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In the Name of Love: How Invaluable Work Rarely Pays but Can Make Life Worth Living

Published onJun 16, 2023
In the Name of Love: How Invaluable Work Rarely Pays but Can Make Life Worth Living

As workers build careers, employment trajectories typically begin with retail, hospitality, and other service sector work. My career path unfolded in similar ways, though it also came to include work in entertainment, ecology, and—excrement? Though not in the professional sense, it has involved clearing sidewalks of that type of waste (both human and canid) for free, as a service to our community especially as it deals with the proliferation of unhoused neighbors, and as the dog population, too, expands with gentrification. As underpaid workers and volunteers, our resumes tell stories of different professionalization paths and socio-ethical commitments. What happens when love, passion, and creativity mix with the un(der)paid work of caring in and for the public sphere? Using the lexicon for understanding the intersections of community and the market provided by Stephen Gudeman (2001), this essay represents an effort to arrive at some provisional conclusions about what labors of love are ultimately worth.

Studies in economic anthropology have explored multiple approaches to how societies provide the necessary goods and services to promote life, raising valuable questions about necessary staples as well as intangibles. Abstract factors like non-material goods are vital for social reproduction. Such abstract goods and services often consist of exertions beyond the scope of frameworks focused on value, production, consumption, and exchange. Because of the immaterial nature of non-physical elements, theorizing their material importance can be complicated.  After all, lenses structured by production, circulation, distribution, and consumption can be difficult to line up with care work in varying contexts. Feminists and other scholars have compensated for the gaps in such economic analyses in order to theorize care work as unpaid labor and kin work (di Leonardo 1987). Classic texts in this sphere highlight domestic care work (Glenn 2010; Graham 1983; hooks 1982; Mullings 1984) conducted in homes and also extending into the public sphere. Through such work, women reproduce not just households, but workplaces, and also societies and habitats at large, often in racially segregated ways. The following section explores habitat reproduction as an extension of the generative labor building urban ecospheres.

Of Love and Passion: Unpaid Ecological Maintenance

Waste is sometimes left out of understandings of cycles of production and circulation.  But as refuse historian Carl Zimring notes, waste is a social process. This last phrase opens his study Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (2015: 1), which also outlines constructions of race and racial hygiene. Whether material discards or organic output, managing excrement falls to someone. Environmental burdens are also borne primarily by people of color and the poor. Though sewer worker is not yet on my resume, working to keep parks and neighborhood streets clean has involved the clearing of feces. Bagging ordure is merely part of a day’s work when managing ecosystems, which in cities often means messing with muck.

Clearing offal from streets and open spaces as a volunteer evolved from my overall obsession with waste reduction. While preparing for fieldwork in Central America, I became a certified Master Composter through the city’s Department of Sanitation program set up to curtail food waste, in order to know how to process my own organic discards. Rubbish must be tightly managed in developing countries since municipal services are spotty or nonexistent. Living in a core garbage-producing city, the need to reduce, reuse, and recycle was readily apparent at home. I began composting in my Queens neighborhood, at first on a small scale in a church garden, later at the community level by working with neighborhood volunteers to obtain permission to utilize a strip of land under a private rail line hauling trash across the city. With neighbors leery of composting operations that might lure rats and emit stench, street cleanups are critical. Besides litter, feces regularly cover urban streets, coating shoes with hazardous bacteria, whether we can smell or see it in the crevices of our soles or not. Waste also wreaks havoc in other ways well beyond urban homes.

Older cities in particular face multiple environmental challenges. New York City’s aging combined sewer system represents hazardous conditions for nearby waterways. Heavy rains mix street litter and sewage overflows into surrounding waterways making parks and other green infrastructure critical for sustainability. Moreover, animal and plant populations on land must also be monitored and maintained when their habitats are fragmented, polluted, or put at risk in multiple other ways. Austerity measures have limited resources as well as the (wo)manpower to maintain the vibrant but threatened ecosystems in the heart of the city. City agencies like the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation benefit from regular committed volunteers who show up in working clothes ready to sweat and enthusiastically perform invaluable environmental work when the department calls for their services. They help plant desirable and healthful species in the place of noxious weeds, chop up debris, bag endless litter, and celebrate the open spaces offering relief from crowded urban life.

Crouched on creaking knees or on all fours, I have learned about problematic invasives, later training others to recognize and eliminate such environmental disturbances. Whether as a paid Urban Park Ranger (for four seasons) or as a community volunteer (for 15 years), environmental management continues to play a critical role in my life though it is as a volunteer that I have worked hardest and longest at these tasks knowing that performing this work is invaluable. It is also taxing and time-consuming though restorative, enjoyable, challenging, and always fulfilling.

