Work is a charged term. We applaud people for their work ethic, judge our economy by its productivity and even honour work with a national holiday. For many of those who enjoy the ‘privilege’ of having work, there is an ambivalence around it. Work can be drudgery and soul-sucking. The Book of Genesis says work is punishment for Adam’s sin, and many count the days to the following weekend and their next vacation, and see a contented retirement as the only reason for working. Many, perhaps most, see work as a means to something else: making a living, supporting a family, and purchasing the goods that we are indoctrinated to believe we need. Ah… capitalism… which holds little interest in the quality of human life. Rather, a system for producing things to sell at a profit — the greater the better — and often not those that make a genuine contribution to human well-being. Indeed, often, quite the opposite.
In those situations, where you don’t have the choice to work or not, the agony of not working is more fundamental.
If, however, you are unemployed and living in chronic poverty; if work or at least traditionally structured work (with fixed hours under set conditions) is beyond your grasp because of factors such as a disability, lack of education, training or experience or due to a criminal record, you may not exactly relate to the above discussion. In those situations, where you don’t have the choice to work or not, the agony of not working is more fundamental. In an article on universal basic income, Brad Strollery captures the dilemna:
“One reason why someone might still want to be employed is because the workplace can offer a sense of belonging and purpose. People want to feel that they are part of something greater, and being responsible for a job implies at least a modicum of agency in the world, especially for men in a society that celebrates masculine ideals of breadwinning and admonishes idleness. Being unemployed can leave one feeling left out of the social network that many workplaces provide, like in factories and trade jobs where the workplace culture is especially tight-knit. There is also a certain stigma attached to unemployment because we are conditioned to associate joblessness with laziness. Employment in the Industrial Age has become so tied to self-esteem, in fact, that mass job loss correlates to an increased suicide rate. Unemployment is also playing a large role in the ongoing opioid crisis.”**
For me, much of the allure of The Working Centre in Kitchener is the focus on moving away from producing items that don’t serve the common good (the ethic of producerism replacing consumerism) and toward the opportunity to work in an environment that is soul-serving and life-giving. In Transitioning to Common Work, founders of the Centre, Stephanie and Joe Mancini, describe Work as Gift as:
“seek[ing] to create places where the work accomplished feeds the human spirit, allowing relationships to flourish and deepening craft and skill. These are tied together by finding the courage of personal responsibility. Work as gift is what people offer in the form of time, skill, and labour to make their community a better place. Work as gift respects the environment, blending social and economic activities in mutually beneficial human interactions…
Each person contributes to the work of the social good with his or her activity or presence. Opening to the gift of each person — what here she has to offer — makes communities more inclusive and often more efficient. The Working Centre depends on both paid and unpaid workers, all working together with a common purpose in mind. By sustaining welcoming and practical projects, our work is a gift to each other and to the community.”
It’s not just an ideal — you experience it while you are there. Throughout the three days of their summer symposium I attended last July, various staff members wandered in and out to join us. I have been in many workplaces during my 60-plus years of life. I can honestly say that I have never witnessed such a happy, enthusiastic, engaged and dedicated group of working people. Many of them have chosen to join and remain there while working for a pay scale that is less than what they would be making elsewhere.
1,500 people walking through the doors daily, people being housed who otherwise would be on the streets and accessing health services that they wouldn’t otherwise receive, a cross section of the community eating together at the Queen Street Commons Cafe, and so on and so on. The Working Centre goes far beyond the goal of poverty alleviation. They have built this gem based on what was perceived to be needed in downtown Kitchener and to the realities and collective capabilities of that community.
The Mancinis are returning to Peterborough on June 14/15. You are invited to partake in a community dinner followed by a day of mutual learning and exploration with Stephanie and Joe. We have an opportunity to sit together and begin to mold a vision of what we might be able to co-create in Peterborough. Register here.
Check out the Working Place Facebook page here.
* Carol Winter, who devoted her life to helping the poor, the homeless and the marginalized in Peterborough, had a vision of a community hub that provided work opportunities. She referred to it as a Working Place.