PHOTOS: Life Through The Eyes Of Kansas City's Fast Food Workers

May 13, 2015

On Wednesday, Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann discussed a recent photography exhibit, I, Too, Am America. The photographers are part of the Langston Hughes Club, about 20 fast-food workers who, along with an organization called Stand Up KC, have been on strike for the last two years, pushing for an hourly wage of $15 and a union. Working with photojournalist Steve Herbert, they documented the world through their own eyes.

The guests were:

  • Melinda Robinson, Taco Bell employee, photographer,  I, Too, Am America
  • Hannah Lodwick​, Kansas City artist, activist and curator of I, Too, Am America
  • Caitlin Horsmon, associate professor of film and media arts, University of Missouri-Kansas City 

Here are excerpts of their conversation, edited for length and clarity

Kaufmann: Hannah, the title of the exhibition references a Langston Hughes poem. It tells a story of African-American workers who are not welcomed to sit and eat at the table but who work in the kitchen.

Lodwick: The poem is “I, Too, Sing for America.” The last line culminates in “I, too, am America.” We wanted a quote from Langston Hughes that would encompass what we’re trying to do with the show.

It’s trying to get a first-person perspective on what these fast-food workers’ lives are. Many people in Kansas City, especially in the Westport area, may not be aware of what living in poverty and working for these multi-billion companies really means for these workers. These are Americans. This is a historically motivated movement, racially and economically motivated. So hearing it from that perspective and hearing how Langston Hughes’ experience at the lunch counter is important to contextualize it for today.

Kaufmann: Can you talk about a specific image that shows a different perspective from what your viewers are used to seeing?

Lodwick: Everyone went to Ferguson to be in solidarity with what was going on there six months ago. It was Dana’s birthday, who is a fast-food worker. It’s this beautiful photo of presenting a big sheet cake to someone who’s probably never been able to afford something so large and so extravagant, and in a political context.

Kaufmann: You’re not showing only the difficulty of living in poverty, it’s intermixed with these universal human things like birthdays. Melinda, tell me about taking that photograph.

Robinson: That picture meant a lot. Even though we were doing something very serious to us, we still had time to celebrate and show appreciation for our family members, because Stand Up KC is family.

Kaufmann: Tell us about yourself and how you got into fast food jobs.

Robinson: I grew up in Ohio. I came to Kansas City in 1999, for family. I’ve been in the fast-food industry for 22 years. My first job was at Wendy’s. I love people. I put smiles on their faces. I’m a happy person. Even though things are rough I’m still going to work with a smile on my face. When people have bad days and come into work, I try to make them have better days.

Kaufmann: What are some details of your day people wouldn’t think about?

Robinson: It’s hard. We face discrimination and harassment. It hurts. We have no benefits. People get hurt at work and there are no first-aid kits. Women are not allowed to fry foods, they’re only supposed to be in front counter cashiering or at the drive-through window, yet we can work as hard as men do.

Kaufmann: You are married and have seven kids. How do you juggle all of that?

Robinson: I try to work around my husband’s schedule because I no longer have child care. After he gets off work, I go in to work. Coming home to having your lights off, not being able to take showers at your house and having to go to your job and wash up in sink because you can’t afford your bills, those are hurtful things. Yet and still we work for these billion dollar companies and our appreciation is nothing.

Kaufmann: Is it awkward to go on strike and then go back to work at that job?

Robinson: It makes you feel a lot different, like: ‘Hey, I could come to work and I could be proud because I’m doing something we deserve.’ So Going on strike, and then walking back to your job, makes you feel amazing.

Kaufmann: I hear there’s paperwork that gets filed and a witness who comes with you.

Robinson: The organizer comes with you, and you sign two sheets of paper. One says you’re not going to be at work that day, so they can’t write you up for ‘no call no show.’ The other paper says, ‘She’s coming back, you can’t retaliate against her in any form.’ On your shift, you have allies who walk you back.

Kaufmann: What do you want people to take away from seeing your family photos?

Robinson: I just want people to understand. You don’t need to just hear our stories, you need to see our stories and what it’s like to live in poverty. We want you to come join us, support us in our movement, understand why it’s important.

Kaufmann: Hannah, in the show there’s a cluster of workplace logistical details, including a sign that tells people they’re on lockdown for the next two hours, which I presume means can’t leave their work stations. Pay stubs, “sign in” and “sign out,” work calendars. Why are these grouped together?

Lodwick: It was striking how ironic these photographs are: “Pay for these McDonald’s shoes, which are $35 but there’s a coupon for 15 percent off.” These workers have to work seven hours to afford those shoes. There’s a sign that says “Know your money” to identify counterfeit bills, but to know or see a $100 bill is not something these people are accustomed to. To understand that from that perspective was a little alarming.

Kaufmann: Caitlin Horsman, is there a precedent for a protest movement or a protest movement fueled by art?

Horsman: Ever since beginning of photography, people have considered merging image-making and politics. In the U.S., during the Great Depression, there were film and photo leagues all over the country where workers got together to imagine the world through their perspective. The internal perspective is an important one: How you pick the most important image. The artist makes that choice.

Kaufmann: Melinda, how do you make that choice?

Robinson: They’re all important. I just close my eyes and picked one. Unfortunately the ones that I picked are the ones that people are seeing of my daily life. There are so many more pictures we have out there that people haven’t had a chance to see: What it’s like inside my home, but just being inside my home with six kids in a two-bedroom house. I’m going to continue taking pictures, doing what we’re doing, get the shots that are not, ‘Hey, sit there, pose like this.’ The ones that aren’t what you usually get, but you really should get.