“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
Nannies, housekeepers, and elder care providers have long been excluded from basic labor protections in the United States, but thankfully, this is now starting to change. In 2010, New York passed the very first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, followed by Hawaii and California, with other states soon to follow. In the wake of these major victories, a challenge arose for organizers, who recognized that these victories would be hollow if workers remained unaware of the changes. Given that domestic workers generally have low print literacy, don’t regularly listen to the radio, and often work in isolation, how best to inform them about their newly enshrined rights? And how to communicate the law — a wonky snore-fest — in a lively and engaging way that domestic workers could act on?
To help address this challenge, in 2011, Domestic Workers United, a New York City-based advocacy group, turned to REV-, a non-profit art, media, and social justice studio that had provided media training for domestic worker groups city-wide. Through a survey, they noted that one thing that all domestic workers have is at least a basic cell phone. Could we transform the cell phone into a tool for popular education? Collaborators from MIT Center for Civic Media and Terravoz were brought in to flex their tech, while lawyers from local community groups (the Urban Justice Center and the National Employment Law Project) were brought in to ensure that the creative work of the project aligns with long-term legal advocacy goals (see PRINCIPLE: Use the law, don’t be afraid of it).
With REV- at the helm, the team created a public art nanny hotline. Here’s how it works: using even the simplest of cell phones, users can call (347) WORK-500 and hear humorous episodes of a show called New Day New Standard (think ‘Click and Clack’ from NPR’s Car Talk, but for nannies) about topics like overtime wages, tax requirements, trafficking, and more.
Users would call in to hear New Day New Standard’s host, Christine Yvette Lewis, a spunky nanny and advocate from Trinidad & Tobago whose charisma had landed her a guest spot on the Colbert Report — bantering back and forth with the fictional Miss Know-It-All and other characters calling in to the fake talk show.
The project launched in May 2012 as part of a city-wide campaign led by domestic worker groups. Each month since then, the hotline receives from 400 to 1200 calls a month. While the hotline’s primary audience is domestic workers, the project and its message were carried further through media attention (BBC, GOOD magazine, parent blogs) and through presentations at the White House (yes, that White House), universities, and film festivals such as Tribeca Film Institute.
In response to the requests of domestic worker groups from coast to coast, in early 2014, REV- led a collaboration that includes new partners like The National Domestic Workers Alliance and NuLawLab in the creation of a souped up national nanny hotline whose content is being created with workers around the US via a mobile design studio and sound lab dubbed NannyVan. The national hotline, appropriately called “The NannyVan App” — but still accessible by any kind of phone — features new functionalities such as the ability to subscribe to weekly SMS tips about topics like the law, domestic worker history, health and safety, and the growing movement.
Call (347) WORK-500 to check out more!
Catchy visuals, use of humor, and the active involvement of local leaders within the domestic worker movement helped propel the nanny hotline forward. The project also tied into an already existing city-wide advocacy campaign that sought to inform domestic workers in New York City about their rights. For all these reasons, the domestic worker hotline functioned as a fun way to capture people’s attention.
An issue like “domestic workers rights” can raise a lot of thorny issues and elevate levels of fear for both domestic workers and their employers. But by referring to these nanny hotlines as “public art,” the topic became more approachable: domestic workers were more excited to participate, and referring to their contribution as “art” valorized their creative agency. For employers, framing the project as art dismantled their inhibitions and allowed them to explore the topic in a new way.
Both New York and national nanny hotlines were created from the stories, data, and strategies developed by local domestic worker groups across the nation. Working in concert with local domestic worker leaders, REV- involved their participation through storytelling workshops that include voice acting, skits, drawing, and envisioning ways to tell a critical piece of policy in a compelling and creative way.
Did you know that NPR’s Car Talk has more listeners than all other public radio programs combined? The takeaway: humor and off-the-cuff banter can prove more effective than straightforward delivery of hard news. This was the founding basis of how New Day New Standard’s fake call-in radio shows were created.
Characters and character-driven narratives are a fun and easy way to hook in your audience. The New York nanny hotline’s episodes were inspired by and written around the character of Christine Yvette Lewis, whose charisma drove the narrative. The national nanny hotline boasts a bevy of bonkers characters whose dialogue makes the messages stick.