A decade of Labor Café: Helping students find, and strengthen, their voices

October 26, 2023

The Labor Café meets in the Geddes Hall Coffee House on October 11, 2023.

Katie Luotto recalls struggling to find her voice as a Notre Dame undergraduate.

“I think I knew who I was, and I had a lot to say, but I was pretty shy and uncertain,” she said.

Luotto, who graduated in 2017 and is now a Ph.D. candidate in counseling psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, credits the Labor Café at the Center for Social Concerns with helping her become more comfortable speaking up.

“It’s sort of funny now,” she said. “My job is to talk with people all day as a mental health clinician.”

The Labor Café is in its 10th year. Looking back at the past decade, many alumni like Luotto have said that the experience of leading and participating in Labor Café discussions contributed profoundly to their education and formation at Notre Dame.

“At the Labor Café, I learned a whole new vocabulary to discuss the world, and I practiced having adult conversations about important topics through an interdisciplinary lens,” said Julie Mardini, a 2019 graduate who is now a third-year law student at the University of Virginia. “These are skills I will take with me to every job.”

Professor Dan Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Program at the Center for Social Concerns, envisioned a student-centered event series when he started the Labor Café in the fall of 2014 with Terry Fitzgibbons, then the rector of Duncan Hall. Students would lead most of the discussions with an active audience that brought together faculty and local community members as well as fellow students.

“The goal was to create a space for intellectual conversations outside the classroom, a space where people can learn and feel safe sharing ideas,” Graff said. “All are welcome at the Labor Café, and all questions and opinions are entertained.”

The Labor Café still follows the same format that it has since 2014.

Each month during the academic year, the Labor Café meets on a Friday at 5 p.m. for an open conversation about a newsy topic related to work, workers, and workplaces.

“I loved the student facilitator aspect of the Labor Café,” Mardini said. “It never failed to impress me how knowledgeable and smart my peers were, and Professor Graff really encouraged all the students to pursue topics that were important to us.”

Mardini led a session in 2016 titled “The Displaced Persons of Damascus: Syrian Refugees, Work, and International Politics.” As the daughter of Syrian immigrants, the topic was more than a news story to Mardini.

“I wanted to share stories of Syrian people and their efforts to make a living with the Notre Dame community,” she said.

Cate Prather, an economics major who graduated in 2022, returned to her home state last year to work as a project manager for the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. As a senior at Notre Dame, she led a Labor Café discussion on labor and community development — which she noted is essentially her job now.

“We looked at big box retailers, main street development, major manufacturers, ‘small’ versus ‘big’ economies, and the livelihoods that stem from each of these,” Prather said.

“The Labor Café absolutely influenced the direction of my career path,” she added. “It took us out of the Notre Dame bubble and showed me how I could practice my Catholic identity in the world. It empowered me to take on the mission of creating more fulfilling livelihoods that are in line with Catholic social teaching.”

Brendan McFeely, a 2023 graduate, works in organized labor today as a research assistant for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in Washington, D.C. He was a regular participant in the Labor Café as a student and facilitated a discussion about the teacher shortage when he was a senior.

“Every month I would be able to listen to scholars, activists, and community members who agreed to talk about a given topic and shared their unique perspectives,” McFeely said. “What I learned every month helped me in my applications, my interviews, and at my desk every day.”

Aidan Creeron ’23

Aidan Creeron, another 2023 graduate, is now a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As an undergrad, he hosted two Labor Café sessions on the labor market during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I loved how timely these sessions were, and hosting helped me to develop my skills as a moderator and facilitator of conversations,” Creeron said.

“The Labor Café served as an excellent forum for thinking through the difficult questions we encounter every day, whether they be in our classes or in the news,” he added.  “I’m still incredibly interested in understanding the inner workings of America’s labor market. I still think back to the many lively conversations we had on Friday afternoons in the Geddes Coffee House whenever I think about why I continue to study what I do.” 

Earlier this year, the University presented Graff with the 2023 Rev. William A. Toohey, C.S.C., Award for Social Justice for his work to illuminate the principle of the dignity of work in Catholic social tradition. The award citation pointed to the Labor Café as one example of projects he initiated to encourage “the Notre Dame community to place the labor question at the center of all human endeavors.”

Along those lines, several alumni interviewed for this story said they appreciate the attention that the Labor Café, and the Higgins Labor Program more broadly, has given to the human aspects of labor issues.

“The Labor Café reminds me to keep people first and to see how easily people can get lost in the larger labor ecosystem,” Prather said. “Further, the Labor Café taught me how pervasive the concept of labor is in all our lives. We derive our values, social relationships, mental states, and physical presence from labor.”

Learn more about the Labor Café and the Higgins Labor Program.