Working Rhetoric: A Mother to “Think Back Through”

My last blog will be a story – one of which I am particularly proud.  It is the story of my next scholarly project and it begins with my mom.  My mother, Charlotte, works, as she has for the past 26 years, as data registrar for a public high school in my hometown.  She is what is called a “classified” employee – which is the term given to non-college degree-holding staff.  This is a big deal in her world; administration and faculty – “certified” employees – are at the understood top of a very enforced hierarchy and often through the years my mother has lamented that her skills, successes, and smarts go unnoticed and under-valued simply because she is rhetorically, linguistically categorized as “less than” those individuals with university training.  I cannot count the hours I have spent on the phone, around the dinner table, over coffee listening to my mother complain about the “asinine” (one of her favorite adjectives of all time) and “chickenshit” decisions made by administrators – the botched policy and procedure calls of a dozen degreed men in charge.

“They never listen to us, you know, – I could have told Steve this new software wasn’t auto saving records – I brought the problem to his attention two months ago.  He’s a damn idiot. And he ignores those of us who actually know what’s going on,” my mother wrote in an email to me back in July.  (I told you I can’t count how much “complaint” I’ve endured).  When I read this – okay, skimmed this – I dismissed it as “Mom venting as usual.”  But then my mother did something downright rhetorically brilliant and brave – she used a series of emails sent to the “classified” list serve for her district to incite a change in her working environment, to illicit different treatment from her superiors, and rally her peers to help make positive change.

The first email my mother sent calls attention to the  “lack of respect, the inequities and the day-to-day stresses we have all had to deal with” and notes that “in the face of all this, [we] power through and do our best.  My heart is JOYFUL at the continued desire on the part of classified to be dedicated, consciencous (SP Charlotte’s), and supportive in the face of adversity and in some cases, horrific working conditions.”  My mom speaks to her peers directly, cheering “You are all to be commended.” She uses some serious pathos, illustrating colleagues’ woes:  “However, this has not all been without some casualities (SP Charlotte’s).  How many of you have noticed others around you on the brink of tears or gone home and cried yourself? Spirits have been broken and this is not acceptable.”

After drumming up sentiment from the masses of over-worked, furloughed little guys (gals in this case – 100% of classified employees on Mom’s list serve are female), my mother busts out a plan for change.

My mother, Charlotte (the white lady center) and her co-workers and firends, Maria, Xenia, and India who helped send out color reminders via email and Facebook.

“Well obviously, she begins, “as in any organization, tone is set by leadership.  We can do nothing about those around us who seem to be missing a ‘humanity toward humanity’ gene.  But we CAN show support of one another — not for any reason except because we care about each other.” Here her rhetorical strategy is clear; auger unity and solidarity among classifieds (who are notorious for backbiting, in-fighting according to Ma) in order to empower the bottom of the hierarchy.  “I am asking you to help take back our spirits,” my mom pleads,”and set OUR tone.  Let’s come together, maybe at first in subtle ways.  Never underestimate the power of ‘subtle’.”  The “subtle” statement of solidarity my mother goes on to propose is “together on Wednesdays,” which entails classified staffers choosing and wearing the same color one day each week.

“Let’s see if Admin even notices.  Even if they don’t, it will be a symbol and reminder to us all that we are all in this TOGETHER.  And let’s continue to brainstorm about other ways to show our unity.”  Clearly, my mother – and the nearly 100 district employees who have been participating each week – are using their available means to “voice” their grievances to an administration who may not notice.  Subtle?  Not so much.  Rogerian, yes.  The method of using list serve emails to organize a clandestine protest (each week a different woman chooses the upcoming color to wear and “if [she] chooses wisely, maybe we’ll all have to go shopping — a sure-fire spirit lifter!”) and clothing to increase visibility of numbers is far less adversarial than, say, marching into Principal Jerkface’s office with union code under your arm. It is also particularly feminine – note the shopping joke. And apparently, it gets the job of change done as well; according to my mother, “Steve and Lee (the principal and vp respectively) are wearing the colors now – Tammy (their secretary) showed them the email when they asked why we were all in burgundy.  And they are just being so, so respectful.  To all of us!”  The original email has been CC’d and forwarded all the way to Santa Barbara County – where the county school board president commented on its positivity and activism.  “I like this gal” he said of my mother via email to her supervisors.

My inbox is currently filled with the rhetoric of this tiny, working class story – the email exchanges, initial backlash (from two administrators threatened by the movement), and emotional responses of gratitude my mother has received.  She has sent me everything at my request – because as she has related the story of her pink-collar, Norma Rae rhetorics – I have continued to express my pride and excitement over her intelligence, her strategy.  She proves to me everyday that what we study is completely usable and undeniably necessary.  Smart, sassy working women like my ma are using multi-modal, Aristotelian, performative, public rhetoric everyday – and for many of them, that rhetoric changes the workplace, disrupts the hierarchy, and gives voice to the “little gals”.  Academics need to be in awe of this more often.  Thanks for the material, Mom.  And thanks for being the kind of woman who has always lived a faith in her own smarts, no matter what “certified” folks have to say.






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