Persistence. Resilience. Or just plain grit. Was that all Americans needed to get through the Great Recession of 2008? Our colleague Justin Kenward had worked hard to attain a position in the American middle class when he was stalked then flattened by the Recession. But he had been developing strengths that he brought to bear, strengths that had been tempered in the furnace of the American economy.
It was 2003, the year of the raging wildfire storms in Southern California. Ashes rained down in the parking lot of the Target store in Chino as Justin Kenward and his cohorts watched with amazement as face-masked workers from the nearby Vons Supermarket marched and carried picket signs in their twenty month strike over wages and benefits. He and his colleagues would have jumped at the opportunity to become strikebreakers when they learned scabs would be paid $20 an hour, almost triple the wages they earned at Target. So they watched and wondered while the Grand Prix and Old Fires spread in a smoky blanket across San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties.
It was an awakening for Kenward. “I became aware of how little I was making compared to what could be made in the world,” he reflected. Kenward suddenly understood that the retail industry might not provide him with a pathway to independence and adulthood that he sought.
Six years later, Kenward was working at a job that not only gave him financial security but meaningful work in a field of his choosing. But it was ripped away in the Great Recession and its aftermath when he was laid off.
The financial collapse of the American economy had tossed many Americans into the financial doldrums in 2009. For the next four years, Kenward grappled with an ugly economy that offered little to the working poor and that to this day is rife with abusive employers, low hourly pay coupled with inadequate hours of work.
But he managed to survive.
In some ways, Kenward was prepared for this struggle by the currents he had been riding after high school graduation. The American economy had been stagnating during the l990s with the end of the dot com boom and political turns that swept some of the safety net from the working poor. In 2000, the high school graduate looked for a job with the anticipation that he would soon enter the adult working world. His first job was at Target.
He decided after observing the grocery store strikers to take a second part time job at a Texaco Gas Station. And found himself introduced to yet another aspect of the American working world: the abusive supervisor. Luckily, Kenward worked the graveyard shift when this particular manager was not on duty but she never failed to leave a plethora of notes for Kenward and his night shift crew.
On a typical evening, he would walk in and find a note taped to the register that might say, “The floor looks fucking disgusting ‘cause none of you bastards are sweeping before you mop. You need to take the fucking broom and sweep before you mop the floor.” He quit after a month.
Target was a better place to work, Kenward thought, the pay was better and he enjoyed his colleagues. Until 2003 when he was arrested for a theft that was actually perpetrated by two of his supervisors. At the time, he was held in a room by Target employees and interrogated for six hours without a break. He had no idea how to assert his rights or how to get help and in the end, agreed to write a letter of apology in exchange for a promise not to have him arrested. They lied and his case dragged on for a year until the district attorney offered him a plea deal: plead guilty to misdemeanor disturbing the peace. If he refused, the DA threatened to charge him with conspiracy, a felony. Kenward pleaded.
At work at Target, Kenward came across a best-selling book by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed, that delved into the economic divide and how the l996 Welfare Reform hurt the working poor in America. Kenward wrote to her of his experience and found his story recounted in her next book, This Land is Their Land. Ehrenreich discovered that Target was doing this to young, inexperienced workers who had no access to legal services and were even refused the ability to call their parents when undergoing these hours-long interrogations.
It was confirmation of a working world where the economy could only offer him underemployment and abusive work conditions he was unprepared to resist.
When he finally left Target in 2003, he sought employment with family members who were starting a pizza business, began to take classes at Chaffey College and discovered a knack for photography. He took as many classes as he could fit into his working schedule and then in 2005, was recommended by the Chair of the Photography Department for a government contract position at March Air Reserve Base.
Taft Broadcasting Company LLC was looking for an electronic imaging specialist who could help clean up and archive the government’s photographs and make digital copies available for public use. For example, they would clean up and make copies of photographs of historical military equipment like fighter planes for use in newspapers or televised news stories. It was not just broadcasters of news but screenwriters, like Stephen King, who requested the photos and programs like NCIS that used government images in their opening credits.
It was to be a temporary job of three months that lasted nearly five years, until the Great Recession brought about a contraction in the entire American economy.
It was unexpected. Taft had just been awarded another in a series of government contracts when they were informed that the contract was pulled. 58 employees, including Kenward, were laid off. When they were let go, the company was certain that the government would offer them another contract but it was never the same. Only a fraction of the employees were called back. Of the 20 researchers who had been laid off, only three returned. Just one person was called back for video duplicating, replacing five. Specialists were brought back in order of seniority but Kenward was determined to stay in contact and wait patiently…it was work he enjoyed involving images he considered meaningful to the history of the country.
Still, it took years and in the meantime, the country was in the throws of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of 1929.
Kenward returned to Chaffey College to continue his pursuit of photography and soon found himself deeply involved in the student paper as the photo editor and as a lab assistant in the photography department. The assistant position turned out to be a part time job, offering two to six hours of work each week. At the same time, Kenward honed his skills as a photojournalist covering campus events, photographing everything from award recipients to theatrical productions and even the occasional campus incident. He concluded with an unpaid internship with a local paper, The Claremont Courier.
How did he survive financially at this time? The Obama Administration programs helped, with its supplements and extension of unemployment benefits. His job at the college also helped and he felt comfortable focusing his energies on classes and the internship. He was able to do more than simply survive.
And he had learned his lessons on how to navigate an abusive world. On a photo assignment for the student newspaper, Kenward found himself in conflict with a campus policeman who demanded that Kenward give him the photographs. Knowing this was a violation of his rights as a photojournalist, Kenward refused and was issued two citations. He and his faculty adviser immediately contacted the Student Press Law Center who found a local attorney to represent him pro bono. And the case simply disappeared after his attorney explained why Kenward had not stepped beyond his legal rights as a photojournalist.
The recession took a deadly toll on the family. He and his mother were unable to hold on to their house and the stress took its toll on her health. They lost the house, then the family dog and finally, his mother died prematurely. Still at the end of her life, she was, like her son, focusing on her own growth and development and working to complete her General Education Diploma.
In the end, Kenward tried a part time job at a Thrift Store where he was surprised to once again encounter abusive managers and unpleasant working conditions. And then finally, a comfortable position working graveyard at a Chevron Gas Station. By then he had burned through any savings and was just barely hanging on financially.
“The photojournalism route didn’t pan out, but I finally got a call to return to Taft Broadcasting Company, again for a 3 month contract.” He’s been there ever since, and long enough to be promoted to Media Manager where in addition to his processing duties, he has taken on supervisory responsibilities.
He muses that the time he spent keeping his head above water was not wasted. He gained skills that he brought back to Taft from his work on the student newspaper and widened his circle of friends, some of whom have become family.
Life goes on for this recession survivor. Not only has Kenward learned to roll with the punches, but continues to sharpen his abilities and to use his photojournalistic insights as he makes his way through the American economy.