What is DukeEngage?

 

 

Throughout my stay in Cape Town I have been asked multiple times what I am doing here. Most are surprised when I answer that I am working, and are even more surprised when they hear that I am working for a trade union. I think many people expect foreigners to be exchange students or volunteers. In truth, the DukeEngage program is actually more complex than just work or service, and I have learned so much more than I could have if I had just found a job here on my own. Being able to be in this city with such an incredibly insightful group of people has literally made my experience. They challenge me and get me to explore concepts and ideas I have never even thought of.

By hearing about their experiences, I am able to learn from what they are doing. The TAC (Treatment Action Campaign) girls have taught me about HPV, the WLC (Women’s Legal Center) girls about the decriminalization of sex work, team d6 (District Six Museum) organized an incredible event that allowed us to learn from the children in the area, the Sonke girls have taught me about gender based violence… I am not only learning from my own experiences, but I am also learning from theirs as well.

Our guest speakers have also allowed us to learn from each others’ workplaces. Each week, we invite a guest from work to come have dinner with us and discuss what they are passionate about. Each guest has brought up issues and questions that I had never heard before. By telling us about their lives and experiences, they are giving us a little taste of their perspective. Each guest has brought something new to the table. Mandy, from District Six, talked about her experiences fighting against apartheid and how she was inspired by Cuba. Sonia, a lawyer from the Women’s Legal Center, talked about the importance of taking on cases that could potentially change legislation by proving laws to be unconstitutional.

Even our daily conversations are stimulating. I love being able to hear about Charlotte’s experience in court, Rachel’s experience in Khayelitsha or Tunde’s afternoon with a homeless woman on Long Street.

I can honestly say that I have been truly “engaged” throughout my trip. I have shaped thoughts about both social and political issues, learned to apply lessons from history and gained valuable knowledge about South Africa and the world. I have been challenged, and this has taught me more about myself in the process.

However, a couple days ago, I realized that what I saw in the DukeEngage program was not exactly what was communicated on the website. One of my coworkers asked us to submit a quick summary of the program to be able to keep on file. I quickly got onto the DukeEngage website, honestly expecting to copy-paste the first paragraph of the mission statement to send it off before resuming my work. However, I found that the summary provided did not align with my experience at all. It was almost too embarrassing to submit because it made it seem like I was the one helping them, that I was providing assistance to them, when that is not the case at all.

Even though I am helping out with a couple projects, SACTWU has given me much more than I have given them. They have taught me about unionization, factories, worker’s rights and labor history. Through the Worker History Project, I have been able to learn about the country’s history through the personal stories of the shop stewards. They are the ones who have taught me, not the other way around. Even though I am aware that every Duke Engage experience is different, and that many are indeed focused on service, I still believe that the summary provided on the website is condescending. It is focused on “meeting community needs” and “providing meaningful assistance,” when it should be emphasizing how civic engagement and the community can actually assist the students. In the first paragraph of the overview of the program, the line “translating knowledge into service in unprecedented ways” stuck out to me. Is that not hinting that our year or two of undergraduate education is essentially superior to years of experience and often times higher education of our community partners? The list of “what the students have done” adds to this aura of superiority.

Even though I disagree with the information on the website, I do have to say that DukeEngage really does try to emphasize that we should make sure we are aware of the ethics involved with this type of program. Throughout DukeEngage Academy, we were told to learn from our sites and from our placements. This is why I was so struck by the content of the website. The program itself made me aware of the issue, but it is almost contradicting itself on the website.

Meeting Rani

Last week, SACTWU (South African Clothing and Textile Worker’s Union) sent Justin and I to Durban to conduct oral histories for our main project while in South Africa, the Worker History Project (WHP). The main goal of the WHP is to compile the life stories of the different members of the union to be able to weave together their life stories and the story of the union. According to the Project Coordinator (and one of our bosses), the WHP “builds respect for workers by exploring their most intimate self-reflections and giving their own voices and stories a wider audience.” By transcribing and sharing the stories, workers realize “the roles they played, and continue playing, in bringing about positive societal change.” The oral histories we are transcribing will hopefully make it into a book that is being complied for the 25th anniversary of the union.

 

Even though we had conducted two interviews in Cape Town beforehand, our Durban interviews were the first ones we did on our own. We were both excited to travel to Durban on what was our first business trip (feeling very old). We couldn’t wait to get to the beach, but we quickly realized that business trips are not vacations…

 

On our last day in Durban, we were scheduled to interview Rani Naidoo. Rani is a shop steward at the Playtex factory, which produces undergarments such as bras and panties. I was immediately drawn to this as I worked for a lingerie company last summer and was curious to hear her story. I soon as we arrived, she greeted us with excitement. As a shop steward, Rani is the representative of her fellow workers within the union, and it was very easy to see why she had been elected.

