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Missouri's Blue-Collar Bard Bolsters Fellow Workers Through Poems

Eric Borden
Heavy equipment operator Eric Borden's poetry is changing the perception of blue collar work.

A construction worker from Drexel, Missouri, is using poetry to positively affect the perception of blue-collar trades.

Eric Borden's poem "Ditch Diggers" is up front about the negative perception he’s battling:

You say the world needs ditch diggers,
that statement's true enough.
But if you're saying it because you think you're better than us,
then with you've I've got a grudge.

"Ditch Diggers" has reached a lot of people.

Between the Associated General Contractors of America's upload and his own postings on YouTube and Facebook, it’s been viewed more than 2.4 million times.

Borden says in an introduction to the Associated General Contractors' version that he'd been at a child's birthday party where a man was talking about kids who don’t go to college. The man’s conclusion was, "Well, the world needs ditch diggers."

That didn't sit well with Borden, who's a heavy machinery operator and has worked in the trades his entire adult life. He's proud of that work.

Borden writes his poems in his head — no paper — and performs them all from memory. But even with his strong memory and interest in language and story, he says he wasn’t a good fit for school: He'd planned to drop out at 16.

Then, at the start of the first Gulf War, one of his teachers at Olathe North High School who was a reservist was called to active duty. The substitute teacher who took his place changed Borden’s course.

The man was a mechanic and a teacher at the Olathe Advanced Technical Center (then called Johnson County Vo Tech). He helped move Borden from what felt like a fruitless high school career into a field he was interested in.

Borden still went to high school for three hours a day until he graduated, but the rest of his school time was spent at the technical center learning to be a diesel mechanic.

He says he saw every kind of person using and learning the technical skills he was cultivating in himself — people from every background, skin color, ethnicity, and both men and women. He hits that diversity hard in "Ditch Diggers":

We are every creed and color.
We are woman and we are man.
We fall into what society calls 'blue collar,'
and we are proud to wear that brand.

In spite of his attempt at inclusivity, he's still had a few negative messages from people reminding him that white collar jobs are just as important. He says he knows that’s true.

"And that's why in the poem it says everyone was built to do something, and we're built to build this world. My own son is not built to do what I do. He’s going to go off to college," Borden says.

The overwhelming response has been positive, though. Borden has received messages from construction workers who say he’s voiced the feelings they've never been able to express about the love of their work and the wish not to be looked down upon.

One of the most positive outcomes, he says, is that he's been able to reach young people who are thinking of going into a trade but are worried about what other people will think.

A school in Tucson, Arizona, has asked permission to use his video during their graduation ceremony, and each year he speaks at the Olathe Advanced Technical Center's graduation ceremony. That's where he debuted "Ditch Diggers" a couple years ago.

"I wanted to get that across, especially to the youth," he says, "that if you're thinking about this, if you're thinking about getting into the blue-collar trades, and not just construction, any trade, know that you're not handicapped by what you are or who you are."

Eric Borden spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the conversation here.

Correction: The original version of this story reported that Borden's video had been viewed more than 50,000 times, but did not include the number of views it has on his Facebook page.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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