This is a letter to my earlier self and 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 experience.
(The following text was read out loud to a group of young organizers in August 5th 2022.)
last edited on July 28th, 2023
Hi my name is Nica. I'm a writer, artist, and worker organizer. On Sunday mornings I teach kids how to swim at our local pool from and on Wednesday nights I dance ballet.
My story begins in Manila, in the Philippines where I grew up. After graduating high school in 2008 I moved to California for college and completed my studies at UC Berkeley. As a new graduate I had no idea what career path laid before me. Good thing I got admitted to be part of a small cohort of interns at the Labor Center after graduation. Looking back, it's because of this internship that my career choices brought me to where I am today.
As a young person growing up in the Philippines, all I had wanted was to better understand why my country was poor. While in the classroom as an undergrad, I got to know a great deal about the systems, institutions, and styles of leaderships that kept people in poverty. My internship with Labor Summer put me on a path where I could do something with what I learned.
My first union job was to be an administrative assistant for an electrician union in San Mateo. Admittedly, it was a boring job and I left it because I wanted to do "more." In the middle of my resignation I applied for another job, a sophisticated sounding job with 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. Later I found out that through a pile of resumes they saw mine and said "Who is this?! Who is Nicollette?" That is my real full name. From 2017 to 2021 I spent my time organizing unions to think about workforce development - something unions were not excited about during the moment. Unlike my job with the electricians, my role at the Labor Fed was not boring; however, I decided to leave that job after 3.5 years because I felt like I was at a dead end. There was no career advancement for me. My relationship with my boss plummeted and I began to question if the principles of equity, worker voice, and representation existed in the organization I was in. I left that job too. At the age of 30 I was without a job during a pandemic.
Today, instead of a job I have projects. After my departure from the Labor Federation I got looped into AIWA, which stands for Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, a small nonprofit based in Oakland Chinatown. I helped them revive English literacy programs. I also had a chance to be with Building Skills Partnership, a worker-training organization that upskills and professionalized 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.
-Nica to show interns the Kwento by Nica website-
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 - I used my boredom time.
2. People at the workplace were fascinated. They didn't know how I had enough energy to invest in my creative self. And this is the part where I tell you to listen to your inner voice even in the workplace. If doodling is a bad thing to do at work, but you are so excited to scribble, color, or write a song, I encourage you to create because the results will 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 being creative. I had a coworker who did not like me (the jealous types tend to unlike me in the workplace.) This particular coworker made being at work so unbearable for me that I quit. That is how I left the electrician union. Now, this is the part of the story where I tell you, being creative and showing that side of you in the workplace will not 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 it part of my identity, BUT even 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 and offering 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 you are clocked in... I encourage you to do it. That is how you can express yourself, mesh your artistic voice in the workplace, and make time to be creative while keeping 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.
In September 15th 2023, Nica was terminated from a progressive labor-environmental organization. Having good ideas, moving fast, and skipping the ropes of getting white-male directorship approval has real life implications. The implication is that there is a good story to tell.