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Book Review: People Around Us – Edited by Holly Lachowicz and Barbara Seyda

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They say good things come in small packages. The new book People Around Us is certainly a small package. It will take you around 10 minutes to read, but those 10 minutes may well change your life.

People Around Us is published by the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity, a Tucson non-profit dedicated to improving the lives of low-wage earners. Featured recently in The Progressive magazine, the book is a collection of stories from low-wage earners from across the Southwest, depicting attitudes of employers and customers alike from the point of view of the workers. People Around Us also informs the readers about employment practices that don’t make the headlines of local newspapers.

In an essay from Leonora Anne McBride, who cleaned hotel rooms for $1.25 per room. McBride writes, “I had worked weekends for six months and cleared $70.00 for 200 hours. We were not paid for the time it took to put together the cart used to carry sheets, towels, cleaning supplies and other essentials from room to room, waiting to be assigned a room or waiting for it to be inspected after the job was completed.” In pencil, below the essay, McBride adds, “I wasn’t Nickeled and Dimed – I was Pennied to death!”

People Around Us is a vivid expose of a number of industries in which people are exploited. It is the dark underbelly of Barbara Ehrenreich’s , in which Ehrenreich goes undercover working at Wal-Mart, Merry Maids, and other service industry jobs. While Ehrenreich does a great job showing how poorly low-wage earners are treated in her book, she was able to return to a professional life with a future. The authors in People Around Us may never have a future beyond what they write of.

In another eye-opening essay, Danielle Sottosanti writes, “It’s 7p.m. and I’m in the final stretch of a triple shift. In other words, I’ve been working since 7a.m. and have been serving breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining room of a health resort and Spa. I’m greeting and pouring water for my newest table of six, and one of the guests — a genteel, elderly man — looks at me and grins. ‘You must consider yourself pretty lucky,’ he tells me. I sweetly smile back ‘Why is that?’ ‘Imagine getting to work in a place like this’ he says, ‘It’s amazing your employers don’t make you pay them for such an opportunity.’”

The book is accentuated with pictures taken by workers and advocates, showing living conditions, families on the economic edge, and disparate circumstances. The graphics are simple, yet extremely powerful: a small dirty stove with a frying pan and pot on the front burners; an old white two-door Chevy Impala; a broken-down easy chair in the middle of an outdoor camp for one.

“I have a college degree,” writes an anonymous mother. “I have good references. You would think that I was asking for an appointment to the Supreme Court but I am not. I simply want a job for which I am qualified that pays a decent living wage. I want to support my daughter without abandoning her to inhuman hours.”

Nationally acclaimed author Nancy Mairs wrote the foreword, which includes a pertinent anecdote about a neighbor’s message mistakenly left on Mairs phone machine, warning her to “shut her back gate” because police are surrounding the area around the free kitchen run by the Catholic Workers. Mairs believes the call is about a potential “bust” at the kitchen that might drive some of the homeless into her backyard. Known for her extraordinarily literate essays, Mairs carefully examines the perceptions people have about the poor and working classes in her introduction to the book.

The only problem with People Around Us is its limited distribution. The book is available through the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity's website. It’s worth the effort to look at the website though, because it features more stories and photographs not included in the book and features a wealth of information on the group’s initiatives. All the proceeds from the book are given to the writers and photographers.

People Around Us is among the best of things that come in small packages. It will enlighten, anger, and motivate you into action. Mostly, it will forever change your view of the people we regularly find on the periphery of our vision.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!