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A response to NYT nail salon exposé: “This only happened because people organized.”

Every evening on my way home from work, I open my “college rape” Google Alert email. And in it — every day, without fail — there’s a steady stream of articles that paints campus anti-rape activists as sad, disempowered rape girls.

As a survivor and young anti-rape organizer myself, I feel endlessly frustrated with media outlets’ persistent tendency to collapse narrative diversity, de-contextualize structural issues, and erase on-the-ground organizing and resistance. It’s hard as organizers to push back on these neatly packaged media narratives — after all, nice, simple stories are intuitively appealing, and comfortable, and sell. And that’s one of the reasons I was glad to see Sukjong Hong’s recent graphic journalism piece on nail salon workers’ organizing efforts.

In it, Hong offers a response to the recent New York Times nail salon exposé, which documented dangerous working conditions, widespread health problems, and rampant wage theft in New York City salons. Hong complicates the Times’ portrayal of the workers as helpless, uninformed victims by highlighting the history of nail salon workers’ efforts to organize for better working conditions, the growth of community organizations and wage theft clinics to support workers, and new proposed legislation to strengthen workers’ rights. And she situates the Times’ piece itself in the broader struggle, making clear that the article didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

She writes:

Cathy Dang, 30, the director of a Chinatown tenants’ rights organization, remembers when her parents’ nail salon was one of the few in NYC…. Cathy is glad that nail salons are now part of a national conversation, but… “I know this only happened because people organized, not because suddenly people cared.”

Without for a second minimizing the very real, very bad experiences of many salon workers, Hong complicates the monolithic victim narrative the Times’ piece paints. She cites Christina Chang, a young woman who works in an immigration advocacy organization:

Christina… credits her mom’s nail salon career with putting her and her sister through school. She is wary of the way people have started talking about nail salon workers. “The overwhelming lens I’ve been noticing is this victimization of nail salon workers, whereas I see a lot more agency in their chosen profession and the livelihood that they have been able to create.”

As the introduction to her piece points out, Hong counts salon workers as members of her community. She has herself taken part in a salon worker’s wage recovery campaign. It’s clear that her organizing experience enriches and expands her journalism — and, on the flip side, that her writing amplifies and bolsters her community’s organizing work. Her piece is all the richer for her intimate familiarity with the community about which she writes. It’s a helpful reminder that — as Gene Demby explored recently — rather than compromising journalism’s imagined “objectivity,” reporters who bring personal knowledge of the stories and communities they’re covering actually strengthen the craft.

Hong’s piece is worth a read in full. Check it out over at Fusion — it’s available in Korean too.

Header image credit: Sukjong Hong

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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