Carrie Freshour is a new addition to the Geography department as an Assistant Professor, as well as a new faculty associate with the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. Freshour received her PhD from Cornell in Developmental Sociology where she published her dissertation, “‘Ain’t no life for a mother!’: Racial capitalism and the crisis of social reproduction.”
Freshour joins us from the U.S. South, which is where much of her research starts. In addition to being a Southerner and a professor, Freshour is an adoptee, an Asian American, a labor activist, and more.
You can connect with Freshour on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfresssh.
Bridges Center: What are your research focuses? Why did you become interested in this type of work?
Carrie Freshour: First I’ll speak more broadly. Labor and organizing, race and racism, immigration, the black radical tradition, and food and agriculture in the rural U.S. South. Specifically, my research has been with women who work in the poultry processing plants in northeast Georgia. I’ve looked at how they expand the category of labor and what labor organizing might look like through everyday practices both in and outside of the poultry plants.
A lot of why [I became interested in this type of work] comes from where I was raised. I grew up in rural northwest Georgia seeing the lack of job opportunities in that place and region, but also how the rural south in particular is often portrayed by people outside of it, who have never really known the South. I started thinking about what those sorts of stories do to the folks who live there and continue to fight for things like racial and economic justice. That’s a big influence on the work that I do-- re-telling, or telling a counter-narrative about that region, and about the South. Additionally, in my hometown growing up in rural Georgia, you continue to see the vestiges of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. It’s very evident in those spaces, like in rural Mississippi, where I was teaching before coming here. I also came of age in the 90’s, when the region was being rapidly transformed by Latinx immigration and undocumented immigrants organizing.
So, a lot of that upbringing shaped the work that I do. I would add intellectually, folks in Geography and American studies, and activist scholars -- specifically Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Robin DG Kelley, Grace Lee Boggs, Jimmy Boggs, Clyde Woods, and W.E.B De Bois. These folks are not always traditionally thought of as labor studies people, but I think that they inform the direction that labor studies scholars should be moving, and they definitely inform my work thinking about labor and labor organizing through the lens of racial capitalism.
BC: What are you looking forward to in being a faculty associate with the Bridges Center?
CF: I’ve really loved working with y’all so far. Meeting all the students and the staff, and seeing all kinds of work that you’re supporting, and the direction of labor studies that you are fostering here. Specifically through the kinds of scholarships and labor leaders you’re celebrating. I think that one huge thing that I’ve learned from y’all is the history of labor organizing in the Pacific NW and who those leaders were, what communities they were coming from, and how they continue to hold a legacy in this region. Additionally, I think working with the Bridges Center has been great. It seems deeply connected to the surrounding community. A key thing for folks in the academy, or folks working as professors or academics, is thinking about ways to center people outside, and to create structured ways in which students can also do that kind of work. So the Bridges Center to me provides a direct connection to labor leaders and organizers and working communities beyond the university.
BC: How does your identity play into the work that you do?
CF: This is a complicated and important question. I think that understanding growing up in, but not necessarily fitting in with, the picture of the South as it’s often portrayed for us, greatly motivates my work. I want to preface this by saying that identities are always mobile, moving, and malleable, and often shaped by the collectives we are a part of. My identity has been shaped and formed by radical scholars and activists I’ve met in my years of life. Particularly as someone who found out about radical Asian activists in my 20’s. It took that long for me to learn about some of these folks. That was a really big turning point in the way that I saw myself and in the way that I saw the work that I was doing. Especially the roles that radical Asian Americans have played working against anti-Blackness, with Black radicals, and countering the narrative of the Model Minority.
Something that is very inspiring to the work that I do is thinking about how we work in support of communities, and alongside of people when we are not necessarily a part of or from that community. How do we do this with care and without flattening differences or taking over? I think about this a lot as I make my way through academia, not only in terms of race and gender, but also in terms of social class. As an assistant professor now who is moving up in social class, I am thinking about how we might stay grounded with working people. I think that’s a big challenge -- to resist the nastiness of middle class life and how it can be shut off from folks in spaces like universities. As Amilcar Cabral puts it, how do we commit to “class suicide”? Identity in that way is something that motivates the work that I do, but I’m thinking more and more about my personal life as I move in social class, and move across the country, as I work towards becoming rooted here in Seattle, in this region.
BC: What or who inspired you to become involved in labor activism?
CF: I would say family. I have a giant family, and all my brothers and sisters [motivate my work], but there are two in particular. My brother worked as a summer farm worker at a poultry farm in Georgia. He did that in the summers, so it wasn’t his life’s work, but he continues to work in one of the largest carpet plants in Northeast Georgia, while raising 5 kids by himself. My sister is also one of the hardest working people I know. She works maybe 60-80 hours a week in the hotels of Atlanta while also raising a kid, my nephew, as a single mom. Seeing their work and their lives, and how drastically different the outcomes of their working lives are from mine is something that definitely motivates the work that I do. I think about the inequality and the ways that education reinforces hierarchies and the ways in which we can live and enjoy life. That’s always been a concern for labor folks, I mean as far back as Marx, how do we create a world where everyone can live a life with meaning, having time to do what one wants instead of giving all their time and energy to fatten someone else’s wallet?
