I couldn’t help but wonder…
Are recovering private-sector drop outs who suddenly crush hard on social good a new class of bi-curious bourgeoisie?
Is the ex-banker turned innovator-for-the-poor the new Birkin of urban beings?
Within one former industrial building as my case study, an evening’s planned meeting and chance encounter revealed the class stratification of soul-searching social goodniks and grounded go getters.
Spoiler alert: one of these classes requires a curated co-working community and one does not.
(From Production to Over-Consumption: Re-purposed freight elevator door turned cheese-platter bitch.)
5:15 to 6pm
The Center for Social Innovation
[Where everyone you talk to who works here tells you how ‘great’ everyone else is who works here (e.g. ‘Oh you know Mila? She’s so great, right?)]
Third Floor of the Starr-Lehigh Building
A blind date gone boring.
I am set up to meet with a former London based fashion trend caster who is now spirited to do ‘social good.’ (Why Allah? Why do people think I am the fairy godmother for over-pedigreed late-20-somethings panting about changing society, but with no sense that it requires more than talking about it over coffee?)
So here we are. Lily and me. In an oversized glass conference room on aluminium stools hunched over an elevator door cum table. In this landscape of Macbook Airs, we are surrounded by material artefacts built for heavy lifting. Under-utilised resources abound.
She pleas her case…
Lily: I worked in fashion for five years. I had my dream job. Then I moved to New York because of my husband’s job. Now I want to do something more meaningful. I’ve applied for a few jobs and have been researching different non-profit organizations. In the meantime, I am volunteering here one day a week.
Me: What do you do here?
Lily: I help people figure out the printer. I take care of the communal kitchen. We have salad Thursdays, where we order a lot of lettuce and then everyone brings in their own toppings. I also empower people to make their own coffee.
Me: You mean, you show people how to use the espresso machine?
The rest of the conversation I will summarise as Lily telling me about how she has been transferring her deep longing to make a difference in the world into a variety of Google searches. I then tell her that she needs to identify what concrete skills she has to offer her potential employer, as non-profits and social enterprises tend not to hire people solely on their inclination to not intentionally be assholes. She thanks me profusely for my advice, and I wonder how much I should be charging for this service.
(West Side Highway overlooking Pier 25)
6 - 7:15pm
Lobby of the Starr-Lehigh Building
It is raining out. I have no umbrella. I am 6 months pregnant.
I decide to wait it out in the lobby. I find a seat on a window ledge next to a powerful looking man in a black suit and a large studded name plate necklace that reads ‘MEGA.’ I like him instantly.
So here we are. Mega and me. I watch him as he watches everything. A woman across the lobby drops a business card from her pocket and he dashes to her feet to pick it up. He observes catering provisions and fashion-week fans as they get clearance from the concierge to join a party. He is body guarding a celebrity on shoot in the building. He is working the room, making sure nothing suspect transpires.
Mega: I got started in this business on a night like tonight, about 15 years ago. I had just gotten out of rehab and I needed a job. The only work I had done was as a bouncer. I wanted to get out of that scene. Too many drugs and fights. I had a meeting with someone in construction. But it was raining so hard that he didn’t show. I didn’t know what to do, so I just started to walk. I walked in the rain up the West Side Highway. I kept walking until I stumbled onto this movie shoot. I started knocking on trailers asking for work. Finally, someone said yes. They were short a security guard that day and I started working right away.
Me: So you specialise in protecting movie shoots?
Mega: Yeah, I do movies, commercials, events. I realised that it was something I was really good at. Since I was little, I paid attention to everything. I used to memorise licence plate numbers for fun.
Me: And now you made your own business out of it.
Mega: Yeah. I like what I do. I have 10-25 guys working for me at any time. I’ve got shoots all over this city.
As Mega tells me about awkward moments minding the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Will Smith, I am thinking, ‘where were you an hour ago when I was upstairs in the innovation bowl?’
Mega’s empowerment could not have been any farther from the DIY macchiato variety.
His success began with going outside. Absent were the curated meet-ups, participatory lunches, and communal high-end appliances. His enterprising path was the city itself. He took a walk and a risk, self-assessed his skills and natural inclinations, and then applied and eventually scaled what he was good at.
If only all the freight elevators had not been converted into furniture, perhaps there would have been a way to deliver his gravitas up to the third floor.
Background on the Kafala System
Implications of the Sponsorship System (ILO 2011)
Youth Migrant Rights Project (Advocacy & Research Organisation)
Kuwait Social Work Society (local NGO)
Walls at Every Turn - Human Rights Watch report on domestic workers in Kuwait (2010)
Groups Begin Worker Rights Campaign (July 2010)
Put Yourself in Her Shoes (video)
Put Yourself in Her Shoes (press release)
Ending Modern Slavery (Al Jazeera 2010)
Kuwait: Rights Setbacks Amid Political Crisis (Human Rights Watch, 2013)
The Golden Triangle Project (video in Arabic)
The Golden Triangle Project (video in English)
Indians in Kuwait (classified ads)