This speech was originally given at a Yom Kippur Solidarity Action supporting 14,000 Janitors with SEIU Local 615, Moishe Kavod House Boston, and the Jewish Labor Committee. Erica Concors is a current Jewish Organizing Fellow.
My name is Erica Concors and I am a community organizer for the Moishe Kavod House in Boston, a Jewish social justice house. Earlier this month, SEIU Local 615 was invited to our monthly Tikkun on Tap event to discuss the Justice for Janitors campaign.
Question 1:Can you think of a janitor that you know?
Take a moment to really think about it. Because when Ben asked our community at that event, I couldn’t think of one. Not one. Not that I knew-no, not one that I even could pass off to the guy next to me in an anecdote. I didn’t even have a name. With Margarita, an incredible SEIU janitor who spoke that day just two seats away, I was faced with another question as my face burned with shame: Why? Why couldn’t I think of a janitor that I had had a single conversation with. A face. No not even a face. Not even a name. Margarita had spoke about feeling invisible in her work that day. And there I was, two seats away, a manifestation of that invisibility.
Question 2: Why didn’t I know that my great-grandmother’s real name was Sorita Casoy?
After that night, I began thinking about connection-or in my case, about disconnection. About what is shared, be it broad like the feeling of being oppressed, or be it specific, like the way that a slur makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end just like the way your heart skips a beat when you hear the same thing. These tiny connections, I have come to see, are what make solidarity possible. They are the building blocks on which social change can happen, and how the seemingly powerless can take down the very very powerful. On top of these building blocks, there are very fragile bridges between us all, where I walk from my island to yours so that I may know you. Exploring our own stories can very well reveal these links. And in my case, that’s exactly what happened.
When Sorita Casoy came to America at the age of 3 from Argentina, the Ellis Island official told her mother, Rosalita, that Sorita could either be Sylvia or Sherri. Cohen. Jews were Cohens. I didn’t know this. I didn’t even know I was Argentinian until I was 14. I have an entire history in my family of immigration, of disintegration with the U.S., and of Sorita’s father who I later learned about after much prodding of my very distracted grandmother. David, her father, was a carpenter and repairman in New York City for his entire life. I’ve spent the last 2 weeks, the weeks following my realization that I couldn’t answer Ben’s question, imagining this man.
Question 3: What was he like? Question 4: Did his tenants avert their eyes when he walked past? Question 5: Did they know his name?
Solidarity, I have began to learn, is possible, when our histories, our similarities, our shared experiences, and our names become known. The erasure of our histories is a tool of isolation, oppression, and it is what made it okay for me to not know my janitor’s name, his plights, and his joys. It is a radical act of resistance to know one’s stories. These stories fill the space between the hairs on the back of my neck and the skipped heart beat in your chest, the space between my life and your name. I stand here, in awareness, in my history, in solidarity with you all and this amazing movement. I have found not only Sorita’s name, but all of yours. I want to thank you all, members of SEIU and members of Moishe Kavod House, and members of the community for standing in solidarity with one another in the name of justice.
Question 6: Whose names don’t you know?
Erica Concors is a recent graduate of Smith College from southern New Jersey. Erica pursues social justice work surrounding issues of health and gender. She is extremely excited about her Fellowship placement at the Moishe Kavod House as a Resident Organizer.