By Emma Kilroy
Our first assignment as a part of this internship gathering worker stories was the hardest—interviewing people who work at Fordham.
I believe that the people who work where you live are some of the most important to get to know, but I found that out pre-established relationship actually made it difficult for me to approach the workers at Fordham. I’d like to think that I’m at pretty friendly to the workers that I encounter on a daily basis at school, but I was surprised and embarrassed when I embarked on this assignment to find how little I really knew any of them.
One woman, a guard named Myrtle, whom I greeted every day last year on my way into the field house for track practice, looked so embarrassed and apologetic when I asked her for an interview that she couldn’t look me in the eye. “No, no. . . too many students asking over the years,” she murmured, shaking her head. I guessed that she’s been interviewed before for similar assignments or school newspaper reports, and didn’t want to be treated as a project.
I found myself ashamed that I had only really wanted to get to know her when prompted to think about it by this internship. This pattern repeated itself with a few more of the workers I approached—the shaking of the head and glancing away that caused me to quickly apologize and excuse myself. I persisted because once I recognized that this barrier was present, it felt even more important to try to break through.
One thing that really helped me in my interview process at Fordham was the intercession of friends. My first successful interview came about because a friend who worked at Fordham’s fitness center introduced me to the security guard, Brooks, who worked at the same desk that she did. The introduction was a simple enough connection to bridge the gap that was present in a cold approach. This way, we started out not as a student and a worker, but as two people with a mutual friend, and conversation flowed very easily. Similarly for my second interview, a friend who knew Efrain, the security guard in her building, suggested that I ask him about the comic book he’s been working on. Starting out with that piece of knowledge and showing interest in a specific part of his story helped establish a more natural or comfortable environment to have a conversation, rather than sitting down with the purpose of a formal “interview.”
Introductions and purposeful conversation have been important facilitators in the other interviews that I’ve been a part of since those first few. In the case of the Gary Plastics factory, the union representative Ossie Soler was instrumental in bringing my classmates and the workers together and introducing some of the themes that our conversation would follow. The two factory workers, Maria and Milagros, were very eager to talk about their jobs, what the union does for them, and what they like and dislike about their work. Doing the joint interview also seemed to make them more comfortable, and they responded to and played off of each other’s answers and stories. This same sort of comfortable setting also facilitated the storytelling that we heard in the ESL class at the Center for Worker Education. The students in the class seemed encouraged by each other’s willingness to share about their past, and listened with rapt attention to their peers as they related the stories of their respective journeys to America.