Posted by: ericalipper | April 2, 2009

Lipper: What do people do all day?

Posted by contributor Erica Lipper

It has been difficult to sustain a sense of community membership without a job. Much to its credit, WBEZ’s coffeehouse was trying to harness something out of this feeling from its participants, but the variety of individual circumstances and attitudes made for more fragmentation than maybe desired. Still, it sparked some thinking about this gang of “free time-ers” I continuously meet since arriving in Chicago. That my unstructured expanse of free time takes different shape each day is one of the more interesting parts of the otherwise tedious condition of unemployment. In their own way, personal projects can be crucial elements of resume and skill building and, perhaps more importantly, meaningful ways to develop a sense of what you love about “work” during joblessness.

I volunteer at an after-school writing and tutoring center for kids. It is a busy, colorful place focused on language arts skills. It is also something of a magnet for bookish types in their 20s and 30s who, jobless or otherwise, assemble each afternoon to work with the students. These volunteers share, apart from an alarming degree of bibliophilia, an open two hours at 3 pm on weekdays. At the coffeehouse sponsored by the Hardworking Series, I ran into two other fellow volunteers who, like me, began volunteering after losing their jobs.

Across the table from me was Kevin Sparrow, who works part-time for the U.S government as a census-taker after being laid off in November 2008. Formerly employed as the media advisor for Youth Communication Chicago, Sparrow started volunteering shortly after losing that job and finds working with young writers a good match. I asked him if he had any “projects” in the works, as writers often do, and sure enough he runs an online publication called Culdasac, an arts and culture site for which he had recently traveled to the SxSW music festival. He presented me with a business card and a link to the blog.

On the employed side of the table sat Matt Thom. A foreign currency trader at JumpTrading, 25 year old Thom has an early morning start time to keep up with international markets and is able to leave in time for 3pm volunteering. A rarity among the tutors, Thom does not necessarily count himself among the fledgling “creatives” there. Says Thom, “I wish I was more creative…I’m learning how to play the piano.”

I would be interested in learning more about the “day jobs” of volunteers around the city. This type of work seems to be expanding and creating new ideas about work and community.


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