This is a letter to my earlier self, dedicated to all of you - to young, talented, inspired, and motivated, worker organizers in the labor movement. Thank you for listening to my story and I hope it will illuminate your own path and experience.
(The following text was read out loud to a group of young organizers in August 5th 2022.)
My name is Nica. I am a writer, working artist, community & labor organizer, and on Thursday afternoon's teach swimming to children at the local pool. I started out in Manila, in the Philippines where I grew up, and I moved to California in 2008. I graduated from UC Berkeley, and upon graduating landed a super cool internship in the summer of 2013. Because of that internship and my college degree, my job choices moving forward were influenced by my desire to be a person who helps people get out of poverty. I did not know what that would look like but in time I decided I could do that by working for unions in California. My first union job was to be an administrative staff for an electrician union called the IBEW in my county, San Mateo. When I got bored of that job, and I was very bored, I left my job. In the middle of my resignation I applied for another job, a sophisticated sounding union job to be a project coordinator for the one and only California Labor Federation.
Fortunately, I got the gig. I secured an income that was livable and enjoyable at the age of 26. I found out later that through the pile of resumes they saw mine and said "Who is this?! Who is Nicollette?" That is my real full name. I spent my time as a union organizer representing workers in the workforce & economic development system in California which is a space not a lot of unions occupy at the moment. Unlike my job with the electricians, this was not boring, but I still resigned after 4 years of working there because I felt like I was at a dead end. There was no career advancement for me within my department. My relationship with my boss started to degrade. The principles of equity, worker voice, representation, and many more I was starting to question within the organization I was in. Part of my experience at the time felt fraudulent, I must admit, so I sadly left that job last year in 2021.
Today, instead of a job I have projects. I am very proud to be involved with AIWA, which stands for Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, a small nonprofit based in Oakland chinatown. Also, BSP - a worker training organization that provides education and training janitorial and airport service workers. But most importantly, my most favorite project of all time is sharing my creative world, I call Kwento by Nica. Now I will show you it.
Kwento is my creative project and I created it all throughout my career working for unions and how did I do it? I will show you how.
1. 617 experience - show blog post
2. People at the workplace were fascinated. They couldn't wrap their head around how I was able to have energy to do it. And this is the part where I tell you and encourage you to listen to your inner voice even in the workplace. If doodling is a bad thing in the workplace, but you are so so amped up to do it while on clock, I encourage you to create. Because the results amount over time, and soon you will have your own portfolio or website like me to showcase it.
3. Some people won't like you for it. I had a coworker who really didn't like me and the positive reception Kwento by Nica had in the workplace. This coworker made it so unbearable for me to work in the same office as her that I quit. And that is how I left my job with the electrician union. Now, this is the part where I tell you, being creative and showing that side of you in the workplace will not always be celebrated. Coming out to say you're an artist in the professional space will come with reactions. So... to be creative is to be brave in the workplace.
4. Now, when I was working for the labor federation, everyone supported me and my ventures outside of worker organizing. My coworkers and directors knew I was creative because I made that as part of my identity. BUT in that role I learned that not all places of work are ready for creativity. There are traditions, patterns, hierarchies, and practices that are so well established that the slightest offering of a creative solution on how to improve or refresh old systems will be perceived as too radical and impossible to pursue.
And this is the reason why I am reading this letter to you. It is to remind you not to forget your inner voice, your creative voice, especially at times when you feel defeated in the workplace. It will happen. And when the time comes, if you need 5, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 3 hour break from work to simply doodle or do your craft while clocked in... I encourage you to do it. That is how you can express yourself, mesh your artistic self in the workplace, and make time to be creative while you show up for a job.
Was this worth sharing to you? Yes. How do you find balance to do that? Well I hope I was able to show you and now we can practice.
“They knew I was creative because I made it a part of my identity” – This spoke to me because I think I’ve struggled to really claim, establish, and own my identity. My therapist did an exercise with me where you have like 7-8 hats, and you give yourself identities (define yourself) for each hat i.e. my first hat is “daughter,” my second hat is “friend,” my third hat is “cat mom” etc. etc. I found it to be a very empowering exercise and I want to reclaim my identity as a creative person and assert that into the world.
words/ phrases that stood out to me:
young talented inspired
influenced by desire to help others get out of poverty
Sharing my creative world
Emerging writers of color
Artist in a professional space
Have to be brave
Your story was truly inspiring and impactful to me as someone who considers themselves as a creative. I often invalidate that I am in fact a creative because it comes from many different channels. I began writing for as long as I can remember and have not stopped. I even wrote a book of poetry that includes lessons and triumphs from my life. I never did anything with this work just because it can be scary to share your work. Yet something has been calling me to share it and hearing from you today inspires me because even if I cannot publish this work with an actual publisher, I can make zines and publish my work myself!
Some of these quotes are paraphrases:
“Electrician Union job boring”-Made me think about jobs that I left because I was bored. I quit my job stocking produce because it wasn’t engaging enough for me mentally, so I got bored.
