Logo for Working Virginiawhro

From day laborers and odd-jobbers to federal agents and CEOs, they all see work as a reflection of their goals, values and sense of self. The project examines how — or if — jobs intersect and shape their personal lives. 

The series – an idea borrowed from the legendary journalist Studs Terkel - collects the stories and images of Virginians across the commonwealth and through many communities. 

American work and family life has changed since Terkel conducted his interviews more than a half-century ago. Today, how do we think about work?

 By Philip Shucet

Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO

Click Here to Play Audio

Erik Barrett blurs the lines between job, work and life. He thinks of himself as an educator who uses podcasts and the streets as his classrooms. He’s an activist fighting to introduce and include minorities and the disadvantaged and overlooked into every facet of his community. He’s a self-styled philosopher, preacher and politician. In 2022, he ran for a seat on Norfolk City Council in Ward 4. He lost. 

Barrett uses the theme songs from two 1970s television shows, “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” to explain two career paths he could take as a Black man. He rejected one and embraced the other.

Barrett, 39, lives in Norfolk, Va.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


My mother and I were having a good talk and I literally for the first time listened to the words of the theme song from “Good Times.”

You know, you hear the song: Temporary layoffs is a good time. Easy ripoffs is a good time. Not getting hassled, not getting hustled. That's a good time? I'm like, dude, this is depressing to me. I don't wanna live this life. 

And then you looked at “The Jeffersons,” you know. Moving on up to the East
Side, to the deluxe apartment in the sky. Moving on up, we finally got a piece of the pie. That was the life that I wanted to live. That was the life I understood. That I was just as good as you. That I had just as much right to this culture, this life, this thing we called a democracy. I had just as much right to it as you did. And even though there were political obligations — not obligations but political restraints — it could be on paper that I was not just as good as you, but it daggone sure wasn’t gonna be in my head.

I understand Black culture. I understand the plight of it, but I was determined to not be defined by it. 

Around 2008 when Obama got elected I was delivering newspapers…I wanna say from the end of 2007 to 2014. So seven years I delivered newspapers. 

It was horrifying. The newspaper business is demanding economically. It's demanding psychologically. It's pretty dark. Imagine somebody who's having to go through and deliver your newspapers at two or three o'clock in the morning, and there's no street lights, there's no movement of any kind. Sometimes you'll hear a crackle and it's not really a human, but you think it is.

And you're just terrified all the time and you're not making any money. And apart from that, you're cold. You're cold in the winter and you're burning in the summer. 

After that I worked in construction cleaning. I knew staying at this construction company in some cases for me would be certain death, because there was nowhere for me to go. But going out and doing the things that I dreamed about, there was the possibility that I could succeed immeasurably beyond my wildest understanding.

January 15th, 2015, that was the last day I had a full-time job. It was very poetic that it happened on January 15, the birthday of the dreamer (Martin Luther King, Jr.) that I would launch, full-time, my dreams.

I have a lot of jobs today. Well, I mean, I guess that's loosely defined in this marketplace. There are thousands of creators at this point. So I think that when you define job and employment in my generation, it's flipped.

Podcasting. I do that Monday through Friday. I have a little piece of business called ‘The Daily Briefing.’ And I’ve got ‘Hey, It's EDB Meditations’ that's what I do for church. I do that on Sunday and Wednesday at 6:30 in the morning. So technically I work six days a week. 

Photo by Philip Shucet 

Erik Barrett leads an educational walk along Norfolk’s Elizabeth River Trail with State Senate candidate Angelia Williams Graves, April 22, 2023. Barrett, 39, feels the definition of “work” has changed dramatically for his generation.

I also do walks like we just did last Saturday. And the walks are where the whole thought process came from when I started providing access to things people didn't know existed or didn't think were for them. I spend most of my time taking people and putting them in environments that they never dreamed they would be in, or that they didn't know they could be in. Again, providing access to things they didn't know about or didn't think existed for them.

I think that education is not racist. It’s not sexist. It’s not xenophobic. Education and the lack thereof is the cause…the lack of understanding is the cause of all those other aspects. Because if I don't know my community people, if I've never met those folks, if I’ve never been connected to them, then I don't have access to them. 

And so if I don't have access to them, then I don't understand that gay is not a plague. It's just another form of life.  If I don't have access to people who have had abortions, then I don't understand what's going through their brain and why these things are happening. I don't know the stories or I don't know the situations because I don't have access. So when you look at every major problem that we're dealing with politically and socially in our culture, nine times out of 10, it’s because people don't have knowledge. And the precursor to knowledge is access.

I really don’t know how to describe it (my run for city council). I process it every day. Most people say that it was positive. And I say that's why I lost. Because it was too positive. 

I didn't tell how I felt.

My true feelings were that this is a system I felt rejected by. That in some cases these people have done nothing for me but give me a hard way to go. That I felt like I was the victim of severe disenfranchisement brought upon by my own people. I felt that I didn't get anything from my community.

I always say I ran in the wrong ward. If I'd have run in another ward, I might have won. Maybe. But in that one, or in all of them, I was probably a dead duck because they all are narrow-minded in some ways. The other aspect of it is that there are certain parties and players and individuals that already have their agenda for what this city's gonna look like.

That system is universal. I don't think it's racist. I think that you have the political elites and they run the town.

So if I go say I'm not gonna take from the rich and give to the poor, well then I'm borderline Republican. But then if I say everybody deserves universal healthcare, and people should have a right to abortions and you shouldn't throw gay people out because you don't agree with them, well then now I’m borderline liberal. 

As far as I’m concerned, I’m a man without a country. Realizing that you're trying to inject yourself into a system that has already decided that they're either one side or the other – pointless. More and more millennials have decided they're not Democrats or Republicans. 

What’s one true thing I believe? We’re all the same. We all have hopes. We all have dreams, we all have fears, we all have nightmares. We're all trying to figure out this thing called life. And when you realize we're all the same in that aspect, then you work out the details.