The Exchange Project

20 06 2011

This year’s Peace Development Award will go to Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian. The event will take place on September 25th in Amherst, as part of the Peace Development Fund’s 30th Anniversary Celebration. Rev. Ayvazian was the creator and first Director of PDF’s Exchange Project. She has been active in movements for social and political change since 1970. An anti-racism educator, published poet, and singer/songwriter with three albums and CDs in circulation, Andrea has been living in the Pioneer Valley since 1980. She is now Senior Pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church.

From The Exchange Project: Summer 1995

“The Early Years of PDF’s Exchange Project: A Look Back with Meg Gage and Andrea Ayvazian”

Recently, Exchange Project Director Kenneth Jones talked with Meg Gage, co-founder and first Executive Director of the Peace Development Fund, and Andrea Ayvazian, the creator and first Director of the Exchange Project, about the origins of the program ten years ago.

KJ: How and why did the Exchange Project start?

MG: The EP grew out of our grantmaking program at PDF, where we realized how weak organizationally some of the groups were. There were questions about whether they could even use the money; it was like putting water into a basket that has a big hole in the bottom. I remember when I was researching proposals I would ask groups what their budget was, and they’d say, “Well, I don’t know – we don’t have a budget.” And I’d say, “Well, how much do you think you’re going to spend this year?” And they’d say, “Well. As much as we raise,” and I’d say, “Well, how much do you think you’re going to raise?” And they’d say, “Well, as much as we can!”

KJ: What did that tell you about such organizations?

MG: Obviously, it’s impossible to hire staff, impossible to do anything with program planning like this. You’re reduced to planning a series of events. So I found myself doing training over the phone as I researched these proposals: “Why don’t you try this… have you thought of that… maybe you need to change this way of thinking…” It became clear quite early on, that groups really need the technical assistance as much as they need the money.

KJ: What kind of training was available ten years ago?

MG: The Youth Project had a staff of six around the country who were very autonomous in terms of their own groups. They weren’t available to go traveling or to go to strategic places and work with groups somebody suggested they work with. Kim Klein was doing fund-raising and boards. Nobody that I knew of was doing long-range planning or the talks on burnout that we gave a lot. We were very lucky to hire Andrea, because she developed whole units that really nobody had ever tried before. Especially around leadership issues, what she called the “seven deadly sins.” These really hit on some key issues that many groups were struggling with. It was extraordinary the creativity that Andrea had in developing the curricula and also the high energy level to get herself out there all over the place all the time.

AA: PDF invested in me, because at first the EP was just me. Initially, I turned to Meg, who has a background in training and performance, and who had been talking to groups on the phone. I spent days shadowing and co-training with Kim Klein, practicing with Meg, going to see Grant Ingle and every trainer we could find. We also evaluated very carefully what groups were telling us – and they were very frank – and we would change it when something didn’t work.

KJ: What were you teaching and how did you decide just what to teach?

MG: I’ve learned a lot from Andrea about the importance of a real curriculum. Real material is something to be learned, it’s not just group process. There is a body of information that people learn, and then have help implementing: I think that has always been one of the strengths of the EP program. The second great strength was Andrea’s natural instinct for constant evaluation, refining and honing down what you want to do, then looking back and seeing how we did. Our material was always under development. This was balanced with Andrea’s personal discipline and rigor – a real intellectual rigor that was expansive and open, not rigid.

AA: Our content was very clear – it was sort of empowerment through education. People came with “tool boxes,” but they were missing some key wrenches, like board contracts and development plans. We could fill their tool boxes with concrete skills, not just handholding, although we also listened. A trainer can just be a good talker, and people will like you and they will feel good, but if you haven’t got content and some kind of rigorous curriculum that is directly shaped to what they need, it’s kind of a waste of time.

KJ: What was happening in those first trainings?

AA: The unbelievably fortuitous thing that happened was that we were able to subcontract Kim Klein to be part of the EP. Kim met us on the road from California to Little Rock to Tampa, and brought her genius. There is no trainer like Kim in terms of background, authority, humor, presence, and experience. We got feedback that we worked people very hard and that we needed to play more, and so we started adding things like singing them to sleep with guitars and singing to wake them up. The energy level you wouldn’t believe – it was fun!

KJ: Who else was working with you in those early days?