“New job wasn’t boring, but didn’t agree ideologically with the union”-I have also had jobs that enjoyed, but some of the folks I worked with didn’t have a lot in common. It makes it hard to be at work when you don’t vibe with co-workers.
“Kwento by Nica”-Sounds like an interesting read and I admire all the different creative outlets you have.
I chose all of these because they are about centering and finding yourself professionally, and not sacrificing your personal desires for tradition or workplace expectations, but instead navigating the world to prioritize and express your needs and desires. I think that sometimes I worry a lot about how my politics and the political education and agitation work I want to engage in in spaces related to but outside of professional organizing will be received, or how to go about them in the first place.
kindergarten teacher for swimmers (paraphrase)
admin staff for electrician’s union
who is this?
workforce and economic development isn’t boring
Kwento by Nica
Make Kwento, an 8-week creative journey
A Little Bitch Pillow. For your little bitch tears.
listen to your inner voice in the workplace
they knew i was creative because i made it part of my identity
too radical/impossible to pursue
find the place to share your creativity
“Sharing my creative world” – as someone who has always struggled with letting others see my writing/projects/creations, this phrase resonated with me because it reframes this very terrifying thought of giving others the space to criticize or reject my work into something completely different: sharing my creative world. Sharing is part of the human experience and your gift to the world is sharing the creative voice in you with others.
“Inner voice in the workplace” – this phrase came up when Nica was talking about working on their projects during their desk job. Labor organizing is about amplifying workers’ voices, but it’s also about reclaiming agency in the workplace, like being able to doodle on the clock and not diminishing that creative energy that I think capitalism often makes us think is disposable if it’s not profitable.
“i was very bored, i quit”
I admired the courage of prioritizing ones self and quitting a position, and am inspired by that action.
“i was at a dead end”
I resigned with the stagnation and feeling of lack of opportunity for career advancement, but in a person sense. Hitting a dead end, labor wise or emotionally, is a terrible feeling, and I love creative outlets for that reason, to release from the stagnation.
“instead of a job i have projects”
I enjoyed this redefinition a lot, and found that changing that classification can make the dread or feeling of obligation reduce, which is really helpful. Also I like the term projects because of the ownership you feel, like each project is your baby, and the feeling at the end is gratifying!
I’m not entirely sure what this is supposed to look like, but I’ll just take a stab at it.
What I think about most often when it comes to my creativity is, “how do I find the energy to be a worker, a person in community with others, and an artist at the same time?” As I kept bouncing around the idea of getting into music production throughout school, I always held a fear inside me that once I graduated and didn’t have long breaks anymore, I would miss my opportunity to pursue my creative passions.
In reality, its my desire to work for and be a participant in the labor movement so that my work and ALL work leaves us with the energy and time to be a person outside of our job. The work I do now and forever in service of worker power is not just to allow us to have a better time at work, but to allow us to be more of ourselves when we aren’t at work.
“person who helps others get out of poverty”- why don’t others feel the same way in terms of wanting to help others get out of poverty?
“inner artist”- these words remind me that an inner artist is directly tied to the creativity we once expressed as children and we were taught to turn it off
“cuento”- my favorite hobby is having my grandmother tell me Salvadoran folk stories because it keeps me grounded
“listen to your inner voice”- I have chosen to prioritize listening to my body and mind for the past year because my workplace, life, etc will not remind me nor save me.
“being creative wont be celebrated”- when individuals do not conform or assimilate, they will not be celebrated and instead treated as burdens, obstacles, and inconveniences but those are their own projections.
“dead end”- it is okay to feel lost and at a dead end. It can mean to open new doors, windows, or push oneself to take a different approach but there is never a real end.
“Make time to be creative as you show up for a job” – this stood out because there’s many different ways to make your job more bearable and/or fun. I was able to do an art project for my internship last weekend which felt a little bit like a relief because I was able to use my hands. I would also spend time reading during my breaks at my previous retail job which grounded me and took off stress from my body/mind.
Manila Philippines — roots
Cali in 2008 — change in perspective
Berk — fostering mindset
2013 internship — influence on labor background
Desire to be person to help others get out of poverty — motivation
Bored and quit — relatable, everything seems slow
Ca aflcio — continue in labor even though bored
Nicolette — full name yet goes by nica
Quit In 4 years — long time
Dead end No advancement — boring again
Projects — seems more fun in contrast to work
Awa Oakland Chinatown — location
Kwento by nica — filipino roots in work
Little bitch pillow Little bitch tears — purpose
Trademark — spent time making pillow trademark original and hers
Craft fair — creative desire
Zine artist 6 volumes — large collection
All home made - lots of ink and effort
Inner voice in the workplace - outside desires instead of work
Doodling — relatable
Write poetry on free time — not too relatable but therapeutic
Creative part of identity — medium to convey creativeness
Too radical or impossible — very often
Make muffins, take walk — good break