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A profile of U employee Randy Croce

By Adam Overland

Randy Croce
Left to right: Randy Croce, Cristian Manini (audio tech) and Pietro Bianchi (cameraman) in a quarry near Carrara, Toscana, Italia during the filming of the documentary If Stone Could Speak.

August 27, 2008

A profile of Randy Croce, a video producer in labor education service at Carlson's Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies.

The U hired Croce in 1990 on the strength, he believes, of his reporting on the struggles of American Indian communities, specifically in a documentary called Clouded Land, which has shown nationally on the Learning Channel and PBS. His work often deals with building bridges between those who have power and those who do not want to be powerless. Croce feels that if those two groups could find common ground, then the line separating them would not be so distinct.

The U's labor education service uses videos by Croce and his colleagues to encourage all parties in conflict to find that common ground and also to help working people to represent themselves in the collective bargaining process. If such equity is achieved, it could lead to stronger workplaces, a better economy, and increased commitment to labor negotiations.

 In Croce's latest work as an independent documentary filmmaker, If Stone Could Speak, he explores the world of Italian immigrant stonecutters in Vermont and through that work, brings back to his job at Carlson a deeper understanding of how people deal with adversity and create community.

"Every job is a world unto itself. Every material we work with has a soul, has a memory."

--From If Stone Could Speak, a new documentary by U employee Randy Croce.

Memory is difficult to preserve, and yet in some ways our lives are an attempt at its preservation; a stretching of strings of experience that span the bloodlines of generations. We carry our history with us forward through time, carve out a meaning of place and create more to remember, much more to forget. Randy Croce preserves memory, through a camera that records the sights and sounds of what life is like; especially the work of life. "[Video] allows me to marry my aesthetic and social concerns, and there are so many pressing issues," says Croce.

If Stone Could Speak will appear on public television later this month and on Labor Day, September 1. The film details the life of Italian stonecutters who came from northern Italy to Barre (pronounced "barry"), Vermont to pursue their trade over the last century, hewing the region's ample granite from the earth to give it form. But while they concentrated their efforts in Barre, their labor can be seen throughout the country. Impeccable and realistic carvings grace everything from capital buildings to cemeteries throughout an America built on diversity, and the carvings of these stones, so realistic in their chiseled representation, almost exhale the history of the men who made them as visible breath on a cool morning.

A statue carved by an Italian stonecutter
A statue carved by an Italian stonecutter

One story thread in If Stone Could Speak details the problem the stonecutters faced in adapting to working conditions in the United States. At home in Italy, they cut stone outdoors, in open air. In America, their work was indoors, and the small dust particles and residue would collect in their lungs causing silicosis--their life expectancy was about 50 years. But eventually, through difficult negotiations that included a wage cut, the workers' union was able to help pay to have vacuum suction equipment installed in their factories that cut the mortality rate nearly to zero.

Labor issues are a recurring theme in Croce's independent and University work. He is producer of the TV show, "Minnesota At Work," one of the first labor cable television series in the United States. His independent films and the U's labor education service attempt to "present the world of events and issues through the prism of social and economic justice and the dignity of work." It's an admitted bias, and one Croce recognizes. "But the work is important," he says. "It brings value by providing a labor perspective, and not one the U might necessarily always agree with--but it's part of the outreach mission." Indeed, employees from the U.S. Postal Service to Minnesota's Iron Range use the U's labor service to produce media on their behalf.

Croce says that his work in labor education at the University gave him the skill to film If Stone Could Speak and it gave him the inspiration. Years ago, Croce did a profile of the U's Immigration History Research Center (IHRC), then headed by Rudy Vecoli, emeritus professor of history, former director of IHRC, and one of the most important scholars in the field of immigration and ethnic history. Croce took a keen interest in the work of the center, eventually taking Vecoli's class on Italian-American history. "One day, he devoted an entire session to the stonecutters in Vermont, and he talked about their political activism and labor involvement, and I thought this was the perfect vehicle for a documentary," says Croce. "Barre combined all of my interests, and so, literally, after that class, I went up to [Vecoli] and asked if anyone had done a film about Barre. No one had. And I said 'I'm going to do one,'" says Croce. Nearly eight years and thousands of hours later, including time off for a four-month editing sabbatical, Croce had his film.

Common ground
The issue of immigration was the driving force behind If Stone Could Speak, and Vecoli, who died in June, was a continuous resource and inspiration for Croce. Both Italian-American, the two had common ground. Vecoli spent his life arguing against the notion that immigrants to the United States left their cultures behind and did their best to blend into mainstream American society. What they did then, and what immigrants of today continue to do, contends Croce, is struggle to maintain some of their cultural identity while forging a new identity in a new country. "The poetic way to say it is that they had to decide what to keep and what to cut away," says Croce. "The people I studied [in Vermont] had a definite impact--in terms of food, that's the obvious one, but they also contributed to the more communal orientation many Vermonters have."

Croce saw this sense of community reawaken through his and Vecoli's work in Barre. On the first of May 2007, a day called "Primo Maggio" or Worker's Day in Italy, Croce showed his film to an audience of townspeople. "I felt like that presentation brought all of my work and [Vecoli's] work full circle--we had done all this research and we were showing it to many of the people who appeared in the show," says Croce. Rudy Vecoli spoke that day about the history of Barre in a labor hall that serves as the center of the Italian community--a labor hall that had only recently been a fruit and vegetable storage facility. "Most people weren't aware of their radical history there, but [Vecoli] knew about it and [when he] went there to do research, [he] revived interest in the political past of the immigrant generation," says Croce. As a result of that research, a labor hall was restored, a historical society was founded, a documentary was made, and Primo Maggio celebrations are now a yearly event in Barre, Vermont.

Croce's film ends by asking a question of an old Italian stonecutter, "'Do you think that this stonecutting tradition will last?' I asked him," says Croce. "And he doesn't just say he thinks it will continue--he gestures and throws his hands around, saying 'This trade, it will never disappear! You look at stonecutters from the Egyptian times and the Roman will never disappear'...and he held my gaze for a long time, and I knew that that would be the end of my show...through sheer passion some people will continue the tradition."

Twin Cities Public Television will air Croce's documentary during Labor Day weekend: on Sunday, August 31 at 3:00 pm on Channel 2, and on Monday, September 1 at 8:00 p.m. on Channel 17. For more information, contact Randy Croce.

Workday Minnesota is the latest development in a long-term communications partnership between the Labor Education Service, University of Minnesota, and the working people of the state and their labor organizations.

U Profiles is searching out the talents and contributions of University of Minnesota employees, both on and off the job. If you know of a U employee who might fit the profile, write Brief.