The stories in Standing Up are linked thematically and appear in chronological order, beginning with 1970. For those of us who have similarly spent time as organizers, the book feels like an anthropological field trip into the past. It could feel like a trip to a distant planet for some, if not for the problems that appear repeatedly and still resonate, sadly, in 2022. Almost like an echo chamber – the same concerns and fraught situations confronted the characters in the 1970s: Racism; class inequities; incarceration; ex-convicts and the entry-level, low-wage jobs they are confined to; arrests for crimes that are a result of poverty; people of color being assigned to the more difficult jobs. “Jim Crow? Oh, you thought that was over?”
The stories pay attention to jobs we normally don’t think about; the call centers; the people who make pipe; or process checks; the hospital laundries. What they entail close up, the daily indignities, and the dangers inherent in routinized sloppy procedures that are just part of the day’s work. One example — the contaminants employees are exposed to while working in the hospital laundry. The hardships resulting from the lay-offs and shift work and the havoc they cause in a working person’s life. One character, questioning company policy, says: “Why do we have to wait five years to get sick?”
The stories describe the choices people have to make and their impact, a sick child, an abusive husband; the constant costs of having too little money; the sheer drudgery of doing these jobs and the utter lack of any control over their working lives; the small indignities and the larger practices that play havoc with those lives.
The main theme that runs like a thread throughout the stories is organizing. In the acknowledgments, Bravo describes a conversation with her father, as he dismissed her plan to become an organizer. Countering his litany of drawbacks, she presciently told him: “You’re forgetting the joy.” The stories describe what happens when the people who Imbolo Mbue calls “the deliberately unheard” (as opposed to “the voiceless”) stand up for themselves and others.
The book captures the process in different settings, when people consciously act to fathom and then dismantle the obstacles they encounter, piece by piece. The process of convincing one’s self and the challenge of then convincing others to take a risk and speak up, act up. What it’s like to challenge one’s immediate environment through taking collective action and the changes – the personal epiphanies – that can result. The small victories and then passing it on, finding the next cause, once empowered by the contagious spirit of organizing.