Whether working with buses shuttling church groups, with local Girl Scout troops, families, or individuals arriving alone, everyone gathers regularly under snow fall or the blaring sun to volunteer in parks. Neither insects nor arachnids intimidate. Boisterous upon arrival, groups scatter over wide expanses, quieting down to focus on the hard physical work of pulling crafty weeds from deep within compacted urban soils. Songbirds, usually chatty, also go silent as volunteers noisily enter wooded areas. For two to four hours at a time, groups expend their energy and strength to ensure that the ratio of exotic species does not overwhelm regional varieties. Whether there to pick up litter or dig up weeds to make room for new plantings, or to cut back overgrowth, volunteer shifts are always too short to make enough of a dent on the massive amount of work waiting to be completed. Sweating but beaming, everyone collects at the end of most shifts to huddle together for group pictures, sometimes also featuring the multitude of bags of trash or pulled plants. Weeds must be disposed of as trash in order to prevent their seeds from spreading despite the plants being pulled, being more resilient than they may seem.    

Volunteers for ecological restorations, street cleanups, gardening, or composting are themselves hardy and also dedicated. Driven by the need to make a difference in a changing world by doing something practical to address climate change, volunteers mulch street tree beds and brave the steam and harsh smells of active compost piles, eager to learn about the rich biota actively breaking down the unrelenting stream of food waste flowing from residents’ homes.  A love for making a difference and climate change anxiety convert many into what one local group I work with call “climate warriors.”


Stephen Gudeman embeds the economy in society and everyday life, enhancing anthropological understandings of the house and the public sphere by combining the vantage points of community and market forces to trace the effects of expanding capital on the environment and on marginalized groups. Employing his arguments about sharing and community, I seek to explore what makes unpaid work so invaluable and gratifying. In The Anthropology of Economy: Community, Market, and Culture (2001), Gudeman proposes a focus on sharing since it precedes the more established fundamental concept of reciprocity assumed to be at the basis of economy and society. He argues instead that while reciprocity is an expression of community and the commons—material and immaterial, spiritual, or natural—these concepts tend to be missing from anthropological discourse. He seeks to center sharing over gifts as a powerful boundary changer, saying about it: “Sharing is an act of making and maintaining community, and without it there can be no reciprocity” (Gudeman 2001: 86). Thoroughly studied in anthropology, the gift economy and reciprocity mix separation and unity, self-sufficiency and independence, and represent a “delicate balance between distance and closeness, detachment and warm sentiments in the double act” (ibid., 88). Gift-giving and enacting reciprocity offer tactical means for extending the base further outwards to ultimately incorporate larger segments of the community through sharing. In the context of community work, sharing involves volunteers’ time, energy, resources, and talents.  What does it mean to extend the base in terms of labors of love and to whom is it extended? Who serves communities? Who has the means to do so?

One of the pillars of Marxist thought, the labor theory of value, posits that the worth of any commodity can be objectively measured by averaging the number of hours required to produce it. How can the objective value of hard labor in service to community be gauged? While never directly addressed, value judgments and moral convictions populate Marx’s and Engels’ works given problems of exploitation and alienation underlining their critique of capitalism. The ethics of performing vital reproductive labor for free is complicated. Can restorative work be paid justly, and if so, would it still be experienced as the rewarding emancipated self-activity theorized by Marx? American society lags far behind other countries in providing overall care for its citizens. The American social safety net is narrow and frayed. If healthcare is available in especially limited ways after dire struggles, what is the likelihood that socially projected care work could ever be paid, never mind fairly? While some critical reproductive work defies the wage system, such labor of love needs some form of recognition. After all, invaluable work especially in vital but oftentimes underappreciated areas like the environment, offer special meaning and make life worth living, but at what cost?


di Leonardo, Micaela. 1987. “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship” in Signs, Vol. 12(3): 440-453.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 2010. Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in America. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Graham, Hilary. 1983. “Caring: A Labour of Love” in A Labour of Love: Women Work and Caring. Janet Finch and Dulcie Groves, eds. London: Routledge Library Editions: Women and Work and Kegan Paul: 13-30.

Gudeman, Stephen. 2001. The Anthropology of Economy: Community, Market, and Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

hooks, bell. 1982. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition. Robert C. Tucker, ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Mullings, Leith. 1984. “Minority Women, Work and Health” in Double Exposure: Women’s Health Hazards on the Job and at Home. New York: Monthly Review Press: .

Zimring, Carl. 2015. Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. New York: New York University Press.

Author Biography

Melissa Zavala is a researcher in New York City studying parks as sites of complexity and renewal, impacted by waste and pollution.  Her work considers how open areas function as critical reservoirs of urban biodiversity benefitting from volunteer conservation commitments for preservation.

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