UNO English Alum Michaela Dei Uses Skills Acquired in her Graduate English Classes to Advocate for Improved Worker Protections in Nebraska
I recently accepted a new position at the Refugee Empowerment Center (REC) as Office Manager. I am excited to stay on staff and build on my last six years of experience in refugee programs. This week, I started by developing a 24/7 REC Help Desk form using Airtable to streamline support needs. I also created a 29-question Organizational Development tool (Employee Engagement Survey) using Airtable to assess staff needs/wants/challenges, improve organization and coordination of office operations/procedures/resources, and facilitate operational effectiveness and efficiency. As Office Manager, I hope to utilize the information learned in my MA English degree (especially Critical Discourse Analysis and Digital Literacies) to communicate, create, coordinate, and increase access to education and resources for staff and clients and contribute toward a positive work environment with high quality service delivery.
Before taking the Office Manager position, I was working on a COVID-19 Worker Protections Survey for food processing employees and employers. The survey is mostly framed, but it allows for open-ended discussion at the end for people to share their experience. I have spoken with people from Omaha, Lexington, Schuyler, and other cities, and in many languages. I originally started by following up with former refugees placed in food processing plant jobs in the last few years to offer the survey---there are hundreds of people that come to Nebraska and may get lost in the system, so it was important to follow up to offer an opportunity to see how they are doing. The majority of the people I have spoken with up until now have heard about it by word of mouth through community access points or while I am out doing fieldwork. My hope is that this online mechanism empowers people to use their voice to share their experience, in a language of their choice. While conducting these efforts, it made me think about what I learned in Dr. Guerra’s class and the power of testimonio.
I also wanted to share the details of how technology has been utilized to help the process. Data entered through the Airtable is automatically entered into forms. Although Airtable hasn't developed translation options, on my employer's Wordpress page interface, which I edited, there is an option for people to write their name, phone number, and language, so I can call them with an interpreter or use the Language Line. My role as Interim Health and Safety Advocate is temporary and ends at the end of the month, but the positive thing is that this online mechanism will continue to be sustained and findings may aid in improving worker protections in Nebraska.
While working on these projects, I considered how refugees are resettled into Omaha and often cycled into harsh-labor, low paying jobs. One positive update is that Refugee Empowerment Center is working to counter that. The Executive Director started Project Refuge which provides stipends to cover expenses for new arrivals for an entire year, so people can attend English classes/access education first instead of being required to enter the workforce within 90 days of arrival (which is the State of Nebraska's usual requirement), often lacking the time or energy to access English classes. The implementation of Project Refuge increases access to education.