The Family Work History Project Bridges Generational Divide: Articles by Paula Panzarella, Lula White and Dorothy Johnson

08 Jan 2012 1:49 PM | Posted by GNHLHA


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. 

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


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.


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.”


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.”

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

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