 

Within minutes, Rani began opening up to us and describing her personal experiences in the factory. She is an exceptional woman that is an example of how stable employment can literally save women. I found myself scribbling furiously and constantly making sure the recorder was working properly because her experiences and thoughts were so insightful I needed to make sure I never forgot them.

 

Rani had been interested in garment-making from a young age. When she was in primary school, she used her mother’s old Singer machine to make herself clothing. When she left high school, she naturally gravitated towards the industry, first modeling for a clothing store and then taking a job in a clothing factory. She has been making clothing for thirty years now. Rani ended up at Playtex because in 1976 she was forced to move. When she was eighteen, she was thrown into an arranged marriage with a man she barely knew. He ended up being abusive towards her and her children. After ten years, she couldn’t tolerate it any more, and with the support of her family, she moved to a different area.

 

Rani attributes her strength to her job. She explained to us how working made her strong again. She said, “If I was still in that marriage, still in that abusive life, I don’t think I would have been able to work so long in the industry. I would be a dead woman.” She told us how she was able to become a woman of her own, “releasing [herself] and moving on with her work.” She described her transition and the role working in the factory played :

 

We had this thing, if you are married you stick with your husband. We had to be respectful. Wear long hair, long clothes… Not like now you wear jeans and a short skirt. And I cut my hair! In those days that never happened, we were restricted. You can say I learned a lot working in the clothing industry. The clothing industry is my home.

 

Rani also believes that becoming a shop steward has shaped who she is today. She said that “from the weak woman that [she] was, SACTWU made [her] strong.” She described how her marriage had restricted her, but that “becoming a shop steward taught [her] to be a woman with power and to have courage.” She also described how her new strength allows her to be an example for other women in the factory:

 

You become a mentor to another woman, a woman who is discouraged in the world. I encourage her, I tell her she can be like me. I am an inspiration to people that never see the world. You get abused women, who don’t know how to help themselves. I was like them. With SACTWU, we receive lots of training. That motivates us and makes us who we are. We have more and more women in the industry, and more female shop stewards. If you go around, you can see.

 

I loved hearing her describe her love for the clothing industry because I share the same love. I have often been told that this interest is superficial or materialistic, and I often struggle with justifying my interest in the industry. I am torn by my feeling that it goes against my feminist values. I am obsessed with vanity? Do I care too much about appearance? But Rani proved to me that my interests are not superficial. She spoke about her love of the industry, about the different types of bras and the skill involved in making one bra. She explained how making one bra requires 26 machines and very precise machinists’ work. Rani showed us how her work and her passion for the industry changed her, empowered her to assert herself and enabled her to escape. Listening to Rani made me even more passionate about an industry that I had always been fascinated by. She showed me a different side of it. She essentially validated a passion I have always had, and showed me how it aligned with (and does not stand against) my strong beliefs about the importance of women’s empowerment.

 

 

 

Buy Local!

This week already marks my fifth week as an intern for SACTWU (South African Clothing and Textile Worker’s Union). I already feel like a part of the SACTWU family; everyone has been so welcoming and eager to get to know Justin and I. Even though we both have the same responsibilities and work as a team, we are both taking away from the experience in different ways. Justin is a Public Policy major, so he is interested in the union structure and operation, as well as Labour (note the South African spelling…) Law.

SACTWU perfectly aligns with my interests in different ways. I have always been interested in fashion and the clothing industry, so the union has allowed me to explore a different side of the industry. It has allowed me to see the clothing and textile industry as more than the production of a garment, but rather a way to earn a living and support a family. SACTWU has made me see the importance of stable employment, and how the fashion industry can provide such employment.

But why the textile and clothing industry? What does fashion have to offer that is different? First of all, the industry is considered a “job multiplier.” This means that multiple people are necessary to make one garment, and thus the one garment creates many stable jobs. In fact, it takes about ten people to make a garment, and one person to sell it. Also, a strong manufacturing sector is key to a developing economy, as it acts as a buffer protecting its economy from global economic fluctuations. Finally, the fashion industry can also help empower women, as most of its employees and leaders are women (future blog to come about this one…)

Working for SACTWU has allowed me to enter factories, meet shop stewards and hear their stories. It has allowed me to see how much people’s jobs mean to them, and how much they value the industry and believe in the union that brings them together. This has led me to realize how important it is to buy locally made goods. By buying a locally made garment, you are sustaining an industry that provides people with a livelihood. Buying locally made products literally sustains communities.

