Family Work History Project Bridges Generations
(January 2012)

This fall, Paula Panzarella reprised and expanded the Family Work History Project in the New Haven Public Schools initiated by Outreach Coordinator Christine Saari last spring. She offered an introductory session to 12 classes and presented each teacher with a full set of curriculum materials for their own future use in the classroom.

The introductory sessions offered students an opportunity to practice interviewing subjects about their lives at work. Participating were Lula White, Dorothy Johnson and Lt. Gary Tinney of the New Haven Fire Department.  Public Schools initiated by Outreach Coordinator Christine Saari last spring. She offered an introductory session to 12 classes and presented each teacher with a full set of curriculum materials for their own future use in the classroom.

Paula, Lula and Dorothy share their reflections about the process:

Paula Panzarella:

Introductory classes were given at Worthington Hooker, Nathan Hale, Clinton Avenue, Katherine Brennan Schools and the Columbus Family Academy. All the teachers to whom I presented the curriculum were enthusiastic about the introductory class with interviewees. Teachers are looking for ways to inspire their students to want to learn. They were happy that the introductory class involved interviewees so the students could practice that skill.

I began the introductory class with a few words about labor history and the value of work through all societies, in all countries. I showed  a few photos of child laborers from 100 years ago (textile millworkers, miners, farmworkers) and talked about how people demanded labor laws, the end of childhood labor, safe working conditions, benefits, etc. I played two segments from Mabel Batts’ oral history interview about her experience as a garment worker.

Having two interviewees per class provided an opportunity to involve all the students who wanted to ask questions. Most classrooms had between 24 and 27 students. Some teachers said their quietest students or more difficult students participated by asking questions.  Many students took copious notes and may be writing essays based on the practice interviews.

Questions from students varied. Some groups focused on the personal (How many brothers and sisters do you have? What did you like to do when you were a kid?); some groups focused on work (What was your first job like? Was it scary being on strike? What was school like when you taught?); and some wanted details about going to jail (because of the Freedom Rides and the teachers’ strike). The questions asked of Lt. Tinney included “What was the scariest thing that happened to you?” and “Why do you want to have such a dangerous job?”

Being scared on the picket line, being scared about saving someone in a fire, being scared of getting beat up in Mississippi: all three interviewees were asked about their fears. It was a very valuable experience for  students to realize that fear is not something only children feel, but that adults are in situations where they have to deal with their emotions. For students who may have felt a generational divide from adults, I think through the GNHLHA project they learned more about the common humanity we share.

Lula White: "The Right Thing To Do"

In the future, students will hopefully be able to interview their parents, grandparents, and other relatives and neighbors about their work history. For practice, they had a chance to interview Dorothy Johnson (former Circuit Wise employee and president of her United Electrical Workers Local 299 chapter), Lt. Gary Tinney of the New Haven Fire Department , and I.I am a laundry worker, hospital worker and public school teacher.

Paula Panzarella accompanied the interviewees. We spoke about working conditions for children one hundred years ago; played a tape of a woman about her work in the garment industry in the 1920sundefined1940s and showed slides of child laborers from the early 20th century. Panzarella emphasized the laws that outlawed child labor.

Lt. Tinney talked about fire department hiring qualifications and overcoming fear of heights. He also explained that most of the department’s work dealt with medical calls and community services.

I spoke about my first job at age sixteen as a summer employee at Majestic Laundry, where labor laws protected me from hazardous work like working in the boiler room or pressing hot laundry items.

I was also asked about my experiences as a Freedom Rider: “When you got to Mississippi and saw how scary it was, did you think you made a mistake and want to go back home?” I answered ,“When you decide that you have to do something, even if you’re scared, you go ahead and do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Dorothy Johnson: "Join A Union First"

I will admit I was a little nervous when we had our first appointment at Worthington Hooker School on Whitney Ave. I am usually the one during the interviewing, but this time it would be different.

But the children greeted us with warmth and excitement. Paula Panzarella began with an introduction of my past work experience at Circuitwise Electronic Facility previously located in North Haven and  my organizing the union and the strike that took place there.

The class was divided up into two groups. There was no need to worry about shyness. Hands went up quickly and the interviews were in full swing.

I must share some of the questions that were asked. Where was I born? Birmingham Alabama. How long did I live there? Only about one and a half years, then my family moved to CT for better opportunities.

What type of fun did I have growing up? They enjoyed these answers. Bowling, roller skating, heading to downtown New Haven to the local movie theatres, bicycle riding --and I was queen of double dutch jump rope in my neighborhood. The children could really relate to these activities.

Questions started moving toward my organizing a union at Circuitwise. I remember one student asking me if I was afraid during this process. “Yes,” I responded. I thought I would get into serious trouble. They couldn’t fully understand why we went out on strike if it wasn’t about the money. Explaining took a little time.

