Why I am a Cleaner

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Gift from Jeffrey Sparr

This post started as a response to the most recent comment (by “No No”) on my article, “I am a Cleaner” on Organizationunbound.org. The comment reflects the experience of most people who do cleaning and this response does not claim to address all the issues raised in the comment. Reading the original article and comment is best, for context. The original “I am a Cleaner” article was also featured on Stanford Social Innovation Review and on Walk out Walk on blog, an initiative by Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley.

Cleaners are often treated like the dirt and trash we deal with although at Zenith we are “unusual” in that we are privileged to have clients who treat their cleaners with non-condescending respect. However, even at Zenith, we experience condescension, disrespect and outright abuse. It is not uncommon for people who hire cleaners to take advantage or be abusive and that is not just because they are bad people. It reflects the loveless nature of human society where we exploit the “weak” and crush the downtrodden. It is not limited to cleaning. Just look at the conditions of construction and farm workers in the United States and elsewhere. Look at the conditions of factory workers in the fashion and high tech industries in Asia.

Cleaners often experience the ugly side of humans and the underbelly of our economic system because we are mostly invisible – no one has to impress us and people can get away easily with abusing cleaners – so we experience a reality most people don’t. We are way down in the hierarchy, which though exposed to negativity, is a vantage point that makes me conclude that the most urgent crisis facing us is not climate change or environmental degradation but humanity’s growing inhumanity. Cleaners everywhere experience the same ‘shit’ to varying degrees and we get to choose how to respond. I chose to respond in a way cleaners respond to dirt – see beyond it to the beauty it obscures and see its nourishing and transformational potential – which I agree makes my experience in cleaning unusual.

I am an outsider to cleaning and that definitely gives me an advantage which is only true if it helps to bring about change, not just in the cleaning industry but everywhere cleaning happens. Change has a strange habit of coming from outside. I am a Cleaner because I get to be an outsider in most spaces including the cleaning industry, which the comment testifies to. Being an outsider enables us to see what insiders easily miss. I prefer the Cleaner title and role because it keeps me an outsider while granting me entrance into any space that needs cleaning literally and figuratively.

I think it is true that the typical cleaner stereotype is someone with some kind of disability including the inability to find something “better” to do. And it is true that many people do cleaning because they believe they have nothing “better” to do. Cleaners are recipients of cruelty and we cleaners in turn internalize it and engage in cruelty to ourselves and to one another. This is neither strange nor limited to cleaning but it is easy for cleaners to internalize negativity and abuse because we deal with residue on many levels. Here is an excerpt of an email message from Melissa, a fellow cleaner, after a plenary session at a conference where I got to speak about cleaning as though it was a privilege and a thing of beauty:

Hearing you speak, I felt so moved by what you are infusing into our world, culture, and being. It touched me so deeply into my heart, which I still don’t understand the complexity of it. I realized in the moment as you were sharing that I had been in shame of this part of my life. I was ashamed that I was someone who cleaned people’s homes and offices. I felt that I was looked down upon as less than, and as menial and uneducated. I realized that I created these stories that I in turn told myself. I believed them, and I became these stories of cruelty to myself. I also realized that I was infusing shame and self abuse in all aspects of my life and work.

I also know there are people regardless of their physical characteristics and social standing, who clean because they have become convinced that there is nothing better to do than to make things better. I know people including myself who came to that discovery after having been through the rite of passage of external and internal abuse and have emerged on the other side, seeing better. Here is Melissa’s email one year after the initial encounter:

I am still cleaning…and my relationship to it has changed. Recently, we did a floor to ceiling clean at the office we work for and it was about six hours of cleaning…which as you know is a lot. Of course, a few times I was in my head saying things like…why do I have to do this…this is hard work….etc…But then, what is cool is that you can change that story around and re–phrase it to …..I am able to do this, and I am going to bring my whole being in to this process to fully experience it.

I am a Cleaner because I get to clean the intangible as I do the tangible.

The issue of low pay reflects the fact that a group of people have to bear the brunt of our regard for money over people, focus on transactions over relationships and preference for disembodied actions over embodied physical work. The people messing up our world are not necessarily cleaners or those who do physical labor. As a group, I think their negative effect on our world is minimal. Yet someone has to be compensated comparatively little in order to sustain our economy the way it is.

A cleaning service is typically seen as a mere transaction whose value is limited to mere removal of physical dirt, which a robot may do better. We ignore the fact that it is done by “the most sacred thing ever presented to our senses” (according to C.S. Lewis), called a human being. Weignore the impacts of cleaning  and how it transcends what we can see and touch and so the markets compensate cleaners very little. Comparatively, what cleaners do is not considered valuable in our social and economic paradigm.

This is part of what we seek to address as we go into schools. In our workshops we get kids thinking differently about the value of the lowliest of jobs. In order to clean “cleaning”, there is a lot that needs to happen in our society and it will not happen by griping about it anymore than a dirty space can become clean by complaining about dirt. We will have to roll up our sleeves as Cleaners of the intangible and begin to address how we raise the next generation, among others.