AA: After a year, we hired Andy Rothschild, who worked part-time as administrator, and part-time as a trainer. Groups loved him! We worked closely with Kim for two and a half years and then decided we needed a full-time trainer on staff, so we hired Randy Kehler. Randy not only did beautiful trainings on boards and long-range planning, but he would also sit up late at night at trainings and discuss strategy and the Freeze with a level of wisdom and authority that was extremely significant.

KJ: How would you sum up your experiences working with the EP?

AA: The strongest feeling I have is gratitude. We brought a good program, solid people, a good curriculum. But it was the people. They were so giving and loving and patient. We stumbled a lot, tried things that didn’t work, so then we had to really revamp. But people were so generous of spirit. I worked hard and I gave a lot, but I received so much more back than I could have given in those five plus years.

MG: I think the EP training program is important because it acknowledges how essential it is that we constantly work on our organizations and how we relate to each other doing this work. The techniques and technical things are important – they embody what the work is about. The means are as important as the ends in some ways. So we need to continue to build organizations that become the way we think the world should be – the only way to peace is peace. We need to be what we are seeking and I think with the training program that’s what the message really is, that it’s here and now. We need to stop being racist, we need to build organizations that value people, that accomplish their goals and build a movement. I’ve always felt the training component has been at least as important, if not more important than the grantmaking.

AA: Those really were life-changing years for me. They made me so full of life about social change, what we could do, how many people are dedicated and tenacious, and endure, and what a heartbeat the movement in this country really has.

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Hotel Workers Still at Risk

6 06 2011

CREDIT: Associated Press, Yahoo News

The recent news about the former Director of the International Money Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the alleged assault on a hotel worker in New York, raises issues about hotel workers and a safe workplace that the Peace Development Fund began addressing long ago. In this 1994 article, hotel workers were organizing for better working conditions, confronting the use of dangerous chemicals in the workplace, and detailing the vulnerability of immigrant workers. It is equally important today to address the safety and security of hotel workers, not only in regards to management practices, but regarding the very guests the hotel serves.

from Peace Developments, Fall 1994, No. 37

“A Closer Look: Victory Over Fear”

The Hotel Workers Organizing Committee, Portland, OR

“I have worked in this luxury hotel for many years. Of all the people in my department, only three are eligible for any health benefits. The rest of us just hope we don’t get sick.”

“Whenever I use the chemicals to clean the bathtub, my nose starts bleeding.”

“The hotel I work at out by the airport decided to stop all employee food privileges. This means no employee menu, no employee receiving any of the leftover banquet food. A lot of the workers depended upon eating at work; it really made a difference for so many workers who are very poor.”

“If you speak up you either get fired or have your hours cut. What are you supposed to do? I complained on May 5 and I’ve had no hours since, even though I’m on schedule.”

— Workers from non-union hotels testifying at a public hearing, as  quoted in the Northwest Labor Press, Vol. 94, No. 19 

At a public hearing in September, 1993 workers from some of Portland’s Class A downtown and airport hotels testified before a panel of government, religious, and community leaders, including the Labor Commissioner and the City Coordinator of Refugees. With some wearing masks out of fear of reprisal, they described long hours without break, poverty wages, dangerous workplace hazards, employee intimidation and discrimination. The hearing generated an exciting amount of community support and public awareness of hotel workers’ struggles. For many of those at the hearing, the testimony was news. Few were aware of the horrendous working and living conditions of this exploited sector of the economy.

The hearing was organized by the Hotel Workers Organizing Committee (HWOC). Initially a project of the Center for Third Organizing and the Hotel Employees International Union, HWOC began in 1991 with the recruitment and training of young activists of color who launched an organizing campaign to address hotel workers’ struggles for representation. The hearing was followed by a Founding Convention bringing over 140 workers, their families and supporters to elect a Board, to adopt a Hotel Workers Bill of Rights as the centerpiece for organizing, and to celebrate a victory over fear in the workplace.

“Since the Founding Convention,” says Kyle Kajihiro, a leading organizer of HWOC, “we have built our leadership, forming committees to do initial contacts, surveys and so forth. Our core group are mostly hotel workers and community allies and families of workers – the majority are people of color, most of them immigrants.”

