Custodial workers have served diligently during the pandemic. Evalynn Romano, ’10, ’21, thinks it’s time they got some appreciation.
When the pandemic began, people were quick to express their appreciation to the individuals who worked on the front lines fighting COVID-19, as well as those who performed other essential jobs: health-care workers, grocery store employees, firefighters, police officers, bus drivers, letter carriers, delivery drivers. However, one group always seemed to be left out—custodians. Evalynn Fae Taganna Romano, ’10, ’21, who has master’s degrees in public health and social work, was moved to show respect and recognition to campus custodians, inspired by both of her parents, who have been UW custodial workers.
Romano’s desire to highlight and support the many custodians who work at the UW was natural because she has dedicated her work and organizing efforts to serve underrepresented communities whose experiences tend to be minimized. This month, Romano marks two years since she started bringing early morning breakfasts to custodians, an initiative that’s grown into a full-blown advocacy effort that has raised nearly $40,000 for direct support including food, masks, grocery gift cards and comfortable shoes.
The most public part of her efforts is a photo exhibition that has been on display in UW buildings for the past six months. The show, titled “(in)Visibility,” provides pictures and stories focused on the health impacts of campus custodians’ workplace and home. Supported by a UW Campus Sustainability Fund grant, the exhibit has been on display in the Art Building and in the UW Tower. The grant enabled Romano to compensate participants for their time, and she worked with them to select the images that mattered most to them.
“The photo exhibition is based on storytelling, with lots of community-based research and advocacy,” Romano explains. “I wanted it to really show what it is like to be who they are and what changes they want to see. Photography is a very powerful way for custodians to share their lives.”
“It’s about relationship-building and how I could help highlight the custodians who are a critical part of the UW community.”
Evalynn Fae Taganna Romano
Romano’s connection to the UW runs deep, as her mother has been cleaning campus buildings for more than 30 years. Her late father was a campus custodian for 25 years. “A lot of the custodians are my aunties and uncles,” Romano says. Even if they aren’t related biologically, “there’s a real feeling of family.”
Building community relationships has always been important to Romano, who was born and raised in Seattle. After earning her bachelor’s degree from the UW, she spent three years in the Peace Corps. She served in a rural village in Cambodia and worked on critical community-based projects such as improving access to food and water. She spent an additional year working for a non-governmental organization hospital in Cambodia, fundraising so surgeries could be provided for free to low-income residents. Her job required relationship-building with key stakeholders, a skill she found incredibly useful when she created the UW Custodian Project to spotlight “underappreciated and underrepresented voices” of custodians.
“It’s about relationship-building and how I could help highlight the custodians who are a critical part of the UW community” as public health workers and guardians who keep our spaces clean and safe.
She also advocated for policy changes, including COVID-19 vaccine access, hazard pay, livable wages, and extensive interpretation and translation services.
“I am very appreciative that people care,” Romano says. “People now ask, what can I do to help?”
To learn more about the UW Custodian Project (not affiliated with UW), visit www.uwcustodianproject.com.