University of Washington: Custodians share COVID experiences, show pride in their work in art exhibit

Elvi Olano had been working for only a month as a custodian when she had an experience she’s never forgotten. While she was cleaning a bathroom, a professor walked in and yelled at her for keeping him, and the students around him, from using it. When she apologized, he said, “You’re ridiculous.”

Olano, an immigrant from the Philippines, didn’t have strong English skills at the time, so she didn’t know what “ridiculous” meant — although she could tell he was angry from the tone of his voice. As the students stared at her, she started to cry.

A friend helped her report the incident, and news of it made its way to the department chair. The chair called a meeting the next morning to make it clear behavior like that wasn’t acceptable. But for Olano, remembering the humiliation still hurts, 16 years later.

“They should respect us,” she said, referring to professors, students and all those who benefit from her work.

The UW Custodian Project is calling on the UW community to do just that. The volunteer-led effort, which is not affiliated with UW, is advocating for custodians, lifting their voices and raising awareness about their important roles on campus. As part of the project, an art exhibit called “(in)Visibility” is hanging in UW Tower through March. It features photos taken by 16 custodians, paired with their testimonials.

The UW Custodian Project was started in March 2020 by Evalynn Fae Taganna Romano, the daughter of two UW custodians who earned her bachelor’s degree, and master’s degrees in social work and in public health, from the UW. Custodians were continuing to report to work while the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of campus life.

Inspired by her parents — who dedicated a total of nearly six decades to cleaning UW buildings — Romano brought food, coffee, hand-sewn masks and thank-you cards to custodians once a week, with support from friends, businesses and community organizations.

From there, the project grew from a way to show appreciation to include direct services and a larger advocacy effort. Many campus custodians are immigrants, refugees and people of color, groups that often are more vulnerable due to health and social inequities.

“Custodians might not feel comfortable telling leadership to their face what they need, and I think it’s really important to think about how to create intentional spaces for them to do that,” Romano said. “UW has a responsibility to take actions and structure policies that recognize the value and ensure the safety of their essential workers.”

Person wearing a surgical mask and holding a mop
For “(in)Visibility,” Gina Tabasan took a picture of her mask. She said, “How will it help if we don’t have the shot yet? How will it help if it’s wet?” Photo only authorized for use in promotion of this story.Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Romano based “(in)Visibility” on a method she learned about while pursuing her master’s in public health and later used for her thesis. Called photovoice, it incorporates voices of community members in research. She started recruiting participants for photography-based storytelling sessions in August 2020 to learn more about the health impacts of their workplace and home. She then asked custodians to take photos and conducted group sessions with the custodians to collect their testimonials.

The exhibit made its debut in the Art Building in September 2021 — the building Romano’s mother has been caring for since 1997 — with the idea that it would rotate to a different building on campus each quarter.

The photos, documenting custodians’ lives on and off campus, reflect the time we live in. One picture entitled “My Yellow Shield” shows a custodian’s cart. In the accompanying quote, the custodian talks about how the cleaning materials in the cart shield us from COVID-19.

Gina Tabasan took a picture of one of the surgical masks she receives at work each day. “I was thinking, will this help us for preventing COVID?” Tabasan said in an interview. “Or how will it help if we don’t have the shot yet? How will it help if it’s wet?”

Olano took a picture of her squash plant. She eats squash every day because “it’s one of the fruits that can be a vitamin for health” — something that has been particularly important to her as she looks for protection from COVID-19.

These photos capture the anxiety custodians experienced during the height of the pandemic. Along with concerns they faced about the virus, some had to take a reduced schedule of three days a week and were given the option to take a furlough.

“It was horrible, it really was,” said a custodian, who wishes to be identified by her initials, K.P. Although UW provided some protective equipment, K.P. said it was unnerving going into an uncertain environment. “We didn’t know what we were going to be exposed to. We had to do all this extra deep cleaning.”

Another theme of the exhibit is the pride the custodians have in their work. Photos show clean floors, custodians on the job or the machines they use.

“Being a custodian is not as easy as people think,” Tabasan said. “A nurse or a doctor, they save lives. We save them, too, because without us, buildings are dirty. Students and staff can get sick. We are the army protecting you from the garbage.”

Photos also show things or practices that bring comfort, like birds on campus or a walk during break time. K.P.’s photo is of artwork with lines from a Native American proverb, reflecting her heritage: “Live strong as the mountains. Walk tall as the trees. Be known by the tracks that you leave.”

Romano said her childhood was filled with memories of going to other custodians’ homes with her parents. When she was a student, she’d drop in at lunchtime potlucks. Tabasan and Olano get relief from their jobs by taking breaks together, an activity that has been restricted during the pandemic. Many extend this feeling of camaraderie to the UW community.

“I can’t speak for all custodians, but I know that there are a lot of them who see people on campus like family, especially the people they interact with,” Romano said. “Much like you would with your family, they see it as their job to protect them and make sure that they’re safe and healthy.”

And sometimes people show that the feeling is mutual. Olano remembers a professor who offered to help her with the U.S. citizenship test. Olano was scared that she wouldn’t be able to pass, but the professor took time to get to know her, which made Olano comfortable enough to try. The professor then tutored her every day for three weeks.

“It was the happiest moment I had here. I passed the citizenship test,” Olano said. “I cannot forget her.”

The custodians interviewed for this story say that they don’t always feel the care they give is returned — for example, when people throw garbage on the floor. But there are also many who say hello and express thanks, a gesture the custodians all said they appreciate.

“I love to be here. I love to see all the faces. I love to talk. I love to say ‘hi’ and ‘bye,’” said Elsa Tesfai. “Some people will talk to you about their lives, and they come to me like a human being. I feel so happy when they tell me their story, because they don’t just say, ‘She’s a custodian. Why do I have to speak with her?’”

Tesfai arrived in the U.S. in 1991 as a refugee from East Africa with two children. She went to community college but for only two quarters. It was hard to get childcare, and she had to take a bus across town. Now, she watches students pursue a dream that wasn’t available to her. Missing the connection with the people on campus, along with the fear of COVID-19, is what made the height of the pandemic so hard for her.

“It was ugly because no one was here. Even though we got paid, I didn’t have peace in my heart,” Tesfai said. “I have to see them getting their education. For me, if I don’t see them, I’m suffering.”

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