Hotel workers are among the lowest paid urban workers in Portland, many of them holding two jobs to support their families, many forced to rely on public assistance to supplement their income. Thousands of them have no medical insurance coverage for themselves or their families. And many of these, especially “back of the house” workers who have no contact with guests, are often exposed to highly toxic cleaning chemicals, without information to redress damage done – a form of environmental injustice that has been virtually ignored. (Ironically, for seasonal workers who do agricultural work, some of the very same chemicals that have been banned in insecticides in the field may show up in disinfectants in the hotel.)

In Portland, hotel workers are women and men of Vietnamese, Filipina, Latina, African American, Ethiopian, Brazilian and Eastern European descent. The majority are recent immigrants, many of whom don’t speak English, don’t know their rights, and don’t have the means to advocate for themselves. Lacking structures to bring them together in their communities, they are largely divided and isolated from each other.

The place of the immigrant worker in the context of our shifting economy is highlighted by the growing atmosphere of racism and scapegoating against poor people in general. In the Northwest, with the massive downsizing of the timber industry, immigrants bear the brunt of the rage of white male workers who have lost their jobs in record numbers. In a twist of illogic, as cities and towns turn to the hotel/tourist industry for survival, the immigrant working at the lowest of wages without security is seen as responsible for the plight of the unemployed.

“You see this sort of attitude in the workplace as well,” says Kajihiro, “in the comments supervisors make – ‘you should be thankful you’ve got a job’ – that kind of thing. People are divided along ethnic lines – it’s an intentional segregation. Front-of-the-house workers who meet with the guests, tend to be younger, Anglo, a more privileged group – their concerns are handled by management before those of the janitors, room cleaners, dishwashers or laundry workers. Back of the house, the policy is to keep people apart, even working on different floors. A supervisor may promote Filipinas while putting down Mexicanas. They tell the Chinese, ‘Don’t trust the Filipinos,’ and the Vietnamese, ‘Don’t trust the Chinese,’ and so forth. It goes on and on.”

Assaulted by racism, isolated in their neighborhoods, intimidated at their workplace, and threatened by unsafe working conditions, until now hotel workers have had no organization to bring them together or to help them address their grievances or alleviate their underlying fear.

“Fear among workers is so high it is really inhumane,” says Kajihiro. “To give an example: at the Red Lion Coliseum a room cleaner, Mexican and pregnant at the time, began to feel acute pains while at work. When she asked her supervisor for permission to leave, he told her to finish her work or lose her job. By four in the afternoon, the pain was unbearable. Her friends rushed her to the hospital where she had a miscarriage. The doctor told her it was a case of employer neglect and that she could sue. But like many immigrant workers, she was afraid and went silent about it. We find this is very common: there are many miscarriages, and we are looking into it.”

Visibility also means helping to allay workers’ fears of organizing. Their fear is well grounded, says Kajihiro, but is also the major obstacle to making change. Addressing this problem, HWOC organizes in the communities, going to where the workers live, meeting them through their social institutions: clubs, associations, churches. “Our endorsement by community groups is key; it has helped establish credibility with the workers, making the links with our issues. We hold meetings in the most appropriate ways. We suggest that people bring friends and co-workers to their houses, discuss the problems in their own language.  If this is too threatening, because it’s dangerous to be seen having meetings, then we suggest a neutral place – a church, a refugee center.”

“Our work does not grow by leaps and bounds; it’s very methodical. The real victories, the significant milestones, are to have workers’ fears transformed into hope. When I can meet individually with workers, have them share their stories with me, help them to get in touch with their sense of self respect and turn their fear to hope, this is everything. When you can do that with someone, that person becomes a leader. They may be reminded of the past, but they’re never going to go back. They become the leaders of their co-workers; it is they who insure the success of the organizing. We can actually change this situation if we stick together. This is social change, the kernel of it.”

As PDF connects with groups like HWOC, we find ourselves in a new framework, addressing a configuration of issues that results from the larger picture: the flight of capital at the expense of the worker; the creation and influx of new immigrants in a changing world structure. If, in the Northwest and elsewhere, the “green movement” had brought the fate of our natural resources and wilderness to the social consciousness at large, the realities of environmental injustice – racism, workplace contamination and economic victimization – have not yet entered the public and political debate. Organizations like HWOC are effective on two fronts: by organizing hotel workers to address unfair, dangerous and demoralizing working conditions, they are helping to strengthen Oregon’s labor movement in general; and by bringing to light the realities of hotel workers and other service sector laborers, they are helping redefine the agenda of the progressive community.

CREDIT: Associated Press, Yahoo News