Workers voted for the union and won but still the company felt that they could get rid of the union. Of course workers want better benefits and better working conditions, but we were seeking justice and dignity for everyone. I had to be truthful to the children about the strike. The union did a lot of preparation before the strike started, set up strike kitchens, gas vouchers, and energy funds to pay our bills.

The next questions were: How did we stay on strike for 17 months? Didn’t you ever think about giving up?

I answered that it was very hard to be out for that long but if you believe in something which is right you fight to the finish. We also had a good core group of strikers who came everyday to the picket line.

When the interviews were winding down, they wanted to know what it was like to be President of my local union. I said that I found it to be a very valuable experience of helping others to gain the knowledge of educating or organizing and mobilizing others to speak up and stand up for what is right for workers.

Before ending the interviews one young fellow who was excited about the strike asked, “Can I go out on strike?” I responded swiftly, “You must join a union first.”

The Family Work History Project welcomes new project coordinator Paula Panzarella
(Fall 2011)

Message from Paula Panzarella:

Last Spring, the Greater New Haven Labor History Association Outreach Coordinator Christine Saari initiated a wonderfully successful labor history program with students from Worthington Hooker and Katherine Brennan schools.  Almost one hundred sixth and eighth-grade social studies students learned how to conduct interviews with their parents and elders about work and wrote essays based on the interviews. The essays were used to create a composite performance piece with music and song by Mike Kachuba, and was performed by the students on the New Haven Green on May 1.

The Greater New Haven Labor History Association will be building off the success of last year's program, and has revised the Family Work History Project in order to reach a greater number of teachers and students. As the project coordinator, I will meet with fifteen social studies teachers in Connecticut to introduce them to the Family Work History Project and provide them with material so they can create a Family Work History Project with their own students.

I will have one meeting with their students to conduct a condensed workshop about the importance of our history at work, how to conduct an interview and how to write and present essays based on an oral history interview.  Students will have the opportunity to practice interviewing a retired or active worker who will accompany me. Volunteer interviewees will be chosen from a variety of industries and occupations in the greater New Haven area.

For teachers who decide to incorporate the five-class curriculum, I will be available to assist in planning and publicizing their classes’ “grand finale” performance.

I look forward to helping the students discover their “inner journalist” as they gain an understanding and appreciation of labor history. Please e-mail me at or call (203) 562-2798 for any questions or suggestions. Thank you.

Family Work History Project a Success
(Spring 2011)

By Christine Saari, Outreach Coordinator

Nearly one hundred 6th and 8th grade students from the Worthington Hooker and Katharine Brennan schools in New Haven have conducted oral history interviews with mentors in the labor force through the GNHLHA’s “Family Work History Project” this past February.

Common themes of perseverance, fulfillment, love of life, overcoming obstacles, commitment to family and immigration have emerged within the finished essays.  The students reported with pride that their mentors – often parents, family friends and grandparents – are “heros” that they hope to emulate. 

One such student, Arianna S., wrote with reverence about her dad who now works as a custodian.  She quotes her dad as he describes the camaraderie he experienced in his work community: “‘One time there was a custodian with cancer, so all the custodians came together and had a car wash to raise money for him,’ my dad said thoughtfully.” Arianna is just one of many students who draw inspiration from stories like these.  She continues: “In years to come, I foresee my dad continuing to work hard every day because that’s the type of man he is. I hope that when my time comes to begin working that I will work as hard as him.”

So often we forget what a powerful impact we, as “regular” workers, can have on young people today by speaking with them and sharing our own work experiences. 

The project culminated on May 1, 2011 with a performance at the May Day Festival on the New Haven Green.  The performance featured moving student accounts of their mentor’s work experiences and the premier of “They Did Their Part”, an original song written by musician Mike Kachuba for the occasion.  The song was based on the students’ collective stories and is a tribute to workers in our community who set examples for today’s youth every day through their integrity on the job.

GNHLHA is in the process of raising funds to repeat and expand the scope of the project for the 2011-2012 school year.  Contact us at (203) 777-2756 or if you would like to contribute, or you may donate online here.

Student essay highlights
Please enjoy these student excerpts, which will serve to remind us of the power of our own labor history in inspiring tomorrow’s workers.


Grace interviewed her grandmother, who worked secretarial and accounting jobs, on handling job politics and going back to school later in life.

“My grandmother is a headstrong, independent woman, who doesn’t take no for an answer. People may think she is weak and can’t defend herself, but I know for a fact she can hold her own in a conversation.  [She] told me that at some of her jobs she was taken advantage of because of her youth or because of her inexperience. I asked her if she was treated poorly at any of her jobs and her answer was: “I’m a pretty good-natured person, so I usually adapt to my working conditions or change the situation around.” When I asked my grandmother if her jobs got better after she attended college, I was very surprised to learn that she didn’t go to college to improve her job opportunities. In fact, she attended college [in her mid 50’s] because she wanted it for herself -- to be able to complete something she had started a long time ago. That’s one of the strongest reasons why I respect my grandmother so highly. She went back to college after having two kids just to get a better education.”


