snOw-DU: A Contemplative Walk Around Campus

Snow falls in front of Dominion House, Old Dominion University
Snow falls in front of Dominion House, Old Dominion University

First of all, whoever told me a couple months ago that it never snows here, you are a liar. Consider yourself called out.

It snowed yet again here in Norfolk, beginning yesterday afternoon. This morning NAS Oceana reported 8 inches, while the airport reported 5.6. From what I saw, it was probably closer to 6 around here. School was cancelled again, which makes the second Wednesday in a row, which is bad for me as the News Editor of the student newspaper because that means several stories got cancelled, once again. So far it’s been like pulling teeth to find more than 2 stories a week, and get them covered (well), but whatevs. I’m the only person on campus complaining. amiright?

After digging my $3 boots- that I bought at a thrift shop when that song was still cool- out of the car, I hiked around campus snagging pictures and talking to people…

The ice sheet on the water at the end of 48th St. Kids were sledding down the large hill in the background.

(I apologize for the weird tint to the pictures. As/if I edit them I’ll replace them)

Kaufman Mall, Old Dominion University.
January 29, 2013
oranges for eyes, coffee in hand..
Old Dominion University students building snow… mounds?

The main thing I noticed as the snow began to stick yesterday, was the level of work the snow-clearing crews were putting into keeping pathways clear. Even as snow had hours more to fall, and inches left to accumulate, they were out scooping, snow-blowing, and salt-spreading.

The cleared sidewalk next to Whitehurst
The (perfectly) cleared sidewalk next to Whitehurst

Today as I was making the rounds, I stopped and chatted with a few. I’m just going to entirely leave names out because A- I don’t know anything about their contracts, and the last thing I want is to get a anyone fired, and B- I’m terrible with names and only remember a couple anyway… (sorry)

The first thing that struck me, as I observed crew after crew, was the type of person laboring- usually of color, older, small, and female.

Stopping and chatting with the third group, I was made aware that many of these workers were the housecleaning personnel. Not grounds-keeping, not maintenance, not specifically snow-clearing, but housekeeping…

The reason I’m surprised by this isn’t because I expect a certain kind of person to do this work or something, but I feel like exhausting, essentially, little old ladies, to do work that many students do not, and will not appreciate at all, is uh…

kinda fucked up.

A worker clears snow from the sidewalk in front of Dominion POD
A worker clears snow from the sidewalk in front of Dominion POD

I asked one of the women when they had come in, and she said that it was last night, and that they were still going… I’m not sure if that means these were still the same crews going when I walked out of the student center at 9:30pm, or if they had come in afterwards. Regardless, it was 3 in the afternoon when I talked to her…

Prior to being enlightened of the entire situation, I walked up on the first group I came to, which was made up of 3 small, older women clearing off the steps of the one of the buildings. It was almost a totally absurd sight. It just looked impossible that these women could possibly clear what was a huge amount of snow off of these steps. It seemed… futile.

I tried not to be obvious, snapping a couple pictures, and as I walked by said “geez! you guys are making overtime for this, right?”

One of the three paused and smiled, kind of hesitated, and answered something to the effect of “oh yes, honey. you know we are.”

The others kind of nodded.

I walked across the mall field, on a pathway that was completely cleared, which was weird because there were no classes. Almost nobody was even outside, let alone walking through campus…

The second crew i encountered looked completely, doggedly exhausted. They were cleaning off the steps and patio of the education building- which again, seemed pointless as there were no classes, no students, no reason to make it such a high priority.

I was probably one of only a couple people that entered the 9-story BAL Building all day. I snagged a couple pictures from the top floor of the school and surrounding area…

From the 9th floor of the BAL Building, a section of campus
From the 9th floor of the BAL Building, a section of campus

As I was walking back towards the mall, the second crew had made it to the side of the building, and was stopped. Tired eyes watched me- the lone student pedestrian- walk across the spotless, painstakingly-shoveled and brushed pathway. A couple were embraced. It was hard to tell if it was for warmth(none of them wore university-issued jackets) or if they were holding each other up. If there was one crew that HAD worked all night, this was it… And why?

