Searching for lifestyles that work 

"Livelyhood," WMFE TV-Channel 24, May 31, 1998

Layoffs, overwork, lack of child care -- the problems of the modern workplace are legion. Yet we need not despair -- or so says an Oakland-based production company, the Working Group, which showcases workers' solutions in its PBS series, "Livelyhood." That spelling of livelihood is no mistake; the series is fast-paced and upbeat. Given TV's general lack of interest in working people, except when they're glamorously busy MDs, the "Livelyhood" premise is refreshing, even startling.

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The series' second program, "Working Family Values," airs May 28 through June across the country. In Greater Orlando, the show will be broadcast at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 31, by the local PBS affiliate, WMFE TV-Channel 24. ;The show looks at seven different solutions to the challenge of preserving work, family and sanity. It concentrates on the innovators, those gifted with visions for changing their lives and circumstances. It can be surprising to find a lively hour covering positive alternatives, when one is used to concentrating on poverty wages and systematic abuses. Yet who says we shouldn't laud the creative individuals who make life a bit better for themselves?

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My favorite segment looked at a spunky community-outreach program for senior citizens. Through an HMO called Elderplan, seniors in Brooklyn, N.Y., volunteer to help one another -- more than 78,000 hours so far. Each hour contributed earns a time dollar which can be redeemed in service from another senior. We follow David Heller and Angelo Furio, absolutely endearing do-it-alls, as they help fix Rose's toilet seat; the often-lonely Inez White calls Bingo over the phone for home-bound seniors and so on. "It's a beautiful idea, old people helping other old people," mused Angelo, "and it don't cost them nothing." The idea is also critically important, given that nearly 10 million Americans 65 years and older live alone -- that's 30 percent of all non-institutionalized seniors.

The other six segments of "Working Family Values" more directly address the problem of balancing careers with the demands of child-rearing. Parents are spending 10-12 hours less a week with their children than in 1960. The show's host, Will Durst, introduces us with humor to a variety of creative alternatives to this crunch.

We see, for example, that by running Davey Bear's Day Care Center in Denver, Colo., David Maxson can spend playful time with his kids -- while earning $340 a week ... The Marchianos show us that telecommuting after the birth of a child can work ... The Rivera parents work 130 hours a week -- with a twist I can't reveal -- so that they can afford a home and send their teen-agers to private school.

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The largest bank in the South, First Tennessee, institutes a program called Family Matters that makes flexible scheduling possible and doesn't penalize parents for taking care of their kids. Don't imagine, though, that compassion is overtaking bank culture. As the bank's CEO declared: Creating shareholder value is our top priority. The corporate world is just learning that empowering skilled workers can be very profitable.

Lightness comes into the show with Ideal Meal, a mother-daughter cooking team in Seattle that sneaks into families' homes during the day to cook gourmet dishes that are frozen for future meals. These phantom cooks save parents valuable time at the stove and trips to McDonald's ... We also have fun with the Smiths. They solved the job vs. home time problem by having the entire family work for the same business -- window-washing San Francisco's tallest and finest. Paul Smith gives us some fine musings on the Zen of window-washing ... Finally, we hear from kids in school, bluntly describing harried parents' grumpiness upon coming home at night.

;;The "Livelyhood" series opener, "Shift Change," looked at solutions to other downsides of today's marketplace -- like downsizing. The series will continue after "Working Family Values" with "Our Towns" and "Honey, We Bought the Company." A national outreach campaign accompanies Livelyhood, attempting to motivate civic, business, media, labor and educational organizations to get involved in the issues raised by the series.

The Working Group's best-known campaign was born a few years ago with its documentary, "Not in Our Town," about the community response to a wave of hate crimes in Billings, Mont. "Not in Our Town" and its sequel have been screened in more than 100 cities and have sparked actions across the country. Likewise "Livelyhood" is attracting considerable attention.

"We try to find programs that are still different, even when you have a 50-to-100 cable channel environment, as we have in Orlando," says John Felton, station manager at WMFE TV- Channel 24 in Orlando. "When we looked at this program, we just saw something very different."


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