I would also say all of the folks who I got to work alongside in doing my fieldwork. Those include workers within the plant, women I worked with on the line for 60+ hours a week, but also organizers in that region. There’s this one woman in particular, Linda Lloyd, who was in her 60’s at the time that I worked with her. She runs this group called the Economic Justice Coalition, and they do all sorts of wage campaigns and more alt-labor organizing in the region. They’re trying to build worker-owned cooperatives. She came from a family of sharecroppers, and she’s worked her way through the School of Social Work at UGA, and continues to be committed and embedded in the black community life there,particularly around labor issues and living wages. She’s amazing.
I would also say Joann Lo, who was the executive director of the Food Chain Workers’ Alliance. She’s someone that I have worked with closely as a researcher in my beginning days of grad school, and she’s someone who really helped me to think about the day-to-day challenges of labor organizing along the food chain. All of the work that her organization has done to get folks thinking about the labor behind our food has been extremely important.
There’s so many, though. Every person that you’re able to work alongside for an extended amount of time, you can learn from in so many ways.
BC: Is there anything you think the labor movement needs to focus more on?
CF: Labor, generally, needs to be thinking about prison abolition as a centerpiece of our work. Going into my research, I thought that I was going to understand exploitation oin these poultry plants, and the ways that marginalized, racialized, gendered workers are being exploited. But, as one learns and becomes close to folks in fieldwork, your eyes are opened. My eyes were opened to all the ways in which criminalization and mass incarceration permeate peoples’ daily lives and push them into working at the plant. A majority of the women I worked with, if they were under 50, were there because of some sort of felony charge. It was one of the few jobs that they could get. Most of their daily life was not concerned about pushing for wages in certain ways or labor organizing, but about how the cops were harassing their children, or how cops were working with ICE and detaining their neighbors. That is why I think that prison abolition (and that includes detention centers) is so necessary and important to place in the center of labor organizing if we really want to expand what that movements looks like. In particular with black and latinx working-class folks in this country. We continue to lose people in the labor movement because of our inattention to these issues.
I want to give a shout out to Jobs for Justice and the Labor Research Action Network, because they are organizing this conference around the future of labor organizing. It’s housed in Atlanta in March at Morehouse, which is a historically Black college. They are focusing on cultivating or fostering Black labor scholars, but also thinking about labor organizing and strategizing in the U.S. South. They are also expanding the labor movement to consider social movement organizing. Things like housing, policing, childcare, transportation -- all of the things that matter to people as human beings, not just as workers.
BC: What would be your dream course to teach?
CF: Something like Geographies of Revolutions, thinking about Bill Bunge’s work. This guy was a middle-aged white geographer, who was working at Wayne State University. He worked intensely with this majority Black community called Fitzgerald in Detroit, and worked closely with folks thinking about the needs of that community. He was working on using geographical tools to solve the problems and questions that the community members posed. [Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution] would be one book that would frame the course. I would also think about all the radical social movements in U.S. history past and present. I’m thinking of course of the Panthers, the Rainbow Coalition, and of even radical white movements like White Lightning. The course would survey alt-labor movements that have arisen, groups like the Domestic Workers Alliance. It’s a bit scattered, but I think that it would be a really fun class to teach, and a class that could help guide students to think through present movements with some more clarity. Thinking about movements that have come before us can inform the kinds of organizing and world we hope to shape for the future.
BC: What are your first impressions of Seattle?
CF: Y’all are aware I’m sure of the Seattle Freeze stereotype… I feel like it is kind of cold. I guess it’s just a different way of moving in the world, but it seems like folks are really good at avoiding eye-contact or being talked to. It’s interesting to navigate, but I’ve made it my mission to just say ‘good morning’ to everyone I see, and try to say ‘what’s up?” to folks on the street where I live. To just try to meet other people.
Seattle is a very busy place, and people move fast and they have their head down in a lot of ways, but I’ve also found a lot of really good people. Folks who have been here all their lives doing rad work organizing for prison abolition, organizing with labor, and so on. So it’s not all bad, it’s just very different. There’s such a huge and radical Asian population here which I think is really exciting for me. And, the food is really good!
Learning about the neighborhood in which I live has been really good, and also tough, because I’m currently living in the Central District. Everyone told me it was the best neighborhood and that it is a historically Black neighborhood, but today it’s, like, 18% African American by the Census. I think about the ways in which Seattle has changed very rapidly in the last decade especially, the role of tech here, and how that has played out on the ground around racial displacement and the loss of Black community life in the Central District -- what is my role there? All that to say, I’m just learning quite a bit trying to connect with folks and build community in the best way that I can.