Why is There a White Man in the Break Room? (And Why is He Eyeballing My Oreos?)

By the time I landed in Charlotte, rented a car, and made my way to Opportunity Threads, I was bleary-eyed and famished. Not only that, I was early.

So I rolled my suitcase (in that awkward way where your bag is actually at your side because of the swivel wheels, not behind you like a real and true suitcase should be) into the break room and sat down, waiting for my meeting with the bustling and efficient leaders of The Industrial Commons. I eyeballed someone’s oreos, decadent and alluring, mocking me from their little plastic bed.

I felt (and was) conspicuous, awkward and self-conscious.

Many of the workers at Opportunity Threads are immigrants from Guatemala who, upon arriving in North Carolina, became beleaguered and exploited employees of the local chicken processing plant, Case Farms. (The workers’ story of justice valiantly sought and cruelly denied is the subject of a book, The Maya of Morganton). Opportunity Threads and The Industrial Commons enables an ever-growing proportion of these immigrant workers to utilize their textile production skills (honed back home in Guatemala) with living wage jobs and the opportunity to become worker-owners. They participate in a local, sustainable supply chain that builds resiliency in a region that was decimated by the forces of globalization.

These workers have struggled — continue to struggle — through so many obstacles that I will never have to encounter. They are people of color in a country that’s dominated by whiteness. They are immigrants in a country whose policies hold up one hand in welcome (the promise of work) and come down hard with the other (ICE, a crumbling social safety net, the need for multiple jobs to sustain a family). They fled their homes due to poverty and corruption wrought, in large part, by the meddling foreign policy of the country they now turn to for hope of a better life.

Can you imagine my thoughts as these workers drifted in and out of the break room? I was intimidated. At a loss for words. Afraid to use my pigeon Spanish, and afraid to use English. In a phrase: awkward AF. The worst of it was knowing how I was likely coming across; as just another white man looking at them as an “other” with my white gaze, apparently unable or unwilling to connect with their struggle and history, or even on a basic human to human level.

After what seemed like forever, the time came to enter the conference room and my “comfort zone.” To be seated around a table discussing how to organize the Catholic community (essentially, white people with means like myself) to support the mill and bring worker-ownership and genuine economic opportunity to even more people like the ones I couldn’t even bring myself to speak to.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect back on that day, and others like it. For me, I believe that “enrollment” starts with learning Spanish. And until I succeed in doing so, it means seeking out translators or finding out very specifically which workers are English proficient. So that I can receive from them my marching orders about how to proceed in this work. So that I know precisely where to interject my own innovative and creative entrepreneurial spirit, and where to shut up and listen. So that I can connect. So that I may follow.






Published by danielcardozo

CEO of Ethix Merch, connecting values-driven organizations with ethically-produced merchandise for their members and events.

4 thoughts on “Why is There a White Man in the Break Room? (And Why is He Eyeballing My Oreos?)

  1. You really have a talent for writing and storytelling. I think you should do more of that to help get the word out about the shared economy and motivate others to join us! Effective storytelling is powerful!!!

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  2. Brilliant post. Your title and your opening drew me right into that moment with you in the break room.

    I still have not visited (but drove by Morgantown last weekend and)… I committed to myself to making a visit before the end of September.

    I am so grateful for this tiny glimpse into the beginning of that trip for you. I would really love to hear more about who else showed up that day. The other Catholic leaders you are organizing. Daniel there’s so much I would love to collaborate with you on regarding organizing the Catholic world. My wife is currently organizing this project (https://receiveherinthelord.org/ to build power to invite the church to again ordain women as deacons… watching and helping her organize reminds me that this is decades-long work to move the church…)

    It’s great to hear your humility. It draws me closer to you in the lived experience that I resonate with as a read.

    What does liberation mean for you? What does it mean to be liberated from that awkward feeling you describe and the awful differences you felt so acutely in those moments?

    I have begun to realize that my own liberation I think is bound up in the liberation of those Guatemalan workers that you talked about. It reminds me of spending a few months in El Salvador and gradually overtime realizing how much I enjoyed playing soccer and jumping in rivers and waterfalls in the ocean with them. I felt like my own freedom was bound up in their freedom. I begin to notice that in my own daily life as well. And it gives me deeper commitment to do the work of anti-racism and not be afraid of making mistakes but knowing that the path is taking bigger and bigger risks, dancing with my fear and leaning into the hard work that I know I must do. I see that same spark in you … to create new things, innovate, evaluate, learn, unlearn, and imagine new possibilities with others. Drawing new people and partnerships into the work.

    I am excited to be on this journey with you Daniel. I wanna support you in this Catholic purchasing alliance initiative. I would love to collaborate with you and ISN and others.

    ENROLL me in your work… listen to these workers and what they’re asking of you. What did Walter ask of you when you met him?

    What is he asking of you now?

    Let’s enroll ourselves in his work.

    Thank you for your post.

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    1. Since there was just the one comment that had suggestions/questions, I’ll comment here as my RS.

      QUESTION: What does it mean to be liberated from that awkward feeling I describe?

      ANSWER: I think liberation in this context means liberation from my comfort zone. The TIC/CTD folks are doing a great job of bringing workers into leadership roles, not just within the mills but without the larger organizing/movement-building umbrella. So being liberated from this feeling would look like walking into a mill and introducing myself to all the workers I see — so they know who I am and what I’m doing there — and letting them know very directly that I’m there to be of use in helping to build THEIR movement. That I have some ideas but ultimately I am there to offer my skill set for their use.

      QUESTION: What is Walter asking of me?

      ANSWER: Based on what I know of Walter, he is asking me to help build and expand the Opportunity Threads model to give more immigrant workers the chance to be seen — as Americans, as vital participants to the economy and the community. And so that profits can return to his home community in Guatemala in the form of community-building and academic scholarships, so that ultimately fewer people have to be forced out.

      Walter is very good at managing the factory and telling the story of how the Opportunity Threads model changes lives for the better. He’s depending on me to help gather-together an audience for this story that has purchasing power.

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