The Common Good
July-August 2002

From Timid to Towering

by Will Jones | July-August 2002

‘Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change
the world," Margaret Mead once said.

‘Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world," Margaret Mead once said. "In fact, it is the only thing that ever has." Watching the documentary A Day's Work, A Day's Pay will convince you that Mead had it exactly right.

The hour-long film, shot from 1997 to 2000, traces the personal and political evolution of three welfare recipients living in New York City who move from welfare to work through a program called the Work Experience Program (WEP). An opening scene contains Mayor Rudy Giuliani's claim that the program would provide welfare recipients with dignity and full-time employment. After watching A Day's Work, it's obvious that WEP was more about getting people off welfare rolls than out of poverty and into good jobs.

Jose Nicolau, who thought he was best suited for custodial work, was assigned by the WEP program to be a janitor. One moving scene shows Jose washing out trash bins. "Like an artist puts his signature on a drawing," he says, "I want to put my signature on the way I work." Jackie Marte, a 23-year-old mother of two, says, "All we want is decent jobs. We want to live like everyone else. We want to get paid for the work that we do."

Juan Galan is a former WEP worker who turned organizer when he was hired by ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). After experiencing extreme working conditions in the program and the harassment of people on the streets toward WEP workers, he decided he was "not going to take it any more." Galan began to organize WEP workers around a bill introduced in the New York City Council that would secure a grievance procedure, better pay, and job training for WEP participants.

AT THIS POINT, A Day's Work becomes less of a film about the struggles of those on welfare in New York City and more of a how-to video—how to change the world. The directors take us on a street-level, in-your-face tour of community organizing as we follow Nicolau, Marte, and Galan from meetings on the street with other WEP workers to city council meetings.

Interviews with people involved in the struggle reinforce the fact that each person in the film is real, with very real problems. During one interview, Nicolau shares his reasons for getting involved. "I want to do something," he says. "I don't like what's going on to me. I don't like what I see that is going on around my co-workers. I just felt I could do something to let people know they could do something."

After being stalled for a long period, the bill receives a push from a tragic event: Anderson Carter, a WEP worker at Gracie Mansion, the mayor's residence, dies from heat exhaustion. There is a long struggle to get the legislation passed by the city council, only to have it vetoed by Mayor Giuliani because, in his words, the bill would give people "false expectations." Political pressure exerted by the WEP workers eventually pushed the council to override the mayor's veto.

There were more than enough reasons for the WEP workers to give up along the way. According to Nicolau, who made the transition from timid to towering during the filming of the documentary, "It's not the oppressor we've got to worry about, it's us that let ourselves be oppressed."

A Day's Work, A Day's Pay was televised in April; the documentary is now being used as a tool for organizing around welfare issues by several national organizations concerned with the rights of the poor. This sobering film provides first-hand information about a system that too often gets boiled down to hollow political rhetoric. In light of the current welfare debate in Congress, it's a breath of fresh air.

William A. Jones is national mobilization director for Call to Renewal.

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