Voices from the Edge: Literary Cleveland publishes writings of essential workers during pandemic

Christen Lee, a nurse practitioner with 20 years of experience in healthcare, last year was working as a nurse at a Lakewood CVS health clinic—the region’s busiest clinic—when the coronavirus took its hold on Cleveland and the rest of the country in March 2020.

Lee, who now is with Cleveland Clinic, regularly witnessed coworkers and patients falling victim to the virus as she and her team also struggled with being unprepared for a new and lethal enemy, securing adequate supplies, and caring for patients.

Christen Lee“In the beginning of the pandemic I saw more of a challenge in the lack of preparedness, the lack of resources,” Lee recalls. “There was a lot of heightened fear and really being overwhelmed by a situation none of us had been in before.”

In that same period, Fatima Matar was working as a childcare provider for a baby and was a seasonal worker at Target—stocking shelves, working a cash register, and cleaning carts. The writer and artist with a law degree came to Northeast Ohio from Kuwait in 2019, and a year later she was working in minimum wage jobs that helped other people do their jobs.

Essential workers like Lee and Matar experienced all of the emotions so many people went trough during the height of the pandemic—from fear and frustration, to worry and anger. But many people don’t really know or understand what these people, deemed “essential,” experienced while may people locked down in their own homes.

Now, Lee and Matar are two of 60 essential workers—from grocery store workers and delivery drivers, to caregivers and physicians—who have worked with Literary Cleveland to publish Voices from the Edge an anthology of 20 original poems and essays by local essential workers. who reflect on their experiences during the pandemic. There will be a free virtual launch party and anthology reading tonight, Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.

Literary Cleveland executive director Matt Weinkam knows how liberating writing can be for people who have gone through traumatic or trying experiences. So, in April, May, and June this year Literary Cleveland launched an eight-week trauma-informed writing workshop for 60 essential workers.

Three in 10 Ohioans are in essential jobs and face higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 at work, yet they are paid 12.9% less than the median pay for employees in non-essential roles, according to a study by Policy Matters Ohio and Essential Ohio.

Fatima MatarThe anthology is meant to re-engage the public with the individual stories of these essential workers and transform our understanding of the challenges they face—as well as advocate for higher pay and better protections for Ohio workers. “I don’t think may of us thought about the grocery store cashier, the bus driver, the [person] restoring power lines,” Weinkam says.

Instructors Christopher Johnston, Lisa Langford, Vince Robinson, and Logan Smith led the participants to help them process their experiences, connect with fellow frontline workers, and write their stories.

Workshop sessions were offered on different days and at various times, to accommodate different schedules, and they were paid $15 an hour for their time. Weinkam calls the honorarium “hero pay” for the job essential workers have done during the pandemic.

“Part of our mission is to amplify the voices of people and groups that have gone overlooked or underappreciated,” explains Weinkam. “By providing this program we wanted to offer essential workers an opportunity to cope with their experiences and tell their stories.”

Lee, who has written poetry and journaled since she was 14, wrote a hybrid collection of poetry and essays and says the workshop helped her process her emotions. “With the start of the pandemic I felt myself really digging in more and [the workshop] was a healthy outlet to work through some of these difficult times. It was very cathartic—I felt like I processed it at a different level.”

Weinkam says the workshop was also a way for others to take a look inside the lives of the workers who kept things going during the shutdown.

“It was just as important to share their stories with the public so we could walk in their shoes, understand their lived experiences of the pandemic and the sacrifices they made on a more personal level,” he explains. “Our hope is that this inspires all of us to support essential workers in the same way they supported us.”

Matar says she is frustrated by the lack of appreciation workers in the service industry have experienced in the past 20 months. “All of these jobs are necessary for other people to do their jobs. We’re being called essential, but at the same time we’re underpaid,” she says. “In the end, proper compensation and a livable wage is what these people need.”

When Matar was taking care of the child, she says there were days when her boss would tell her not to come in so she would have to go without pay. Another time, when her boss forgot to pay Matar, the boss snapped at her when she texted a reminder. “She said, ‘You only work for the money,’” Matar recalls. “There’s this act of shaming minimum wagers—I can’t believe I was being shamed when they know they rely on caregivers.”

Matar said the woman did apologize for the comment later. “These are micro-aggressions that these workers face on a daily basis,” she says. Matar shared her experience in her essay “Baby.”

Weinkam says the workshops, and now the published anthology, have been great ways for these workers to share their feelings with each other and the world. “There has not been a forum in a social situation where we can unburden ourselves of what happened in the last year and a half,” he says. “They’ve been hard at work for 18 months—they’ve been keeping businesses going, keeping the lights on. We can play a small role in supporting them the way they’ve supported us.”                                                           

As a member of Literary Cleveland, Matar agrees the workshop and writing her essay helped her process her feelings and get support. “It felt so wonderful for someone to say, ‘I see you; I feel you.’” she says. “It was nice to be seen, to be appreciated, and it was nice to be given money. It was a huge gift and a wonderful experience.”

The” Voices from the Edge” launch party will be held today, Tuesday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. The event is free. Click here to register and receive the Zoom link.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.