Introduce yourself and tell us where we are.
My name is SheRa Phillips. I am a Southern Black woman, an artist, teacher, nurturer, and healer. We are in the Treme, the 6th Ward of New Orleans. I grew up in the Mississippi Delta. I’ve done a lot of different kind of work. I worked in a box office at a theater, I worked at Walmart, at Popeye’s, and other service industry work. I have worked at gas stations, schools, and in assisted living facilities with elderly people.
What was your first job? What was it like?
I did a work study job at Jackson State in the theater. That was one semester. And then I worked at Popeye’s in Jackson for about a year and a half. At Popeye’s I was berated by my managers. I was spoken down to, I had property stolen. And I just was, you know, mistreated. They would curse at you, they would call you names, and they would do it in front of the customers. Most of the men were not treated this way, and the managers were women. Women who were berating other women, maybe because they enjoyed having power, but I’m not sure why. Everyone that worked at the Popeye’s with me was a Black person. I did about 35 hours a week and I was in school at the same time.
Why did you end up leaving?
My niece came into town, and they tried to call me in to work on a day that I was off. I had my niece, and I shared that with them. And they fired me because of that. I was there for a year and a half. After that I didn’t get another job for a little while. I actually became homeless for a little while after that. I started sleeping in my car. It was a dangerous time. So, you know, I was definitely struggling mentally and emotionally during that time. I thought what I was experiencing was going to last forever. I thought that was my new normal. Thankfully, it wasn’t.
What did you do next?
I was going to school four hours a day to become a medical assistant, while also working overnight at Walmart and also substitute teaching in the daytime. I would substitute from 7am to 3pm, then go to night school from 5pm to 9pm. Then I would go to work at Walmart overnight. On the days that I didn’t have to go to a substitute teaching gig, I would do double shifts at an assisted living facility overnight. I also worked at a restaurant.
What was working at those places like?
At Walmart there was mostly Black workers and white managers. I did stocking overnight. They really liked me at the restaurant, it was a family-owned restaurant, Black-owned. But there were times when I really wanted to quit really bad. They would only pay you for four hours, but if your work wasn’t done in four hours, you would have to continue until you were finished, but they weren’t going to continue paying you. They were only open for lunch. I would have to be there at 9am, and then it would be packed during its open hours, from 10am to 2pm, and then when they closed, I had to clean up, you know, the restaurant within an hour. Most of the time it would take me an extra hour to finish. Sometimes two hours, cleaning up the tables, the dishes, the serving area, the bathrooms, the buffet table. They would say “you need to hurry up, you gotta move faster, because you will not be paid after this time. ” It being a family business did encourage me to stay working there. After about a year and half working at the restaurant, I ended up meeting a woman that rana non-profit at Delta State University doing financial literacy, and got me funded to do Americorps Vista, and I did that for a year before moving to New Orleans.
Where did you start working in New Orleans?
When I first moved Louisiana, my first job was at a gas station. While I was working at the gas station, I had to do a month of training in Baton Rouge. The gas station was in Laplace, Louisiana. At the gas station, all the workers were Black people, mostly women. My manager was a woman. The conditions there were challenging. There was a time when I had left a shift and come back the next day and my manager said to me that when I left the day before there was $100 missing from the drawer. At that point I resigned from the job, I was not about to let them try and take money from my check, saying the drawer was short. I felt like there was other things I could do. I did apply to a teaching job, but it took a semester for me to get one. I definitely wanted to do something working with community. I was looking for something todo that felt fulfilling in some way.
What’s your hustle?
I do multiple things. I’m a writer. I’m an actress. I’m a spoken word artist, a producer, a teacher, I do graphic design, websites, communications. Most recently I’ve been doing human resources and management work as well. I really enjoy learning and teaching and facilitating, and that’s something I have done in community. I’m teaching community engagement and abolition two nights a week now at Tulane University. We talk about accountability, power, conflict, and self-care. I know from being around other organizers and community advocates, that often times we are so passionate that we neglect to take care of ourselves. Self-care has to be an intentional practice.
What has inspired your hustle?
My mama really inspires me in this work. I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, one of the most impoverished regions in the United States. My mama is absolutely a hustler. My family were a family of farmers. My great-great-grandfather bought land in Mississippi in 1920, and they began farming for themselves during that time. So my mama started working with her siblings before school, and after school they would go back into the fields until the sun went down. Whenever they had harvest, they peeled and got harvest prepared, go to school, and do it all over again. She went to school three to four months a year, but she graduated from high school when she was 16, and graduated from college when she was 19, and she started teaching school. She taught school in severely underserved and underprivileged schools. And growing up I learned a lot about the inequality and deficits that exist between all Black schools and predominantly white schools. My mom and some of her co-workers would dumpster dive for books when the white schools would throwaway books. There was a lot of inequality in the school system I saw my mom witness, experience, and work through, and she was still determined to continue that work. That really inspired me that that was a decision she made to work in those schools. The first mutual aid event I did was a back-to-school drive, collecting school resources and school supplies and giving them to children in the neighborhood.
What do you like most about hustle work?
One of the most important things to me is that I have more say so in the work that I do. I have more autonomy in the work that I do, and influence, and how it’s done. In other jobs, I was being fought for having creativity, and for choosing to do things that felt purposeful and intentional and meaningful to me. And now I get to be fully aligned with that feels good. I get to work with people and we can collaborate. We can make adjustments that feel good to us both, or to us all, rather than being mandated or being put in a box. I want to work with folks instead of working over folks.
What does working-with versus working-over mean to you?
To collaborate, to make something that we both feel is integral to who we are and what we’re doing. I think that’s very important for people that I’m working with to see themselves in the work we’re doing, rather than just following the orders of someone. I like people to feel empowered.
What is your definition of the hustle?
I believe hustling for Black women in the South is about taking care of our families. It’s about making sure that our families have the things we need, and are not going without, are not lacking. I believe we work really hard to make sure all of our family is taken care of, as much as possible.