Community Read: Investing in 'Nickel and Dimed'

Story posted January 25, 2012

For one week, starting Friday, readers throughout the College and the greater community will be discussing the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich’s portrayal of the months she spent undercover as a low-wage worker trying to eke out a living.

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To find out why people want to participate in the first-ever Brunswick-Bowdoin Community Read and talk about the issues Ehrenreich's book raises around poverty, sustainable wages and menial work, we surveyed a number of students, staff, faculty and community members. Here are their answers:

“I work for Tedford Housing. Tedford provides shelter and housing with support services to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in the Midcoast region. There are many individual reasons for why people become homeless. Most would agree that a major reason is economic—not enough income to meet basic needs, including housing. To the extent that Nickel and Dimed illustrates that trying to get by on unstable or low wages means spending a much higher percentage of one’s income on housing, food and other basics, it may contribute to understanding how easy it can be to run out of options and become homeless.”
Giff Jamison, operations director, Tedford Housing, Brunswick

Brunswick-Bowdoin Community Read

The Brunswick-Bowdoin Community Read is the first time Bowdoin College has asked the community beyond the campus to participate in a communal read and discussion of one book. Students, staff, faculty and locals are invited to read Nickel and Dimed and participate in small group discussions that will take place on and off campus – for example, at the college and local libraries, downtown coffee shops, and the gelato parlor on Maine Street.

“The book brings up topics and issues that are crucial to consider right now. It’s extremely relevant to our time period,” says Judy Montgomery, associate librarian at Bowdoin College, adding, “[The Read's] another way for people in the community to get to know each other and talk about issues in common.”

The Community Read will be kicked off by Ehrenreich’s talk Jan. 27 in Pickard Theater, Memorial Hall. Following her talk, readers can participate in one of 20 one-hour sessions that have been scheduled between Jan. 27 and Feb. 5, each with a capacity of 14 people and a moderator. The groups will be a mix of people from Bowdoin and the community. Details and sign-up information available here.


“In many ways the book speaks to the details of my own experience. Reading the book and seeing some of the economic depression in Brunswick, I remember in my own life the absence of healthy food, transportation, money for clothing, for heat, and yet I had tucked away the memories of the struggle of living in working poverty, and many others never even acknowledge it. We cannot allow ourselves to forget, to look away because we assume we live a world apart, when actually we are next door. Why did I read this book? Why do I want to participate in the discussion about it? Because it’s not only important to understand how poverty, particularly working-class poverty, affects people, it’s also important to understand that as students of an incredibly prestigious university, we are given the tools, and the power to, in the future, alleviate the hardships and make Brunswick and so many other places around the world much more equitable than they are now.”
—Maya Little ’15, Bowdoin College

“We read this book almost 10 years ago as part of [Bowdoin’s] (now defunct, much mourned) first-year book discussion program. I was astounded then by the variety of responses to Ehrenreich's project, even among a small group of incoming first year students. I think it will be really interesting to revisit the book and hear how—or whether—it resonates with readers a decade later. Things have gotten harder for many people, and I bet that will be reflected in the conversations we have.”
—Tricia Welsch, associate professor and chair of film studies, Bowdoin College

“I have been fortunate to be one of the organizers of The Gathering Place, a drop-in center for the homeless and for others as well. One of the gifts of this effort has been to see our volunteers move from a simple desire to "help the poor" to coming to understand that we are all brothers and sisters, to understand that some of us have had greater good fortune, in material terms, but to also to understand that we are all wounded in different ways. With this understanding comes also an empathetic willingness to appreciate the conditions faced by the materially poor, whether the working poor, or those with no source of income at all. My hope is that if only a few come to understand the solidarity we must all have, whether materially poor or not, the Community Book Read will have been a success.”
—Rev. Chick Carroll, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Brunswick

“In the past few months, I have read many articles that discuss the "class warfare" in America today. I am interested in what others have to say about the growing gap between the top one percent and the working poor, and I think that Nickel and Dimed provides the Bowdoin and Brunswick community with the opportunity to begin a discussion about class and economic differences. I hope that my participation in Community Read gives me a better understanding of the ongoing debate about class warfare. As a student, I also hope to lend my own perspective to our discussion of the book and be challenged by others who have had different experiences than I have had.”
—Diana Lee ’14, Bowdoin College

“I read Nickel and Dimed quite a while ago, and I think I was working at a bookstore, Bookland in town, when I read the book. It was quite popular at the time. Since then I’ve been interested in the topics [Ehrenreich] brings up in the book, particularly the issues of underemployment and living wage. What does it really take, what kind of wage is required to have someone live a life where they can make ends meet? Because that was the most curious thing in the book—as much as she was working, it was almost impossible for her to make ends meet. In Brunswick, we have the stores she talks about in the book, like Walmart, and I think it’s important to think about spending our dollars there and contributing perhaps to the low wages they might use to employ their employees, and what we can do about it. Does it mean shopping in different places? What kind of different things can we do? I’m not sure what the answers are. But that’s what’s interesting about making this a community read, and seeing what people in the community offer, and to see how Bowdoin fits into people’s perceptions in Brunswick. How do we measure up as an employer and what are people's perceptions of the college?”
—Kevin Johnson, manager of student employment, Bowdoin College

