WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SIX – Part 4 – Organizers)

Not picture (presumably): Bill Talcott’s fist

To celebrate my return to the site, I’m just making a quick post about the last section of this chapter. I’ll be back on Tuesday for an original post on my new job, unless I get inspired to do something else.

Until then, enjoy this shorter than usual chapter commentary!

Bill Talcott (Organizer)

I don’t universally agree with Talcott but he’s a great guy and I would have loved to meet him and talk to him about politics and such. I wish I had the same sort of fire that Talcott does in this interview and I find his passion refreshing and fun to read about. Unfortunately, being an organizer doesn’t make you a living so Talcott’s 5 page interview is all we’ve got.

Talcott is vehement about his job which is “trying to change this country” (p. 352) and admits that the injustices that happen daily tend to weigh on him harder than other people. This is a tough sort of life to live. I can’t imagine heavily internalizing all of the injustices like Talcott does, it makes life sound more exhausting than it already is.

One of the reasons I’m mostly burnt out on politics is that even with communities I’d be welcomed in, I wouldn’t feel at home in most times. I’m an anarchist but an odd one and something akin to an individualist or a mutualist more than a communist. There’s not a lot of spaces for us and the ones that do exist I’ve largely burned bridges.

And even where I haven’t, I’d rather make a difference in my personal life which includes the community I make from friends online and IRL as well as supporting the local community when I can. I do like the mantra of “think local, act global” but I think the reverse is a perfectly fine alternative as well.

Talcott describes his history powerfully:

My father was a truckdriver with a sixth-grade education. My uncle was an Annapolis graduate. My father worked all his life with his hands. My uncle worked all his life with his mouth and used his hands only to cut coupons. My father’s problem was that he was powerless. My uncle’s problem was that he was powerless, although he thought he was strong. (p. 352)

You can tell from this quote alone that Talcott has plenty of experience telling stories and making them effective in a short amount of time. As an aspiring professor myself I don’t have many delusions of grandeur about changing the world. If I ever changed the life of one student for the better, I’d be satisfied.

Well, to be honest, I wouldn’t be satisfied because us humans never are. But in the specific way of creating meaningful change in the world, I think we should focus more on our immediate surroundings than thinking we are going to change the world. We should focus on the landscapes that are easier access to us so we can work up to the more difficult ones.

Talcott has a lot of experience organizing and has done it with black communities, white folks, farm workers and before he was an organizer tried the army before realizing it was a load of crap. Talcott goes into more detail about his time with the Appalachian folks and how he helped them organize in Pike County to get a park of their own from a corporation.

I liked the way Talcott described his job:

An organizer is a guy who brings in new members. I don’t feel I’ve had a good day unless I’ve talked with at least one new person. We have a meeting, make space for new people to come in. The organizer sits next to the new guy, so everybody has to take the new guy as an equal. You do that a couple of times and the guy’s strength enough to become part of the group. (p. 353)

Described like this it’s clear to me that the job as an organizer isn’t to build clique around whoever is the whitest, most able-bodied or charismatic. It’s to get as many people as possible involved and then keep building it from there and try to keep the lines of communication always open so your organization can always be growing and adapting.

Talcott also stresses the importance of reassuring people that they’re important. That they deserve the sort of organizing they’re getting from other people in the first place. Many people living under systems of oppression (such as myself) get fed up, burnt out and all but give up. I’m basically a “part-time anarchist” as my therapist puts it.

Still, we’re all worth the struggle and it’s important to always keep that in mind.

Especially if you’re an organizer like Talcott.

You don’t find allies on the basis of the brotherhood of man. People are tied into their immediate problems. They have a difficult time worrying about other people’s. … Most sins committed on poor people are by people who’ve come to help them. (p. 354)

I believe the popular joke, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.” applies here.

Talcott also does something important here in that he makes it known that many people don’t want to help others who are farther away. For better or worse (mostly worse) we tend to think of people less when they’re farther away from us and the further they become the more distant (emotionally) speaking we can become to them.

As the interview goes on Talcott explains that he and the folks of Pikes County won and that it was such a gratifying moment when they did. He talks about how it made them “become alive” (p. 354)

Interestingly, Talcott thinks middle class women have it worse than poor women and reasoned that like so, “The poor woman know she’s essential for the family. The middle-class woman thinks, If I die tomorrow, the old man can hire himself a maid to do everything I do.” (p. 355) I’m not sure how true this was at the time but it’s an interesting point.

Here’s a few quotes I really liked by Talcott on purpose:

I’m one of the few people I know who was lucky in life to find out what he really wanted to do. … I feel sorry for all these people I run across all the the time who aren’t doing what they want to do. … I think everybody ought to quit their job and do what they want to do. You’ve got one life. You’ve got, say, sixty-five years. And how on Earth can you blow forty-five years of that doing something you hate? (p. 355)

Although perhaps overly-simplistic in some areas, I enjoy the fact that Talcott is honest with how the world works and laments the state of work. I also think it’s a shame we spend so much time doing things we hate. I spent 10 years in the retail industry before finally getting to a job I kinda like and I might not even be done finding things I want to do.

I wish it was more practical to quit jobs and do whatever we want but thanks to the scam that is licensing as well as the monopoly corporations tend to have over industries, this can be difficult. And even when we’re successful (like Talcott), it’s still hard to find consistent success when we try to work by ourselves or at least on our own terms with work we love.

Towards the end Talcott notes that professors talking about great men isn’t history. It’s a struggle of many little people standing up and deciding to make things right and better for themselves and those they love (paraphrasing). But Talcott also warns that most of us won’t make an “overwhelming difference” (p. 355) but just that if we do our best, that’s enough.

Amen to that.

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2 thoughts on “WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SIX – Part 4 – Organizers)

  1. Looking forward to a new article about your new job.

    The net feels a little dry to me at the moment.. I havent been discovering many new ideas or sites of late (particularly of a rebellious type) !

    • Thanks! Hopefully that’ll happen on Sunday!

      Sorry to hear. I go back and forth on that, mostly keeping myself busy through entertainment on Youtube and Netflix.

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