I love what Buckminster Fuller said,

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete

This is my approach and it is why cleaning is not my job but my calling. I am as disenchanted as anyone about how our world treats cleaners as well as construction and farm workers and I am privileged to be able to transmute my disenchantment into creating a new reality that has as much to do with how we see and relate with each other, especially cleaners. Cleaners happen to experience the true state of affairs because of their position in the hierarchy. I have chosen to use my privileged platform as an “outsider”, an unusual and slightly more visible cleaner to address the issue as I see it.

I am starting with declaring myself a Cleaner and not just declaring it publicly, but continuing to privately and publicly clean. There is huge power in going into a place as a cleaner and not as the owner of a cleaning company. As “owner”, certain truths are masked from you. I like to be “just the cleaner” because I get to experience the world as it is not as it appears to be. That way, we can at least “identify the dirt” as one of the participants said during one of our recent workshops. Without identifying the dirt, how can we clean it? I and the Zenith team are also involved in a number of initiatives that among others aim to turn the stigma on its head and shatter the stereotype while creating value.

Cleaning companies are often forced to pay little because they are under pressure to bid low since cleaning is considered low value. This is one of the reasons we have chosen not to expand for the sake of mere expansion or take on cleaning contracts where pricing is the primary consideration. Among others, we could get easily sucked into business as usual when we are here to cause a paradigm shift. Also, just having a traditional cleaning company and being nice to employees and clients only skims the surface in my view. We can continue to “innovate” around cleaning and make it easy for people to find cleaners as homejoy did without addressing fundamental problems in our society that show up very clearly in relationships between cleaner and client. The true innovation needed in cleaning and everywhere else is not so much in products and services but in human being. This is why my work transcends “cleaning service” and includes “promoting” cleaning as a practice and a metaphor and when it is a metaphor, it immediately renders me, you, everyone in need of ongoing transformation. No one is exempt, thankfully, from the need to be better. Cleaning is beautiful like that.

The cleaner needs as much cleaning as whatever it is they are cleaning or trying to transform just as a mop needs at least as much cleaning as the floor it cleans, again and again. And that makes it very difficult to point fingers. An abused cleaner needs at least as much transformation as the person perpetrating abuse and often, once the cleaner sees themselves as an integral part of the solution they seek, they are able to confront abuse with compassion towards self and others. At Zenith Cleaning we refer to Love as the All Purpose Cleaner.

I said at the Business Romantic event put together by Tim Leberecht author of the book by same title:

I dislike the business of cleaning but I love the practice and metaphor of cleaning.

I will unpack that statement. I am in the business of cleaning because I dislike what it looks like presently. Cleaning can only begin when we become uncomfortable with dirtiness enough to get our hands dirty. The business of cleaning is an apt vehicle for the practice and metaphor of cleaning. In the process however, the business of cleaning will be transformed.

On the face of it, there is nothing to love in cleaning but that is the nature of dirt, isn’t it? We tend to run from dirt but a true Cleaner does not run from dirt, within or without. Rather, they interact with it, they remove, recycle, re-purpose it if necessary, leaving behind beauty, potential, truth and sacredness. There are countless opportunities today to encounter ugliness and leave beauty in our wake and that is why I am a Cleaner and want to be a Cleaner.

I am a Cleaner not for anything that appears good about cleaning presently but to unveil beauty and promise where there seems to be none, starting with cleaning. That, is why I am a Cleaner.

4 thoughts on “Why I am a Cleaner

  1. pezro njengah

    When you identify you/discover your calling, mostly it appears gleam. BUT you will have to trod thru a very shubby roads as you MUST clear the path towards destiny.

    Negotiating your way amidst every kind of dirt isn’t pleasing and neither will it be.

    You have to develop a character and discipline of the highest level and be lowly than the grass bed itself.
    You have to learn, unlearn and relearn all the things you know ,think of, and the unfamiliar ones. We have to make mistakes which we learn from and we must be willing to stomach all kind of negativity until everyone embraces the the dirty job.

    Love changes everything thus The All Purpose Cleaner.
    Blessed is he who cleans,scrubs and sweeps away all kind of dirt, cobwebs fear and residues of hate, for cleanliness is next to Godliness.

    Thank you Tolu

    Reply
    1. tolu Post author

      Thank you Pezro. Blessed indeed are the ones who clean and restore humans back to what it means to be truly human – love.

      Reply
  2. pezro njengah

    ……..and one more, Blessed are those who mends the stockings of the broken hearted t, for their words is a balm to humanity…. and yu are one of them Tolu, God bless yu.

    Reply
  3. pezro njengah

    You know life is a paradox, i never imagined myself being a a writer and in the name of Tolu ‘may all blogers raise their hands’ and Pezro is one of them!! its amazing ……..

    Reply

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