Friday, December 4, 2015

Populate Your Papers with Real People

Back when I was a kid, there was a show on TV called “RealPeople.”

The show did what the title implies: It spoke to real people and told their stories – one I recall was of a Texas lady who would stop what she was doing, no matter what, and stand with her hand on her heart whenever she heard the national anthem (apparently something quite common where she lived). They also did a story on a hotel that washed people’s pocket change, carrying on a tradition introduced at the hotel in the 1800s.

(Note, I’m not saying it’s a GOOD show, it was just a show.)

But you could count on seeing real people in it. Not actors. Not the bigwigs. But the real people involved in whatever story they were pursuing.

That’s what we need to do with our writing. Put real people in it.

And it can be done. Heck, if Buzzfeed can do it, so can the rest of us.

(A note to my students: Don’t think I’m asking you to do exactly what Buzzfeed does with the story I’m about to share with you. They had unlimited time and rather a good pile of resources to work with. They conducted over 100 interviews. I don’t expect that of you. But, as we learned with our personality profile papers, interviewing two or three people isn’t all that taxing. And it brings our papers to life.)

Witness, then a story Buzzfeed published Dec. 2 on The H-2 Guest Worker Program, which brought in 150,000 legal foreign workers to fill jobs “Americans won’t take.” Even though the program is not supposed to provide jobs for foreign workers at the expense of American citizens, Buzzfeed found it regularly does so. But let’s hear it from them:

[C]ompanies across the country in a variety of industries have made it all but impossible for U.S. workers to learn about job openings that they are supposed to be given first crack at. When workers do find out, they are discouraged from applying. And if, against all odds, Americans actually get hired, they often are treated worse and paid less than foreign workers doing the same job, in order to drive the Americans to quit. Sometimes, as the government alleged happened at Hamilton Growers, employers comply with regulations by hiring Americans only to fire them en masse and hand over the work to foreign workers with H-2 visas.

What’s more, companies often do this with the complicity of government officials, records show. State and federal authorities have allowed companies to violate the spirit — and often the letter — of the law with bogus recruitment efforts that are clearly designed to keep Americans off the payroll. And when regulators are alerted to potential problems, the response is often ineffectual.

Mad yet? Maybe.

But if I quizzed you on this in a week, how much would you remember? More importantly, what kinds of questions would you have?

Here’s the biggie: Do Americans really want these jobs? We hear a lot of rhetoric about letting foreign workers in because they do jobs “Americans don’t want.’ Buzzfeed decided to ask that question as they researched their topic (the H-2 program not working as designed) and their solution (making the H-2 program work so that American citizens aren’t passed up for jobs that, yes, they do want).

The story gets into a lot of detail on how the program works, what companies have done to skirt the law – often with the help of government agencies – but where it really works is when those writing the story talk to the people the program and policies have affected.

About a third of this 22-page article is handed over to these “real people,” telling their stories, ranging from residents of Moultrie, Georgia – mostly black – who can’t get work harvesting crops in local fields because they’re either ignored in the hiring process or fired en masse in favor of foreign workers, to the story of a woman with long experience caring for horses being unable to find work in Kentucky – the “horse capital of the world” because those doing the hiring would rather hire foreign workers.

Let’s look at the latter story, and what it – and others – add to the tale Buzzfeed tells.

When Nicole Burt applied for work as a stable attendant in Kentucky, she was sure her experience and skills were unimpeachable. As a teenager in Vermont she showed, trained, and groomed horses, and no sooner did she graduate high school than she moved to the Bluegrass State in order to be in what she dubbed “the horse capital of the world.”

In early 2011, she applied to a dozen or so stables, she said, but none called her back. One of them was Three Chimneys Farm, a stately home for legendary thoroughbreds including the 1977 Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew.

Three Chimneys, based in the town of Versailles, had told federal authorities it was “facing a distinct labor crisis and cannot locate or retain American workers” and that “all U.S. workers who express an interest in the employment opportunity will be interviewed for employment.” But when Burt called to check on her application, she was told no jobs were available.

“Basically we never hire US workers who are applying,” the farm’s director of human resources, LaTerri Williams, told the Department of Labor in a signed statement. “I don’t conduct interviews or take their applications. Basically I just tell them we have no openings.”

Asked by regulators why it didn’t give Burt a chance, as federal law required, the company stated that the single mother of three was better off unemployed than taking the $9.71-an-hour job. “Given the length of the commute, the cost of daycare, the loss of her eligibility for food stamps, it would cost Ms. Burt more to work for Three Chimneys than if she did not work at all,” the company said.

“I kept hearing the employers say that they couldn’t find anybody. And I just want to smack them, because we’re right here,” said Burt. “I felt betrayed. I just felt like America had let Americans down.”

Now how mad are you?

More importantly, what questions have been answered? Here’s one American who does want one of these “undesirable” jobs, but can’t seem to get one. (And if you think Buzzfeed is being too jingoistic in their research and reporting, it’s important to know this is a follow-up to a story they did on the conditions foreign workers face when they come to the United States to take these jobs.)

Adding a human face – or several human faces – to any story (and yes, research papers can be stories, stories that inform and educate) enables us to connect with our readers emotionally and logically. Does that sound manipulative? Maybe in a little way it is when we think about emotion. But manipulation isn’t the right way to think about it. A better way to think about it is helping your reader make connections to your research.

In April 2013, Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave a wonderful sermon on the topic of obedience. He quoted many scriptures to the congregation, urging them with the word of God to truly see the value and blessings that come from obedience to God’s laws. Here’s a bit of what he said:

There is no need for you or for me, in this enlightened age when the fulness of the gospel has been restored, to sail uncharted seas or to travel unmarked roads in search of truth. A loving Heavenly Father has plotted our course and provided an unfailing guide—even obedience. A knowledge of truth and the answers to our greatest questions come to us as we are obedient to the commandments of God.

We learn obedience throughout our lives. Beginning when we are very young, those responsible for our care set forth guidelines and rules to ensure our safety. Life would be simpler for all of us if we would obey such rules completely. Many of us, however, learn through experience the wisdom of being obedient.

There are rules and laws to help ensure our physical safety. Likewise, the Lord has provided guidelines and commandments to help ensure our spiritual safety so that we might successfully navigate this often-treacherous mortal existence and return eventually to our Heavenly Father.

Centuries ago, to a generation steeped in the tradition of animal sacrifice, Samuel boldly declared, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”

Those of you familiar with the sermon are screaming right now: “You left out the best part!”
I did indeed. Here it is (start the video at 3:33):

Here President Monson expands on the learning “though experience the wisdom of being obedient.” He could have quoted more scripture at us. Instead, he tells us a story. He populated his sermon with real people – himself and his friend Danny.

And this is the part we remember. This is the part of his sermon – his research to us on the blessings of obedience – that sticks with us. If we remember anything else out of this sermon six months, a year down the line, we’re lucky. But remember this we do. Because it’s real.

I hope you can see my point, and I hope in the future you look at adding more real people to your writing. That jump roping champion could be in a research paper on physical fitness. The story of Danny and Tommy livened an otherwise pedestrian sermon on obedience. There are stories you can tell as well.

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