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Making Connections: Career Waitresses of San Francisco

“I really wanted it to reach the masses,” Project Director Candacy Taylor says of her 2004-2005 exhibit-based project, Making Connections: Career Waitresses of San Francisco. With support provided by a California Story Fund grant, one of the new funding mechanisms offered as part of the council’s California Stories initiative, Taylor, a San Francisco-based social researcher and documentarian, was able to develop an interpretive exhibit that featured oral histories collected through years of interviews with career waitresses in the city, supplemented by compelling visual portraits.

Making Connections challenged persistent stereotypes about service workers by telling the individual stories of eleven women who made waitressing  their life’s work. The stereotypical narrative about waitresses involves “feeling sorry for an older waitress, you know, [thinking] physically she must be so worn out,” Taylor explains. After experiencing the exhaustion of waitressing first-hand while working to put herself through graduate school at California College of the Arts, Taylor became interested in the women who did this for a living and wondered how they mustered the stamina for it. To her surprise, these women emerged in their own narratives as what she calls “models of healthy aging.” Women suffering from rheumatoid arthritis claimed, “If I didn’t wait tables, I would be crippled.” Far from pitiable figures, these women enjoyed healthy, comfortable lifestyles that included earning a living wage, offering their children opportunities for upward mobility, owning a home, and nurturing deep relationships within their communities.

Taylor credits the grant with opening the door to exhibiting partners, the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery and City Hall, whose spaces enable the show to reach  a much wider public than those provided by smaller, even if prestigious, private galleries. Her labor of love took almost 10 years to materialize in print, but the project culminated with the publication of, Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress (Cornell UP, 2009). “California Humanities gave me that launch pad to really continue my career because they were there with me from the beginning, and they are still with me,” she says referencing her current grant-supported project, The Negro Motorist Green Book. For more information about Candacy’s current work, visit http://taylormadeculture.com/

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