Buying locally is always difficult when dealing with imports from countries where labor is extremely cheap and workers are most likely exploited. The labor is essentially outsourced to be able to lower costs by having products made in countries where working conditions are not regulated. Working for SACTWU has made me realize how much this outsourcing has an effect on people’s jobs around the world. Almost every person we’ve spoken to has had some sort of experience with lay-offs due to inability to compete with imports. This means that even though locally made products are more expensive, they are supporting a (mostly) livable wage, making them worth the extra expense.

Obviously I’m aware that only buying locally made products is almost impossible. Especially as a college student, price vs. ethics is a debate that I still deal with. Being able to see the impact of the “Made is South Africa” label has swayed my purchases and made me more aware while in the country. I always look forward to finding unique pieces of clothing when I travel, and I am now especially mindful of ensuring that those pieces are made in the country.

As I have become more conscious of the importance of buying locally made goods, I realized that a brand that has received a significant amount of negative press recently is actually known for making its products exclusively in the United States. American Apparel’s slogan is “sweatshop free” meaning that everything is produced in the United States. The company operates the largest sewing facility in North America. They actively promote their business model, which “is not just about made in the USA, but is about designing a business that does not, at its fundamental core, rely on the relentless pursuit of low cost labor to survive.” They are dedicated to what they call “vertical integration,” meaning they integrate their manufacturing, distribution and creative processes to keep their company more efficient than those who rely on offshore sub-contracting. Many of the points articulated on American Apparel’s website echo what I have been discussing in the office at SACTWU. Even though I am not going to go out and throw away all my clothes and buy new American Apparel clothing, I do appreciate every article of clothing I own from there even more. I also think that many other younger brands should look to American Apparel as an example of a business that has succeeded in creating careers in manufacturing, not just jobs.

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Read more about American Apparel here:

http://www.americanapparel.net/aboutus/

How Much Patriotism is Too Much?

During our trip to Johannesburg, we had the opportunity to meet with Allister Sparks, a prominent journalist and author who has actively spoken out against apartheid throughout his career. Although many have contrasting views about him today (mainly that he is too conservative), many of his arguments bring to light interesting comparisons. The main thing I took away from our discussion was that the ideology and motivation behind apartheid are not unique to South Africa, but are present throughout the world. He discussed the similarities between the apartheid regime and other cases of institutionalized discrimination based on race. I found this argument to be unique because we often discuss apartheid as being a thing of the past, when examples of the same type of blatant racism are present in modern societies all over the world today. This made me realize how we tend to forget about current struggles for equality when discussing past issues, and how ironic and even harmful that can be.

One of the particularly striking comments Sparks made was that “Patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel.” Although this comment was clearly meant to make us think and trigger a controversial conversation, I do believe that it underlines a very important argument about the potential negative impact of excessive nationalistic sentiment. Intense national sentiment often emerges from hardship or oppression of a certain group or minority. This national sentiment can drive populations to then attempt to secure their power and position within society once they have overcome oppression. Many times they even end up reproducing behaviors that were inflicted upon them to be able to maintain a new position of superiority. The memories of past hardship become a motivator to assert their particular national identity. However, differing populations are therefore seen as a threat to this particular group. This leads to racism and oppression, which enables the group to maintain a higher position within society and ensure that they are not subject to the difficulties they faced in the past.

In South Africa, this narrative played out within the Afrikaner population. The Afrikaners felt that they needed to assert their national identity in the face of the English, who were imposing their authority in a land they had inhabited since the 1600s. This led to a series of violent conflicts that further reinforced Afrikaner national sentiment. Even though they were a minority, they were able to rise to power in 1948 in part thanks to this nationalism. The National Party (NP) then instated apartheid, which strengthened the position of Afrikaner culture against increased urbanization.

Another example Sparks used was that of Palestine. I think this example is particularly interesting in that many Americans are not used to hearing a different side of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He hinted that the Israeli population could be seen as a previously persecuted group of people that was maintaining their position and national sentiment by oppressing the Palestinian minority.

Even though I am aware of the simplistic nature of this analysis, I do find this trend to be interesting and worth noting. Even though comparison is often a useful tool in arriving to a deeper understanding of an issue, the struggles of populations are still extremely complex. These comparisons have made me aware of the importance of history and of looking back to learn from the past.