An Invisible Year: Gabriel Thompson’s new book ‘Working in the Shadows’

February 11, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I’ve been fascinated by the press around Gabriel Thompson’s new book, Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing Jobs Americans Won’t Do.  After I posted about it on Facebook (for the second time) a friend offered to send it to Germany (thanks Jose!), so I look forward to reading it soon.

Thompson spent a year working side by side with many undocumented immigrants, in chicken plants in Alabama, lettuce fields in Arizona and delivering take-out by bicycle in New York City.   He did things like tear apart 7,000 chicken breasts in one shift, cut 3,000 heads of lettuce per day.  He was also hit repeatedly by taxicabs.

I keep thinking about the act of what he did.  It reveals how class-based American society actually is, that working for low paid wages would be viewed the same as an extreme sport (or worse).  This especially comes out in an interview with MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’.   The journalists (if you can call them that) mouth’s literally hang open when he tells them what he did, and seem most concerned with if he wore gloves and if he deceived his employers:

Video is here ( I can’t embed it without it turning on automatically)

In an interview with the Indypendent, Thompson reflects on what kinds of  change is necessary: “To improve the work, we need much more vigorous government enforcement and union organizing. Organizers need to be more thoughtful in how they build a union and how they recruit workers who are diverse. But the expectations of how much output a worker generates must be changed. You can have a union, but if you’re still making 18,000 cuts per shift, you’ll still have serious health problems.”

Thompson believes that the role of journalists is to go where the silences are.  “The chicken plant fired me immediately upon learning that I was a journalist. This says something about their perspective: the less people know about where their food comes from, the better, because exposing these conditions doesn’t paint them in a favorable light.”

And, to top it off, he is also a fellow Johnston Center Alumni.

Reinventing myself as a foreign corresondent

September 1, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Things are changing for me, I will be moving from New York City to Bonn, Germany in 30 days.   Communication will take on a new meaning living in a place where I do not speak the language.   So I have been researching what to do!  One possibility is becoming a super-blogger and freelance writer.

So in my last days of privileged NYC access, I took a class on how to be a foreign correspondent at Media Bistro.   It was taught by an able-young-overachiever Manuela who got herself to China and kept pitching Newsweek until they listened.   This class helped me focus my writing strategy. For instance, even though I am going to Germany, I don’t plan to become a correspondent on German culture, because it will take ages for me to become ‘an expert’.   A travel writer perhaps.   But here are a few bits of wisdom about freelancing overseas that I took away from the course:

  • Have a niche.  If my expertise is international development writing… it will still be that in Germany.  I still may get my best stories through a trip or a skype line.  Manuela’s theory is that despite the current devastation to magazines, niche publications will survive because their audiences are solid.
  • To go into a new area, such as travel writing, I need to start from the bottom-up again, getting some clips in free sites to build up my portfolio.
  • Joining the Foreign Correspondents association and writing for English-language newspaper is another way to break in.
  • Don’t teach English…. but do consider teaching writing in English.
  • Building a relationship with an editor is like being in sales — your pitch might not be accepted, but your goal is to get the next meeting, ie.  a response to your next email.
  • Be sure of yourself.  Have a card, introduce yourself: I am a journalist.   If you take yourself seriously they will take you seriously.

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