations, without comparison, but rather a “connection.” 

I repeat the “prayer” I wrote at the end of my dissertation acknowledgements page, and I will continue to repeat this going forward, even if I lose the “connections:”

“I hope that we continue to remain resilient, invest and enhance our social capital, and find empowerment, individually and collectively, through our connection.”

Peace, Warmth, and Blessings,

Your sister, Dr. Elsa

Warrior KQueen

“She wasn’t looking for a Knight. She was looking for a Sword.” – Atticus

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