Photo Essay: The Dignity of Custodians

“I’m singing. I’m praising the Lord when I’m working.”

The coronavirus pandemic sparked the idea of “essential workers”—those whose jobs were so crucial to the ongoing functioning of the economy and of our collective well-being that they were exempt from quarantine rules. Sadly, essential workers—like the custodians who ensure that work spaces are regularly cleaned and maintained—have also long been exempted from equitable pay, a strong enforcement of health and safety standards, and the dignity they deserve. Disproportionately low-income immigrants and people of color, custodial workers’ rights are a matter of racial justice, as Evalynn Romano, the daughter of University of Washington custodians, outlines in her analysis. This photo essay captures the hard work and dignity of UW custodians.

Time for Vacuuming, 2020. “I like to take the picture so you can see the way I do the vacuum. Using the mask, the gloves, and doing my job. It’s happy too, because when I’m vacuuming, no tired at all because … I’m singing. I’m praising the Lord when I’m working.” —A.R.
Photo courtesy of A.R.
I’m So Proud To Be a Custodian, 2020. “You know what, honestly, I’m so proud to be a custodian. And I really like it. I’m trying to show that I’m a custodian. And I’m so proud. I’m trying to do my best that I’m doing my job. All my PPE, all I need is [in my cart], and everything is complete.” —L.R.
Photo courtesy of L.R.
He’s Doing the Right Thing, 2020. “Yesterday, we have run and team group. It’s just like [when] somebody is not here and we have to [clean their areas] … we call it run. We have to do it, because that’s a part of our job. To make it clean all the time and safe and healthy.” —L.R.
Photo courtesy of L.R.
Happy Clients Make Custodians Smile, 2020. “She wanted to let me know that the department is pleased with all of my hard work in keeping them safe during this pandemic. She also mentioned to me that my smile every day is so contagious.” —Shirley H.
Photo courtesy of Shirley H.
Tribal Connection, 2020. “Native American influence to live and stay strong. Walk tall among the trees, stay proud and tall, and be known by the tracks you leave.” —Kristine Paul
Photo courtesy of Kristine Paul.
Bonding, 2020. “That’s my kids, and that’s their dog, Ako. They move on and they’re happy now. They are wearing the mask. It’s just like dog is like a medicine. And they move on.” —L.R.
Photo courtesy of L.R.
Concentrate, 2020. “They are so nice. They are concentrating, about to log in their phone their time. I take that picture to … always remind me how to do … the time for login. Related to my health is the distancing. And we wear mask too.” —A.R.
Photo courtesy of A.R.
Leadership, 2020. “That’s like our leadership over there. Every day, I see [my co-worker] and me. Anything talking about funny things. You gotta have somebody around, especially in the work, because it’s hard to be doing by yourself.” —Serafin Divina
Photo courtesy of Serafin Divina.
Cleaning, 2020. “I was working in [UW’s] Paul Allen [Center]. I do like 10 refrigerator clean[ings] in one day. I just did that for like 25 minutes cleaning. That’s all you can do; wipe it down, turn it off the [re]frigerator, and the wings. I enjoy working, believe me. I’m not perfect, but it’s good. I mean, excellent.” —Serafin Divina
Photo courtesy of Serafin Divina.
My Yellow Shield, 2020. “To avoid from having COVID. This yellow shield will represent you who you are. Lalo lalo na sa mga estudyante na nag-aaral sa building. [Especially for the students who study in the building.] Yes, not only myself, for everybody.” —R.R.
Photo courtesy of R.R.
Window Door, 2020. “Squeezer. She clean the window [of the] door. Because that’s our job. I like it, to clean. I’m very happy. That’s my job.” —Mihret Dessu
Photo courtesy of Mihret Dessu.
T3 Machine, 2020. “Eight or so years ago, we don’t have this … we use mop, wet mop. Wet mop is very hard. We use this one, T3 machine. I like it. Big help for me.” —Mihret Dessu
Photo courtesy of Mihret Dessu.
Blower, 2020. “Elsa is hard worker. She blowing outside. Because when you blow outside, the inside [of the building] keep clean. Safe for inside, that’s why I like it.” —R.M.
Photo courtesy of R.M.
Looks Good Garden, 2020. “Organic, it’s good for your health. When you do it, it makes you happy. It’s more work, but it makes you happy. Tomatoes and zucchini at my house.” —Amaresh Teklehaimanot
Photo courtesy of Amaresh Teklehaimanot.
Small Table for the Coffee, 2020. “The weekend Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I sit there, I make coffee. My husband, he sit next to me. Even my friends sit next to me. You know, talking each other … just enjoy life. Enjoy. That’s coffee. Coffee is health! You know, we have energy.” —W.T.
Photo courtesy of W.T.
For Memory, 2020. “I am eat [at the mall], with a flower. That’s why I do it. My body relax is good. Sometimes, I’m off Saturday, Sunday. And boring [at] the house. [My son says,] ‘OK, go mama,’ with the little bit of walk.” —Leteberhan Zewdie
Photo courtesy of Leteberhan Zewdie .
Baskets, 2020. “That particular basket is on the side of his auntie and uncle’s house … we don’t play the game as much, but I’ll take time to shoot baskets or have my son shoot baskets, and that gives us some physical activity and something that we do together. As … son and father, you know.” —T.W.
Photo courtesy of T.W.
Empty Seat, Empty Heart, 2020. “I took a picture of my empty heart while watching an empty bus caused by a pandemic.” —B.H.
Photo courtesy of B.H.
Will Be Back to Normal?, 2020.
Photo courtesy of B.H.
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Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com
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Evalynn Fae Taganna Romano is a proud daughter of University of Washington (UW) custodians, a public health researcher serving communities of color, a mental health clinician for survivors of violence and traumatic loss, and a strong advocate for custodial worker rights. Since the pandemic began, she has served, collaborated with, and advocated for custodians at UW, bringing attention to the inequities they face through photography-based storytelling. Evalynn enjoys drinking coffee, going on hikes, bouldering, and community organizing. Evalynn is based in Seattle and speaks Tagalog, Waray-Waray, Khmer, and English. She can be reached at: www.uwcustodianproject.com
Michael Luong is the associate art director at YES!.
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