“For me, I'm participating in this event because I want to show support for its effort at campus-community outreach, and because I'm interested in learning more about town residents. It's so rare that I get to sit down with a group of community members in an organized discussion forum, and rarer still to talk with them about issues of class and perceptions of class divides. I'm hoping that the event will draw a diverse group, including those who would most identify with the working struggles portrayed in the book.”
—Belinda Kong, assistant professor of Asian studies and English, Bowdoin College

“In the fall of 2009, I became involved in First Parish Church's local benevolence ministry, assisting Jane Newhall, who at the time was our social service coordinator, and who has since passed away. Then in January of 2010, as a result of becoming more knowledgeable about the prevalence of homelessness issues in this immediate area, two fellows from other churches and I began looking into how the local faith community might address some of the needs that were currently unmet by area nonprofit and governmental resources. Society cannot continue to expect the government, or someone else, to address or solve the issues of poverty. On a wide variety of subjects, I think individuals must become better informed, and then decide if, and how, they're willing to do something. This Community Read is an opportunity for folks to become better informed.”
—Ed Bradley, Brunswick

“I am interested in the topic out of general curiosity. On further thought, I work with special education students, many of whom will probably end up doing minimum wage jobs. I think of one student who worked really hard while in high school. I have seen her working at the order window at McDonald's. I marvel at how well she does and how hard she works. I also marvel at the skills she needs to do such a job: listening skills, keyboard skill, money-changing skills and people skills. I am really proud of her. She holds down a job while many do not have jobs. These were just a few thoughts that come to mind.”
—Pam Cormier, high school special education educator

“As a sociologist, I've found Nickel and Dimed resonates with the diverse set of students I teach, most of whom are struggling to understand their place in the economy. Although the popular discourse suggests that we all have equal opportunity for a good life, students often sense either that they are extra lucky, in terms of access to financial resources, without being able to ascribe that access fully to their own hard work; or that they are working like crazy and still struggling with their finances. Ehrenreich provides a structural context for us to begin to understand that our work ethic only partially explains our financial status; access to good-paying work is a vital ingredient, too. Now, as I hear politicians debate our welfare policies, I wonder why we're not talking more about raising the minimum wage and creating paid work that can honestly support people who are working hard at jobs.”
—Kimberly Simmons, adjunct lecturer of sociology and anthropology, Bowdoin College

“The prospect of engaging in a book discussion (of any type, really) with such a diverse group of readers, undoubtedly with unique and varied experiences in relation to the book's theme, is what initially drew me to the community read. I was also enticed by Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, which promised to be an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening book that would surely raise my awareness about issues I did not know too much about beforehand.”
—Monica Bouyea ’14, Bowdoin College

“I think the subject of Nickel and Dimed is even more relevant today than it was at the time it was published.  When life or livelihood take a down turn, supports are increasingly difficult to obtain. What I hope might come of it – a better understanding of conditions people face, a change in the way we treat each other, brainstorming on how to provide better financial and emotional support. (Affordable universal health care would be a giant wish – but perhaps too extensive a topic for these discussions.)”
—Jeanie Rubio, K-12 school social worker, Brunswick School Department

“The Nickel and Dimed book should help develop our empathy and understanding towards the less fortunate in our midst.  This understanding can help us think about policies to make our community and state a vital and healthy place to live for all its citizens, poor and non-poor.”
—John Fitzgerald, professor of economics, Bowdoin College

“Part of the debate, political and otherwise, in recent times, has been around whether or not it is "class warfare" to ask those who are at the top of the financial pyramid to pay a higher percentage of their income than they are presently paying to balance governmental budgets at every level. The alternative to the foregoing seems to be to cut "welfare programs" which impact mostly those who dwell at the bottom of the welfare ladder and to blame those persons for economic woes of the economy. We need to have discussions at the community and national level which will raise consciousness about how such action by government to reduce those programs impact the everyday life of those who hold up the pyramid.  Working with such people at The Gathering Place here in Brunswick has renewed my understanding of the everyday struggle that is the life of the homeless and marginalized people who live in our midst.  We need to talk and we need to act.”
—Rev. George Hardy, Mission at the Eastward in Farmington, Topsham

"I am a McKeen Fellow and part of our mission at the McKeen Center is to attempt to break through the "Bowdoin Bubble" by interacting with the greater Brunswick community. This Community Read initiative, I believe, is a fantastic way not only to physically interact with Brunswick residents but also to do so about a topic that addresses serious concerns that can very often go unnoticed on a college campus."
—Matthew Hillard '12, Bowdoin College

I thought it was critical that the library participate in the dialogue about Nickel and Dimed. Getting diverse perspectives will be a key element of making the Community Read discussion successful and Curtis Library by its nature as a community institution should help engage families and individuals from every part of town.  Additionally, two of the library’s key roles are to encourage and promote the exchange of ideas and the building of community.  I can’t think of a better event to do both than the Community Read.
Liz Doucett, director, Curtis Memorial Library, Brunswick

“This Bowdoin-Brunswick program fills the gap created by the local community libraries not sponsoring a community read the past few years; it used to be a series of events avid readers looked forward to each winter. Combining a read with the college certainly broadens its appeal and reach. Just the effort of bringing together a wide range of local citizens and the college community offers great possibilities for sharing reactions to Ehrenreich's book as well as sharing life in Brunswick. [Plus] I love hearing young minds, old minds, minds of any age engage in a good book.”
—Edith Rentz, retired English teacher, Brunswick

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