On Friday afternoon, I went into the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library to check out some digital media equipment (film camera, tripod, extra cables, mic, etc.) for a no-budget film collaboration. I hadn’t been planning on doing this. I had written the script, worked on graphics, found a last minute location, and was now figuring out the AV equipment we would need to do our shoot. I was anticipating my collaborators on the project would take care of some of this, but as the day wore on, I was feeling more and more like I was back in seventh grade and stuck in a bad group project. [By the end of the day, I decided to move forward on the project solo.]
The intake process took two hours: 15 minutes, interrupted by the staff person’s scheduled break, then another 30 minutes. For part of this time, my ex, a media technician at a university, was present because he was going to help carry equipment. He couldn’t stay the full time as he was just trying to help on his lunch break. So, it would be me alone, juggling our daughter, the stack of books she and I wanted to check out, and the equipment. While my ex was present, the staff member asked me some questions about my background, and announced, “Oh, so it sounds like I don’t need to tell you basics like the rule of thirds…” I agreed he did not.
The staff member then asked if I had experience teaching: I do. I taught ESL in Japan, was a Teaching Assistant for the University of Washington’s Study Abroad Film program in Athens, Greece, and more. He was excited, because they have a summer film program for kids where they guide kids in translating Newberry Award Winners into minute-long films. Would I be interested in teaching? Of course, I would be interested in being considered for any paid positions they may have.
“Great! The number of MAs [Masters of Arts] that come through here can be counted on one hand. I’ll contact you next time we need a volunteer.”
My ex heard it, too.
He heard me state I was interested in paid work. And the staff member said he would contact me later to ask me to work for free.
He did not make the same request of the Media Technician.
The male staff member saw a woman with a high degree of education and experience in multiple fields, who was already engaged in unpaid childcare at home, and thought: “Let me add to that.”
He’s not alone.
I have done my time working for “exposure.” I have put in more hours than I can count volunteering for social justice causes. For unfunded arts organizations.
I have been saying no to requests for my unpaid labor since leaving my last job: which in large part was because I was tired of being underpaid and overworked, and seeing my checks go in large part to paying for childcare.
In my early twenties, before I had a child, I had a strict diet of a can of corn, a can of beans, and a cup of rice stretched over several meals: repetitively, sometimes with burrito shells and cheese, because that was how I stretched my paycheck from the local community colleges I worked for.
It was always with the idea that if I worked my ass off then, someday it would pay off.
If I did unpaid or underpaid labor then, someday, I would not be struggling.
It was bullshit then. And it’s bullshit now.
I have passion projects that I will work on for free. I have collaborated on projects in order to build my skills in areas, or just because it’s fun. I am creative, and I like making things. Like oversized turtle and cardboard robot costumes. Or parties that celebrate women artists. Or logos for a friend trying to help refugees in his home country.
But when I have skills that others recognize are valuable, I want those skills to be treated as valuable.
I have invested years in learning how to manage a classroom, lead projects, write, edit, explain basic and advanced grammatical concepts, structure stories for a wide variety of audiences, do layout, design, and get projects ready for print.
I have skipped concerts and time with family because I was interviewing protesters in Russia, reading books on political science and law in the corners of libraries (and bars, which are sometimes quieter given undergrads can’t go there), writing essays and presentations, dragging the pen tool, cleaning work paths, and squinting at pixels.
I have spent years on phones and computers tracking resources for others struggling to make ends meet.
I have done the work.
I have proven my commitment to others and the community.
But a community that keeps asking me to work for free for some fake future reward down the road has not shown any kind of commitment to me. To be honest: if I accepted this opportunity from the library, which would involve a several week commitment, I would have to work for less than free. I actually would have to pay for this volunteer opportunity. It’s not free to park downtown in front of the library. It’s not free to take the bus there. It’s not free if someone else has to watch my 7-year-old so I can volunteer with teens.
It’s not right to make demands of women’s time and labor without fair compensation.
Especially if you wouldn’t expect a man to do the same.