Bulldogs For Life

Alumni & Friends

Gabriel Thompson

Interview with Gabriel Thompson

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

My first dream was to be a professional skateboarder. In the late 1980s there was a photo published in Thrasher magazine—a skate magazine—of a pro riding a half-pipe in San Jose. I’m standing in the background, maybe 10 years old or so, staring at what I hoped would be my future. Then I got really into martial arts, and that figured in somehow, as did BMX, though how these things would make any money was never really considered.
You enrolled in Johnston College at the U of R and eventually majored in History, Social Change, and the Radical Tradition. How did this prepare you for your life’s work?
The most important lesson I took actually had nothing to do with the specific topics I studied. I came to Johnston already interested in history and radicalism.

What was important was learning to follow my interests and worry about it all making sense later. Johnston really honors student initiative and gave me freedom to explore a wide range of subjects, either through independent studies or customized classes. It turned out to be a great fit, because once I had the freedom to explore topics that interested me—as well as meeting wonderful professors—I had a great time.
In terms of my actual major, I left college with a deeper love of history and books and was encouraged to read widely, which certainly helps my journalism. When beginning a new reporting project, my first move is to check out whatever history books I can find. I think that makes the final article stronger. For example, right now I’m working on a long piece about kids that harvest tobacco in North Carolina. It’s terrible work—I interviewed a 13-year-old who works 70-hour weeks and absorbs nicotine and pesticides. But in the US it’s completely legal for kids as young as 12 to do farm work, even handling tobacco.

How is that possible? Well, that’s a question that has its origins in laws and debates of the 1930s. That’s a question that history helps answer.
Was there a professor, counselor or friend who inspired you or pushed you to succeed while attending the U of R?
The entire history department was really great.

Some have moved on or retired, but my experience would have been much less rich without James Sandos, David Tharp, and Jennifer Keene in history and Ed Wingenbach in government. I spoke with each of them for hours about so many topics—democracy, anarchism, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War—and I never remember any talk of grades or a career path. We talked ideas.

Of course, I was a lucky student and had financial resources that many others didn’t. Some friends were juggling school with full-time work; some left with lots of debt. So my college situation was luxurious, since I only had to worry about classes.
What inspired you to work in lettuce fields and chicken factories? Many people are idealistic and want to affect social change but you actually put yourself there. Was there a reason you when to such radical lengths?  

Doing those jobs was a real privilege for me, and I knew that I could always walk away from them, unlike my coworkers. First, I was curious—curious about the work and curious about what I would find. Second, I didn’t see many other options. I wanted to explore jobs at the bottom of the economy, and the companies that provide those jobs, like poultry plants, aren’t going to let a journalist in. In fact, when the poultry plant found out I was a journalist they immediately fired me. What I wanted was unfettered access, and to do that I had to go undercover.
The most challenging aspect of the reporting for Working in the Shadows was simply making it through the shifts. I’ve never done anything as difficult as learning to cut lettuce and I’ve never been in more pain. It gets to the point where you actually forget what it means to not be sore.

What would you like to say to the average, middle-class, college educated American about the reality of labor in America?
I think the average college-educated American is getting a much better idea right now about that reality. More and more middle-class people are finding themselves stuck in jobs that don’t pay a decent wage, don’t offer benefits, and have zero job security. The middle-class is sliding backwards, and the only way to stop that slide is to build from the bottom up. The most important thing to understand, in my mind, is that millions of people do exhausting and painful work and are still living in poverty.
Is there some way of life we could change to make things better for those who work under these circumstances? What would you like to say to those (maybe college students specifically) who would like to make a difference for those who work in these situations. How could they get involved?
There’s really a million ways to get involved.

I would say the most important thing is to get involved around an issue that you care about. If you are interested in improving the lot of farmworkers, there are groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that are doing great work.
If you want to improve the lives of low-wage workers, you might want to try your hand at labor organizing. But I found that the most important thing is to get involved out of a sense of solidarity and, as strange as it might sound, because it makes you happy and satisfied. There’s no sense spending your short life doing things that feel like a burden or just out of a sense of guilt.
It’s hard to think about what I’d like to say to others, because I’ve hardly figured anything out for myself. I do know that it would have been helpful for me to hear from somebody that it’s totally okay to be confused, and to expect to be confused. Organizing and activism is confusing, and often it doesn’t work out, and that’s exactly how it’s always been.
Do you have any advice for college students at the U of R—in particular Johnston?
First, don’t trust anybody over 30.

Second, don’t trust anybody offering words of advice.

But seriously, I hesitate to offer advice. I can say what I’ve found helpful: My post-college life has consisted of stumbling around, trying to figure out what interested me, and then following that route and seeing where it went.

I’ve found that it’s really important to honor my interests and passions. And really not that important to focus on where I’ll be in five years. I have no idea where I’ll be in five years, or even next year. There are, of course, plenty of times when I’m not doing what I want to do. I’ve had to take jobs or gigs that I wasn’t passionate about in order to stay afloat financially. But when I’m not able to at least carve out some time to do what I want I end up pretty miserable. And on the rare occasions that I’ve tried to plot my life out a few years in advance, I’ve always turned out to be completely wrong.

For more, please see:

Gabriel's Website
Working in the Shadows
"Everybody Only Wants Temps"
"The Big Bad Business of Fighting Guest Worker Rights"

And check out his other books, There's No Jose Here and Calling All Radicals.