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City Tech students take first and third prizes in CUNY/Labor Arts essay contest

Photo courtesy Gary Schoichet

First-year New York City College of Technology (City Tech) students Jessica Guerra and Michael Youmans have taken two top prizes in this year’s City University of New York (CUNY)/Labor Arts “Making Work Visible” Contest.

Jessica Guerra's first-place essay, "The Williamsburg Renaissance," for which she won $1,000, is a creative blend of personal narrative and nonfiction telling the story of how change affected both Williamsburg and its residents.

Michael Youmans' third-place short story, "The Hands of Time," for which he won $250, is a fictional, quintessential New York tale of a man and woman who meet on the subway and fall in love after facing down a possible obstacle to their union.

Sponsored by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the annual contest, open to undergraduates at any CUNY college, aims to increase awareness of the history of work and workers and stimulate the study of labor history. The winning three entries in these four categories -- essay, fiction/non-fiction narrative, poetry and visual arts -- have been published on the Labor Arts website at http://www.laborarts.org/exhibits/contest.

Said Terrence Cheng, associate dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Lehman College, which administers the contest, “Of the 150 submissions we received this year, 20 came from City Tech. Undoubtedly this is due to the encouragement and support the students received from English Professors Jane Mushabac and Suzanne Miller, who promoted the contest at City Tech.”

Guerra, an advertising design student who hopes to create corporate logos and magazines, lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, until four years ago when her younger sister was born. A larger apartment in their neighborhood was not affordable, so her family moved to Maspeth, Queens. “It was a big change,” says Jessica. “Leaving Williamsburg affected my family a lot. They constantly talked about how it bothered them, how they missed the way the Northside used to be. It began to bother me, too.”  

Her Salvadoran mother and Puerto Rican father, who both arrived in the U.S. decades ago, had watched their mostly European and Hispanic neighborhood change as young Manhattanites moved to Williamsburg. Luxury apartments, lofts, trendy shops and cafés replaced factories, low-rent buildings and local businesses; a school and a church closed. The rising cost of living forced many residents to relocate.

Guerra’s heartfelt essay, which is featured in City Tech Writer (volume 8), describes the effect Williamsburg’s transformation has had on longtime residents: “This type of gentrification is not about a mere displacement. It’s about rebirthing Williamsburg, a renaissance if you will, transforming the environment into one that ostracizes the very people who gave birth to it in the first place, who worked tirelessly in the factories, who took care of their neighbors, who opened up delis and pizzerias and bakeries, and planted those beautiful trees that line Roebling Street.”

The inspiration for Youman’s story came during a subway trip when he imagined how a young American man might begin a conversation with an attractive woman from a different culture. He invented dialogue as he rode, modeling the lovestruck man after the men in his own family who were physical laborers. Despite the young man’s shame about his rough, callused hands, by the second date, his hands turn out to be the bridge that unites the couple: her father, too, was a laborer.

Park Slope, Brooklyn, resident Youmans, age 45, spent almost 30 years between high school and college “having a lot of life experiences,” including working as a gas station attendant and “burger flipper,” owning a school in the Philippines, starting “dotcom” businesses, founding the first Cyber Café, modeling in Paris and acting on television in California. Next month he’ll be in Russia, and probably will blog about his stay.

Both students intend to continue writing. “It’s wonderful to receive this recognition,” says Guerra. “I was helping to clean my church when Dean Cheng called to tell me I won the contest, and I screamed I was so happy!”

Says Youmans, who is majoring in liberal arts, “I was so excited about winning third place the first time I entered a writing contest that I said, ‘I want more of this.’” And the awards keep coming for Youmans. A one-act play he wrote took the Lou Rivers Drama Award, first place, at the recent City Tech Literary Arts Festival.

“I think I have no choice now,” he says about being a writer. “There are worse things in the world to be. I believe life gives you what you need, so you let it just take you.”

Labor Arts is a joint project of the Rubin Foundation and The Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives/Tamiment Library at New York University. Its mission is to gather, identify and display images depicting the history of work and working people.

New York City College of Technology (City Tech) of The City University of New York (CUNY) is the largest public college of technology in New York State. Located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the College enrolls more than 16,000 students in 65 baccalaureate, associate and specialized certificate programs.

May 3, 2013 - 2:15pm


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