Immigrant Women Workers: Making Connections

March 30, 2014

Eleanor Bader shares a lesson that helped her students connect immigrant history to today's activism.  

Eleanor Bader, who teaches diverse groups of students at a Brooklyn community college, says her students were activated by this reading and research project. 

My class is reading a novel called Zabelle by Nancy Kricorian. The book chronicles the life journey of an Armenian woman who immigrates to the US. It covers the first 80 years of the 20th century.  In the early part of the novel, Zabelle arrives in Watertown, Massachusetts, and settles into an arranged marriage. She finds work in a garment factory.
I wanted my students to learn about the garment industry and the women who work in it. I also wanted them to learn something about unions and organizing by women in that past era--and today.
After we'd read about Zabelle's early experiences, I divided the class into six groups and gave each group of 4-5 students a topic. They were asked to research the topic at home.
In our next class, students gave oral presentations, 7-10 minutes each, about their findings. 
The topics are below, with possible links to start with:

  • United Students Against Sweatshops, a student movement for workers' rights with locals on some 150 campuses:

The lesson was effective because we were not just discussing the past — we were tying past to present in a way that resonated for the students and made them extremely angry.
What to do with that anger? My students were interested in USAS. Most of my students work full-time, have families, and go to class at night, so their time for activist work is extremely tight. But many did get onto the USAS mailing list so they can at least use their keyboards to protest egregious violations of health and safety in garment plants throughout the world.