IOWA CITY — As the daughter of a Lutheran minister who served several different churches — and communities — during her childhood, Jennifer Sherer said she absorbed and perhaps internalized a sampling of perspectives on issues facing Midwest workers.
“I was growing up in multiple small Midwestern communities that were living through the farm crisis or living through the effects of deindustrialization, and having to figure out as I was growing up why is it that so many people who I know or the parents of so many people who I go to school with are working so hard and struggling so much,” Sherer said.
Those childhood questions, or seeds of inquiry, matured as she grew and infiltrated her psyche.
“What is it about the structure of our economic and political system that is creating those challenges?” she came to ask.
Sherer’s longing for answers and solutions led her as a University of Iowa graduate student in the late 1990s to a project working with the new UI Center for Human Rights on child labor education. The project was housed in the UI Labor Center, established on campus in 1951 with a mission of providing educational programs and research support to Iowa workers and employers.
“I thought it was going to be a project that I worked on for a couple of years,” Sherer said.
But something about the center’s mission clicked for the English and neuroscience major in pursuit of an English doctorate. She found connection with its altruistic pursuits around worker rights education, research and support.
Sherer also found herself impressed with the center’s statewide standing, as she got “a glimpse of the deep ties and the respect and relationships that the center had with communities all over the state.”
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“The reputation of the Labor Center alone would make it possible for me to make connections with people,” she said.
Decades later, Sherer, 45, continues her work with the Labor Center, but now as its director. And, as of last week, her work includes a fight to keep it alive.
UI President Bruce Harreld on July 10 announced plans to shutter the enterprise, along with six other campus centers, in response to repeated state funding cuts.
Although the closure isn’t immediate, as the center has outstanding projects and grants, it eventually will eliminate five full-time jobs. Unless, of course, Sherer and her team compel a reversal.
“I certainly have hope,” Sherer said Wednesday, hours after meeting again with the dean of the College of Law, which houses the UI Labor Center.
Dean Kevin Washburn, on the job just weeks, surprised Sherer with news of the impending closure earlier this month.
Since the news became public, outcry has been loud and persistent — with Democratic lawmakers issuing statements, supporters rallying and clients calling the college.
“It’s clear this has been a learning experience for some of the administrators who are hearing from people all over the state right now about the value and the impact of the center in their lives and their communities,” Sherer said.
Her follow-up discussion with Washburn left her “really encouraged.”
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“He’s shown a lot of interest in learning a lot more about the center’s work, and that discussion’s going to continue,” she said. “I think everyone involved is interested in moving the discussion forward about how to preserve the center.”
That has Sherer and her staff scaling up work, as the media spotlight has highlighted their center.
“People who have worked with us — in some cases for many years — are wanting to get in touch, and there’s a whole new population of people who didn’t know that we existed or what our mission was who, in some cases, are curious and wondering if this is a place they can get information.”
It is, she tells the callers — whose surge also can be credited to changes in state laws and Iowa’s economic environment.
“It’s no secret we’re living through a period of time when Iowa continues to become a low-wage state,” she said. “We have significant demographic shifts and just a large, diverse number of new immigrant and refugee groups who have been recruited to work in Iowa communities.”
Iowa today has more temporary jobs, bringing unique issues, Sherer said. And then there are the recent changes in state law — including those related to workers’ compensation, health insurance and collective bargaining rights of public sector unions.
“I think people are having to keep up in Iowa with constant sets of changes,” she said. “And it has felt to me like there is no time when our information and services and education have been in more demand.”
With that in mind, Sherer said, she hasn’t started job hunting. On the contrary, she’s dreaming of growing the center.
“We have tried to think about how to expand the labor center’s missions beyond some of its historical traditional constituents,” she said.
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