Zoe drew inspiration from the story of her mom’s unfolding career as a chef.  Zoe’s mom developed a career she loves through hard work and through an awareness of changes within the industry.

“Everyone has to do something and accomplish something to get to the top, and so did my mom. For example, she started her interest in being a chef when she was 25. “I loved having parties and making food...” she said while tucking a strand of her curly hair behind her ear. She loved inviting guests over and having huge parties. She would cook and prepare all the food, and that is where she found her joy. Her next step was working as a chef at restaurants, cooking food with a bunch of other cooks at her side. Sometimes she would cook alone, like when she had her own catering business. But then the big boost was finally going to culinary school, a school for chefs.  It was there that she learned everything you could possibly want to know about food trends, styles, and how to cook anything just right.  So now as you can see, my mother has had a great experience becoming a chef.”


Anny interviewed her mom, a Korean immigrant who has worked as a teacher, from elementary school through college-level, abroad in Israel and Korea.

“Once, when teaching about the word bald, my mom told a joke about bald people. In Korea, it is said that a bald person likes free things. So she told the story, but near the end, she realized that there was a bald man in the front row. “I was so embarrassed*,” she recalled. “I didn’t mean any offence…and he was in the front row!” She said it was one of the worst experiences she’d had in the job.  She now works a job that is the hardest of all -- as a housewife -- raising two contrary children. I really admire my mother, who managed to juggle it all, both family and jobs, in a country not her own.”


Matteo interviewed his grandmother’s difficulties growing up poor and her struggles to establish herself as a young woman in her early twenties with three children to support.

“My grandmother is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. She was born at Yale New Haven Hospital in 1951. Growing up, she didn’t have it easy.  Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was often out of work, so she was raised in the care of her grandmother.  They lived in crowded home with not enough to eat, and one time they went without hot water for months.  My grandmother learned early that anything she wanted or needed, she would have to paid for.  She took the bus to and from school and worked countless odd jobs liked paper girl or baby sitter. Although she worked many hours, Linda had numerous friends and always made fun from nothing.  She had three children to support, mostly without much help, by the time she was age 21. Her first professional job was at Yale as a receptionist, a position she later had to relinquish due to problems her daughter, my mom, was having that she needed to attend to.  After a time of unemployment, she eventually found a new profession.  She now works as a registered nurse’s assistant and is going back to school to become a full nurse. I really admire my grandmother’s dedication to our family and her ability to meet struggles head-on.”


Langston interviewed his grandmother on growing up and working in the South.

“My grandmother was born on August 21, 1943. She grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a segregated neighborhood. “It was hard growing up in a place where blacks were treated way different than others,” she said. When I go grocery shopping with her she always sees a student that she has taught. They always say, “Ms. E, Ms. E., you were my favorite teacher!” My grandmother always says that her students don’t really mean it, but in fact they actually do!!  Another thing I admire was when she created the Young Women’s Leadership Group, which [I’m proud to say] is still active today!”


Melik interviewed his dad about his experience facing a difficult job day after day in order to provide for his family.

“My father’s job was working at Yale.  The first months he was working there he was doing well, but a couple of years later things got difficult.  They cut his pay, so he was forced to take over-time hours to make up for the lost income.  The hours were difficult on him and his family.  The job was also quite grueling.  My father told me that he only had a little bit of lunch time and often could not finish his lunch.  They had to work without stopping most of the time.  Even though my dad’s job was so difficult, he showed up every day to provide for our family.  I admire how hard he works for us.  That is my father’s story.”


Zenon interviewed her grandmother on the changing field of typographical work and her legacy of integrity at work.

“Back in 1944, World War II had just ended the world had shed its tears and mourned its losses. From the rich and famous to those who needed to supply for themselves and possibly others, everyone worked.  At that time, my grandmother was only the tender age of seventeen, though she spent her time working unlike many of the youth of this generation.  She did her job well to be paid accordingly, and even flew the coop of her first job in the name of better wages.

“She often sat at her desk, cutting out a stencil.  The repetition of the task may have made the job dull, but she was still proud to serve an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.  Her first job of cutting stencils and hole-punching has now been replaced by a machine. I love her story because it is not quite as adventurous as the stories that usually survive until today.  Her story shows that someone doesn’t need to accomplish the world to finish the day, they just need the sun to go down, and so the story of the young girl lives on, and how every day she went to work, worked hard, and made the best decisions she could.”

Greater New Haven Labor History Association  •  267 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT 06513 • •

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