Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Career Opportunites (the ones that never knock)

One of the things about being the staff representative for a union is that you end up being equal parts paralegal, confidante, shit disturber, therapist, cheerleader, and career counselor. Lately I’ve been doing a large amount of the latter.

I was thinking about that the other day, and came to the realization that career counselling needs to be more prominent, especially in indigenous communities. We need to have role models about how to have a career. The vast majority of us come out of homes where, if you were lucky, Dad was an ironworker or a factory worker, Mom was in healthcare but more likely stayed at home and occasionally went strawberry-picking or picking tobacco (if you lived on Six, that’s what your mom did). You might have had a relative who was in the DIAND bureaucracy, or aunties that were teachers, but what about other professions? Where are all the lawyers, the bankers and economists, the designers, the professors, the doctors, the journalists, the IT and telecommunications specialists? The answer is nowhere. We all know why that is, but it’s becoming different now. It’s only been in the most recent generations where the combination of post-secondary education, movement into the cities, and family stability created the opportunity for our young people to have actual careers.

I say this because one of my roles in my career – which I bootstrapped into out of a job, by the way – is to help people when they are in crisis in the workplace, and quite often, that is when they are faced with a discipline track because of some incident that happened while they were on the job. One of my units is comprised of perhaps 85% aboriginal people, working in various positions in the broadcast industry, and when they get in trouble, the general trend seems to be they simply quit rather than let me work with them through the conflict and deal with what’s happening in the workplace. Quitting seems to be easier and solves the problem right then and there, albeit permanently.

I think that’s interesting. We have spent so much of our focus on GETTING employment that we haven’t really thought about – or prepared our young people – for KEEPING that employment. Because one of the things that happens in any job is that there will be conflict between managers and employees, there will be conflict between co-workers, and there is a mechanism that the corporate world – like it or not, in order to be employed we have to abide by its cultural rules – engages in so that people understand their obligations under their employment agreements. Perhaps our backgrounds don’t prepare us for dealing with conflict in a healthy way – these things have been broken, lost to us because of the rupture with our old ways and the demands of the colonial process. Perhaps it is because we grew up with unhealthy conflict and we can only turn away from it in self-perservation…But whatever the reason, in order for us to keep meaningful employment, to have a career, we have to learn how to work with the conflict, work through it and emerge victorious on the other side.

That is the secret that white people have, the edge they have developed over us. White privilege allowed that to happen but now they have generational role models on how to deal with it.

Navigating through work conflict is important. Now I should be careful here, it’s a generalization to say that – and how many times does it erupt in the angry white dude bringing a semi-automatic to work and solving his problems that way? But for every crazy mofo like that, the vast majority swim quite happily through shark-infested waters and reap the benefits that having a career implies. And I’m not just talking about the monetary benefits – I’m talking about the empowerment for an entire community. For us indigenous types, seeing healthy role models out in our communities is crucial. In fact, I’d go so far as to saying it's as important as breathing for us right now.

Sure it’s hard work and it’s not without its sacrifices, getting and keeping a career, but dammit we can be innovative and bring to our work our core indigenous values and our spirit without surrendering to an assimilationist model. I am quite open about telling my colleages and members that I plan to infect them with my Haudenosaunee values and ways; the dominant culture should get more of it. This culture is built upon the bones of our ancestors; we have every right to be out there working and remaking the nature of work with our own indigenous toolkit. So for those of us who are doing it, we have to become the role models. There’s generations of our young people who will benefit from it, even if right now it feels like we are toiling in obscurity.

I know it places a burden on those of us who are out there doing stuff, but like it or not, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and we have a duty to those who are coming after us. It’s all part of our continuum as First Nations people and a value that everyone else benefits from. So let’s do it. Let’s be the role models.

(God help anyone who tries to look up to me... but I suppose there’s worse things in life than being a shit-disturbing, troublemaking, shoe-loving rock’n’roll union grrl).