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Storytelling as Resistance

From chapter 5 of her upcoming book, Dr. Fernandes’ talk centers around the increasing use of storytelling as a campaign strategy for social movements. As she explains, “stories are constructed in ways that promote reconciliation, provide a therapeutic release for the teller, and win sympathy in media circles, among politicians, and the broader public.” In precise details, Fernandes weaves through the ways in which storytelling was invoked in organizing meetings, public hearings and in press conferences throughout the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign. A much watered down bill was passed in 2010 guaranteeing the same basic rights as other workers. Despite its modest legislative success, Fernandes is concerned that the involvement of funders, coaches and advocacy groups in framing of the stories to win legislators over represents a retrenchment from the kind of (more confrontational?) organizing work needed to change the conditions for immigrant workers.

Many interesting points were raised during the Q&A: How effective is storytelling when much of the legislative negotiations tend to happen behind close doors between powerful stakeholders? How does the actual labor process of domestic work, where emotions play a significant role in the employer-employee dynamic, complicate campaign strategies? More broadly, is storytelling part of a larger cultural pattern in American society that valorizes the presentation of the “self” (e.g. reality TV shows, facebook, instagram, selfies)? If we agree on this point, then isn’t storytelling a manifestation of the liberal, and by extension, the neoliberal trope that the “self” must be worked on? This is particularly salient in the framing of victimization in individual stories to win over legislators and the public, as if to suggest only in extreme individual hardships can we make claims for social change.

Still, concerns were also raised over the use of the “American Dream” narrative in stories and public outreach. The idea that these domestic workers work hard and play by the rules and thus deserve basic human dignity effectively appeals to a broader sentiment, but, it also creates a distinction between “good” and “bad” immigrants, sectioning off a certain group to be the undeserving. Indeed, this contradiction speaks to Fernandes’ claim that perhaps storytelling represents the narrowing of space for which social movement work can operate, where the moral high ground is fought over individual troubles and injustices

Not all hope is lost though. The domestic workers campaign effectively brought these private troubles at home/work into the public consciousness. This is particularly relevant to my own research on undocumented Chinese restaurant workers who share some similar working conditions – small family-owned businesses, labor exploitation, abusive treatment, low wages and having to live in the shadows. I share in Fernandes’ interest in thinking through how political subjectivity is formed and in critically analyzing organizing strategies, even when they have progressive intentions. In the end, my take away message is that we should continue to be critical of the ways in which neoliberal thought can mutate and reappear, while keenly aware that we don’t operate in conditions of our own choosing.