by Sally James
A mother and daughter want you to look twice when you see a custodian in a hallway.
The art exhibit, called (in)Visibility, consists of a series of photographs, mostly taken by custodians themselves, many of them immigrants or People of Color. Curator Evalynn Fae Taganna Romano is using the images to fight against what the pandemic highlighted for her: that society was ignoring custodians, including her own mother, Evalina.
As a student studying public health when the coronavirus pandemic began, Evalynn was struck by the disparity among essential workers. At first, she saw some get food or flowers or free personal protective equipment. Later, those same people received early access to vaccines. But custodians didn’t qualify for this preferential treatment, despite their being essential to keeping buildings clean, hospitals tidy, and schools safe.
“I saw a lot of social media around awareness and acknowledgement of healthcare workers and bringing food to them. And I didn’t see that same action towards custodians and I was pretty, I guess, heartbroken that my mom still had to work during the pandemic,” recalled the younger Romano.
Mom and daughter gave this Emerald reporter a tour of the exhibit, which hangs in a hallway of the Art Building at the University of Washington that Evalina cleans during her work day.
The exhibit features more than 17 photographs, almost all taken by working custodians. One of curator Romano’s favorites is an image of a cart full of cleaning supplies. The title of it is “My Yellow Shield.”
Romano, who lives on Beacon Hill, is a social worker and researcher in public health. She graduated in June with two master’s degrees, one in public health and one in social work, from the University of Washington, more than 25 years after her mother came to Seattle from the Philippines.
“I used to come to work with my Mom when I was little. Sometimes, we would have lunch inside her cleaning closet,” she said, as the two sat side-by-side on a bench in the art building hall, answering questions and leaning towards each other. They became especially close after Evalynn’s father died in 2000. He was also a custodian.
The photo of the cart is special, daughter Romano explained, because each cart is so personal and arranged differently than others to match the particular style of a single custodian. Each person hangs supplies where they like, according to their complicated methods and preferences.
Under the photo of “My Yellow Shield” is a caption, partly in Tagalog, that reads, “To avoid from having COVID. This yellow shield will represent you who you are. Lalo lalo na sa mga estudyante na nag-aaral sa building. (Especially for the students who study in the building.) Yes, not only myself, for everybody.”
Evalina told the Emerald she feels happy seeing the project hanging in the Art Building where she works. She notices that her custodian colleagues talk about the exhibit. “We all feel happy,” she said.
One of the custodian artists is Gina Tabasan, who spoke with the Emerald by phone. Her photograph is of a dangling paper mask.
“I find [the exhibit] exciting,” Tabasan said. She said it was hard when society praised other essential workers, but nobody mentioned custodians. She has worked at University of Washington for 24 years, some in a campus laundry and some as a custodian.
Another photo in the display shows the back of two bus seats. A sign warns about giving enough space between riders. The photographer titles the photo “Empty Seat, Empty Heart.” They wrote, “I took a picture of my empty heart, while riding an empty bus caused by a pandemic.”
Among other photos in the exhibit are views of home life and hobbies, including landscapes and shooting baskets and entertaining friends.
Romano has been advocating for custodians in her spare time since the beginning of the pandemic. It started with bringing coffee and baked goods to custodians at UW and expanded into an advocacy and fundraising project, including a grant to help custodians take their own photos for the art exhibit. Since March of 2020, she’s raised about $40,000 for the UW Custodian Project.
Most recently, she bought sturdy shoes called Hokas to donate to custodians. She hopes to improve the lives of these custodians beyond food and shoes. Her big dreams include getting better pay and working conditions for the custodians. She also hopes the photo exhibit could be on display in different places, on campus or elsewhere, so that more people will begin to recognize these workers and the important work they do.
“I feel like healthcare workers, and custodians are both public health workers, and yet one profession is getting more recognition and is highlighted more and is lifted up more,” Romano said.
When the tour is over, mom and daughter walk away. Their feet tread on a gleaming floor made shiny earlier by Evalina’s hard work.
(in)Visibility will be up until December 10.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misspelled Evalynn Fae Taganna Romano’s name. The Emerald regrets this error.
Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at www.seattlesciencewriter.com. She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.
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