What Is Work?

by Beth Olson

Philadelphia is known for its Mural Arts Program. This project, initially begun in 1984, has shifted from an anti-graffiti effort to a creative array of educational, artistic, and community programs. Reorganized as the Mural Arts Program in 1996 to “create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives,” this organization boasts an extensive array of core values from teamwork to creativity to fair compensation. Over 3,000 murals have graced Philadelphia, and mural tours are high on the to-do lists of residents and visitors.

Currently the Mural Arts Program is hosting a series of forums inviting people to tell their stories of what work means to them. These stories will be used in the design of a new mural project throughout the city—offering views of what work means and celebrating all of us who work in Philadelphia. (There are two more forums—open to the public—scheduled for December 1 and 5. Check their website for information.)

I am curious about this extensive project and look forward to viewing the results. What does work mean for Philadelphians? What does work mean for the UPenn community? From my vantage point as a career counselor, I anticipate a plethora of assumptions and opinions.

For many, work is inextricably linked to monetary compensation. It’s what fuels the needs of our lives by enabling us to pay for our food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and healthcare.

For some, work is life’s calling—regardless of remuneration. It’s the passion, the purpose many find in their art, their research, their music, their teaching, their exploration, their service. They cannot not do it. It is not always one and the same with an income-generating job.

For some focused and lucky people, it’s both of the above—doing what they love and earning a living while doing it.

I expect that many of us are at neither end nor in a balanced center, but somewhere else along the scale—viewing work as an income, an obligation, a chance, a potential, a step, an end, time, a commitment, an achievement, a frustration, elusive, fulfilling, unfulfilling, prestigious, a resource, power, an opportunity, and on and on.

I can’t wait to see what the new murals communicate. In the meantime, to temper my curiosity, I invite you to provide your own take on “work” in a brief survey. If there are enough responses, I’ll share them in a future blog.

Now get back to work!

Philadelphia on a Half-Tank by Paul Santoleri Located at Penrose Avenue and Platt Bridge. © 1999 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

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