The third crew had just started clearing the front of the next building over. That was where I talked to a couple of the workers who were waiting for the snowblower to clear what it could before they started spreading salt.

A worker clears the sidewalk with a snowblower, Old Dominion University
A worker clears the sidewalk with a snowblower, Old Dominion University

“Why don’t you jump in there and let me take pictures of you?” one of them called, over the snowblower. “Here, you can even have my shovel!”

I laughed, approached the woman, and sparked conversation.

As we watched the man operating the snowblower struggle to push the machine across the packed snow, I asked them if they were getting paid overtime, to which the woman laughed in my face.

The woman next to her explained that they didn’t know, and that essentially they wouldn’t know until they saw their pay checks. Many of them had either not left the day before, or had barely made it in on uncleared or barely-cleared roads. One woman, they said, had gotten sick and had to leave early.

They all looked beleaguered and tired- their job seemed endless, thankless, and pointless.

And they were housecleaning ladies…

The woman that laughed in my face told me to put that in my story. I didn’t say I was writing one, but I guess curious white kids with cameras, disobeying social norms, can only mean so many things.

A couple years ago- before traveling, seeing, experiencing, learning- before hundreds of hours of race, class and labor issue-related podcasts, interviews, and lectures beamed into my ears while cutting thousands of pizzas for less than a penny-a-piece- I wouldn’t have given the clearing crews a second thought.

To the younger, more insecure and less informed me, these are just employees, and I am just the college student. We have socially-defined roles. I wouldn’t have wanted to rock the boat, but just skate by, socially flying under the radar.

And the terrible part about that is that it almost provides a feeling of superiority. If I want to walk across their backs, hey I paid tuition here. I’m entitled to it…

Thanks for painstakingly clearing all the sidewalks so I can take pictures..

But that’s not reality. Reality is that the system isn’t inherently just.

Reality isn’t that the market is an all-knowing, all-fairly-compensating god, or that boot strap pulling-up and real sincere hard work are all that it takes to make enough money to survive.

Reality, in this country, in 2014, is much, much more complex than that.

I would’ve wanted to do this as a story for the paper- there’s room for it, now that half my stories are cancelled. But stories need answers and statements, and most of what I have are questions, and uneasy uncertainties about labor practices and compensation at this university.

And I know it’s not just the snow-clearers. The previous Wednesday, I talked to a tired woman in one of the food service positions who said she takes 2 buses and a train to get to work, even in the snow, even on days that the university is closed.

Unlike many college students, I know  how it feels to not be able to call out of work, even in legitimate instances, because you simply can’t afford to miss it.

She also laughed when I asked about extra compensation for snow days- when all “non-essential” staff stay home, when students literally don’t have to leave their beds.

I have no idea what ODU’s lower-tier employees get paid- I hope it’s several dollars above minimum wage, but I don’t know.

I tried to look up extra compensation in the human resources handbook, but all I could find was overtime- over 40 hours a week. That same handbook specified that “regular status” employees are only guaranteed 30 hours a week- what’s essentially the low-wage industry standard.

It’s definitely an issue that I will try to find out more about. As somebody who believes in a better, more fair, less shitty world, I don’t want a degree from a university that doesn’t pay it’s workers fairly, or that exploits their economic circumstances.

For conscious students, I think this issue is just as important as campus sustainability, ethical investing, or any other environmental or social justice concern.

It is the same system after all…

At the end of the day, for the secondary education institution to be legitimate, to be ahead of the rest of the lagging country, to be progressive, to make a real positive influence on the world, or even the surrounding community, it has to be able to improve the lives of the people it employees, not just the ones that pay tuition.

On a lighter note, “snOw DU” is pretty good right?

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