A write up of my recent interview with Valerie Francois, one of my key “handlers” for The Trash Project.
During my pitch to the Executive team at Solid Waste Services, I met Valerie Francois, or Val. Val worked with HR, and lucky for me she became my lead liaison with the field employees. A petite, energetic woman with a sweet Louisiana drawl, Val loves to spend time talking and being with employees. At Solid Waste, she showed up at 5:30am at least twice a month to check in with the “guys” and spent time on the back of the truck just to get a better sense of their work. She had earned their respect, and I was fortunate that I had her by my side as I began the project.
According to Val, I was given to her because “Nobody wanted to be the person who was doing it…but since I was with HR it kinda fell into my lap.” I also think Val saw an opportunity to do something positive for the employees. She took a leap of faith and decided to help me because as she explained, “The guys needed something to be proud of.”
With Val’s help, I attended early morning tailgates, where the operators came together for a monthly meeting. Val would stand up 1st, introduce the project, and then give me a few minutes to explain what I was trying to do. I then asked for volunteers—anyone willing to let me go out on route with them. Of course, not many folks volunteered. But Val knew the employees well, and introduced me to those who she thought might be receptive. She also thought of people who this project might help, giving them more confidence or letting them shine.
She remembers, “I actually did a lot of talking them into it…I would say, ‘You need to do this and here is why you need to do this’, or ‘You will be great for this’…I kinda nudged people in particular, even though some did just outright volunteer…But the rest of them were kinda like what?….I did a lot of talking them into it…saying ‘You’ll be great for this, it will let people see what you all do..you will not be invisible anymore…I think y’all should do it.’”
Val actually worked without telling me to get certain people to sign up. “Some of them wanted to do it, so it was just about encouraging others to be a part. I would tell them, ‘You need to do this and here is why. You step up and do this for her. It is going to be ok and I will be right here if there is a problem.”
I had no idea Val was working for me and the project like this! Years later when we sat down to do this interview I told her just that and she responded saying, “You didn’t need to know that.”
To Val, it made sense I was assigned to work with her. “It was a natural fit because I had the relationship with employees. I could talk with them about it, saying ‘hey you should try it…at least give her a chance…do it and see how you feel about it.” Val knew that if the employees saw that she was behind it, they more likely to say yes. “The guys weren’t scared- once they saw that I bought into it.”
Val remembered that we did have to work on some people to get them to be involved. Especially women operators. “We had to coax some of the ladies. I told them we got to let everybody know it’s not just guys who do this work..it is ladies, too.” Val worked on some of the women specifically. “Like Virginia—she wanted to do it all along but you gotta make it seem like it was her idea…or Jennifer, my only street sweeping lady, I told her “you gotta do it…we need you.”
Val helped me get started riding out and meeting employees for the first few months of my fieldwork, but once I got going she was able to step back some. She came back to help me as we moved into the final phases of production, assisting with coordinating final rehearsals and our Friday night dress rehearsal before the Sat night show. She remarked to me that she never really quite understood what I was trying to do until those final rehearsals when she saw it start to come together. She remembers, “ Then to actually see it…oh my goodness they are actually dancing…This is actually pretty cool.”
After months of Texas drought, it started raining a few days before the show and did not stop. For us, moving the show to some other weekend wouldn’t work. We had bleachers installed, a generator rented, and employees who had organized their lives to be at the dress rehearsal Friday night and the one show Saturday night. We didn’t have a rain date. It was perform the dance or not do it at all.
Val was handling calls from management about the rain the day of the show. “I was on the phone with Mr Rhodes…asking him ‘You’re with me, right? We are not canceling unless it is thundering and lightening?’ He said, “Right, we good.”
Val had a good way of explaining it…this is “trash life” she said. “The employees work everyday of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas, even in the rain. So why can’t we watch them perform in the rain?” Val remembers answering phone calls and saying, “You better bring a raincoat. We just gonna be in the rain because we don’t have any another option. We gotta do it. And people- they came!”
People did come. A LOT of people. We had likely close to 2000 there, and hundreds more standing outside the gate, mad we couldn’t let them in. “And who thought that we would have people mad about not getting into a free show,” remarked Val.
In the end the rain made the show even more magical. “The rain made it more special…the lights reflecting off of the water. It was beautiful,” said Val.
Apart from it being so beautiful, Val really liked how the show demonstrated how different sanitation workers can be from each. “It showed that trash workers can be single moms, single dads, moms with husbands, moms with children—there was a lot of diversity in that cast. I don’t think people knew that there were that many women in the job.”
Val pointed out something else to me- how seriously the employees ultimately approached the show. They wanted it to be the BEST. She explained,
“They are all so competitive, they wanted it to be successful;. We were all like ‘This is going to be the best thing ever.’ So no matter happens we are not going to let this flop. This will be a success. Even though we didn’t really know what it was, It is going to be the best darn thing she ever did because we are gonna make it happen that way. Not even knowing what it was we knew we wanted to it to be the best. So that’s all that mattered. And I think they put their heart and souls in it and that is what it turned out to be.”
Before I left my interview with Val, I noticed that she had press clippings from the project framed in a collage of sorts hanging on her office wall (she was working at a different job by then- still in HR of course). Pointing to the press clippings she said, “I am taking that with me wherever I go because that was amazing! It was a great great project.”