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Different Takes on the Topic

Among those studying citizenship, students researching work and labor were among the first to receive research grants through Maxwell’s Tenth Decade Project.

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Fabiola Ortiz Valdez studies the working and living conditions of immigrant workers on New York dairy farms. She was among students receiving research grants from the Tenth Decade Work, Labor, and Citizenship project.

Dairy is big business in New York state, the nation’s third largest dairy producer and top producer of yogurt. Yet those who do much of the work on New York’s dairy farms, undocumented laborers primarily from Mexico and Guatemala, live in the shadows. Fabiola Ortiz Valdez, an anthropology doctoral candidate at Maxwell, is shedding light on their stories and struggles.

“I’m an immigrant as well — a very, very privileged immigrant,” says Ortiz Valdez, who grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico, and studied at the University of Maine before coming to Syracuse. “I always wanted to work with an immigrant population. Overall the labor and living conditions of those workers are pretty poor, to say the least. My research focuses on how workers push back in those conditions.”

Ortiz Valdez’s research got a significant boost this year thanks to a grant from Maxwell’s project on Work, Labor, and Citizenship — part of a group of new initiatives, known collectively as the Tenth Decade Project, that build on the School’s legacy of citizenship studies. Led by sociologist Gretchen Purser and an interdisciplinary faculty team, the Work, Labor, and Citizenship initiative promotes inquiry and discussion about, in Purser’s words, “how citizenship is shaped by transformations in the labor market, the shifting character of work, and the growth in economic inequality.” A portion of the initiative’s funding is earmarked to support research by graduate students who are breaking ground in labor studies.

Ortiz Valdez’s project approaches citizenship from a different angle, with its focus on noncitizens. “These workers contribute in very similar ways as citizens do,” she says. “They work, they pay taxes, they go to church, they contribute to the economy of the towns where they live. Many of them have kids who are U.S. citizens. These people are practicing citizenship while having almost none of the benefits of being a citizen.”

Ortiz Valdez’s modest grant will help cover transportation costs so she can do extensive fieldwork at three farms in central New York. She has spent several years building relationships with farm workers and owners/supervisors, and plans to experience the labor and the living environment firsthand. “In-depth ethnographic interviews are very important,” she says, “but I also want to understand the physicality of it.”

“These people are practicing citizenship while having almost none of the benefits of being a citizen.”
— Fabiola Ortiz Valdez

Another research project supported by a Work, Labor, and Citizenship grant focuses on those working behind the scenes in a very different booming industry: cell towers. Brian Hennigan, a geography PhD student from Arizona, became intrigued by how the 21st-century technology of the smartphone is totally dependent on, in his words, “stacked steel and imperiled workers’’ — specifically, the tower climbers who build and maintain the network.

“The industry is increasingly defined by deregulation, low wages, lack of unions, and contract-based labor with unmatched levels of workplace death,” he says. “I’m asking, Why aren’t these workers collectively organizing against this deadly form of exploitation?”

Like Ortiz Valdez, Hennigan plans to work in the industry to understand it from the inside. His research grant will allow him to attend a workshop in Washington on tower climber safety, plus a trade conference where he can meet with business owners.

Some research supported by Work, Labor, and Citizenship extends beyond traditional definitions of employment. Sociology graduate student William Oliver, for instance, is exploring the lives of military spouses. He was an officer in the Army National Guard in the post-9/11 era, and was exposed to the impact that deployments have on families and the critical role that spouses play.

“Through narrative-style, in-depth interviews, I hope to carve out a space where military spouses can talk about their lives and experiences,” says Oliver. In his research so far, he adds, “Almost every interviewee has said they feel that no one knows what their lives are like. They sacrifice a great deal, both for their spouse’s career and the military itself, yet there is very little focus on how the military impacts their lives.” Oliver’s research grant will cover the cost of transcribing interviews, so he can focus on analyzing the results and fine-tuning his approach.

These projects are just the beginning of a wave of new research supported by the Work, Labor, and Citizenship initiative. In the spring, Purser and her colleagues will offer a second round of student grants.

“Their work is important because they’re exploring, in varying ways, arguably the most central dimension of our lives — work — and the ways in which it shapes or structures present-day conceptions of citizenship,” says Purser. “And, as students, they often delve into corners and crevices of the topic where few researchers have gone before.”          

— Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

This article appeared in the fall 2016 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2016 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.