A mask dropping night…a recap

Last night I had the honor of holding space with a group of people and having the type of mask dropping conversation that happens all too infrequently for many of us. It is hard enough to talk about the implications of race and class in the United States with people who we know and love much less with a group of people who we have never met before. Yet a group of readers came out last night to a blue collar, working class city in Maine to do just that. They ranged in age from 16-70 and believe it or not I was not the only person of color in the room.

What was shared last night brought me to tears and I am still processing many of the words that were shared. We weren’t going to change the world in a two hour session, nor was I interested in leading a kumbaya love fest where we ended the night with a rousing rendition of We are the World.

In reflecting on the words that I heard last night, I am stuck on how often it is that the very masks that we wear in public and even in private often get in the way of our ability to truly see one another.  Black, white, gay, straight, Jewish, working class, wealthy and so on. These labels say so much, yet they say nothing. Too many times these descriptors are simply labels to better sort which silo we will eventually land in.

Many have have asked if I would be providing a recap of the event and I guess that you can say that this is it. When people take a chance and lower their own masks in a shared space, to paraphrase the old Vegas slogan what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Thank you for sharing yourselves with me and giving me a chance to come out of my own thought silo. It is rarely discussed publicly but even people of color have our own biases and silos, so thank you.

Looking ahead, I am not sure if time will allow in the coming months to repeat this experience since as I get ready to prepare to head to my new agency at the beginning of the year, my dance card will be quite full. Also because I am a glutton for punishment and a recovering type A, I am trying to complete my yoga teacher training before I start in January. Speaking of the new job, I can officially name the agency; Community Change Inc. (CCI) will be my new professional home. After a decade of writing and talking race, I am excited to land at an agency with a rich history in the field of anti-racism work. Make no mistake, I will be rolling up my sleeves and working hard but after years in professional limbo wondering if it was even possible to bring my skills and interests together under one professional roof, it is exciting to chart a new course.

Low wage, high wage, we are all connected

As a college graduate with an advanced degree who holds a ”professional” job, who happens to be married to a fellow college graduate with an advanced degree, one might not think that I have much in common with the men and women who work in low paying, service jobs. Think again, in fact I think that most of us have a great deal in common with the folks who prepare our food, take care of our kids and provide the very needed yet unseen and unwanted jobs that most of us pretend don’t exist.

Today many fast food workers across the U.S. are embarking on a one day walkout in protest over low wages. For the average fast food worker, wages average $8.74 an hour, and despite what many think, fast food jobs are not just the domain of high school and college kids. Increasingly these are positions held by adults with families. There aren’t too many places in the United States where one can actually live more than a subsistence living with that wage, never mind what that means when one is raising a family on such a low wage. I know firsthand what that looks like for a family, I see many of these families in my day job as a social service provider. These are families that are working and working hard, yet they need food stamps and even visits to the local food pantry just to keep food on the table. Life is one long circle of struggle just to survive and live day to day.

However in America, our dirty little secret that we rarely speak of is just how hard survival has become for most of us. Sure, we have our one percenter’s and those just below the status of one percent. For the average American though the lifestyle that was taken for granted just a generation ago is starting to look more and more like a distant dream.

Back in what now seems like another lifetime; I put myself through both college and graduate school. Incurring enough debt along the way that in some parts of the US, you could buy a house with what I paid (borrowed) to finance my education. At the time, I was laboring under the false belief that a college education would translate into a higher salary and job stability.

Fast forward to my 40’s and despite the fact that I have a kid in college, I no longer sip from the cup of Kool-Aid that says education is the key to stability. Sure, if you are one of the few in the STEM sector, you probably are living a good life. For now the sciences and technology fields happen to be where the good paying jobs are located. But we can’t all be in those fields. In fact even if we all were in those fields, who would do the jobs that society needs to function? Even the clerk at Target is needed, we may have self-check-out lanes but humans still need to work at the store.

The reason that I bring this up is that there are more than a few Americans who don’t feel that those laboring away in fast food service jobs deserve an actual living wage which in many parts of the country would be approximately $15 an hour. After all, how hard is it to work the fryolater or flip burgers? I have never worked in fast food but having done a few stints as a waitress, I know that most so-called unskilled jobs require far more than most of us realize. I last worked in the food service industry in my second year of college doing a stint at an upscale eatery in Chicago. I left with a serious dislike of goat cheese and the realization that most people consider service people to be beneath them.
I also know that as technology grows by leaps and bounds that more and more industries that used to pay living wages like my husband’s field of journalism increasingly pay subsistence wages. Now that journalism is nothing more than “content”, anyone with fingers and a laptop can be a journalist or writer. As such, wages are not only stagnant but falling, 6000 word pieces for a whopping $30 don’t pay the bills. The same goes for photojournalists as evidenced by my hometown paper, The Chicago Sun-Times and their recent decision to fire all the full-time staff photographers and replace them with reporters armed with i-Phones who can report the news and take the photos or when need be, the paper will use freelancers. The good ole freelancers! The freelance life isn’t terribly bad until you hit your mid-40’s and realize that the annual mammogram and colonoscopy pretty much require that you have insurance and you can’t afford it on your freelance wages.

America is increasingly becoming a place where many of us toil away either as freelancers or work in part time jobs that really don’t cover all of our living expenses. If we are lucky we can play the Rob Peter to pay Paul game using our homes and credit cards to cover the expense of living that is no longer paid by our actual jobs. Eventually that game will catch up with us but if we are fortunate, we still have a relative or two to help us out and if not, welcome to poverty.

Today we may be talking about fast food workers and their plight to actually earn enough to live on but for many of us we are a lot closer to their plight than we are comfortable admitting. All work is valuable, instead of asking why a fast food worker deserves to earn $15 an hour maybe the question we should be asking is why a CEO needs to earn 354 times more than their average worker?

 

America’s poverty problem, it ain’t those other people!

For decades America’s view of what poverty looked like was either some brown or black face in a third world country, urban poverty, again relegated to a brown or black face or poor whites in rural Appalachia. In other words for the vast majority of Americans, poor people were those other people. People whose plight could easily be explained due to lack, whether it was lack of education or some other arbitrary trait but times have changed! Poverty in America has a new face and it just might surprise you. Though for those of us in the helping professions, we aren’t surprised at all, we have been seeing this change for quite some time, but now everyone knows.

A new book from the Brooking Institution, Confronting Suburban Poverty states that poverty in America has climbed over 64% in the last decade, more than twice as fast as the poverty rate in urban areas. Gee, I could have told ya that, but no one asked me.

There are those who will say that this increase is due to immigrants and others looking for cheaper housing in the suburbs which I imagine to be true but some of it is simply a result in my opinion to a changing America. We have pretty much accepted that the rich are getting richer, hell we all know about the vaunted one percent. Problem is everyone else is falling down the rabbit hole of economic despair and that includes the folks in the middle, most aren’t treading water, they are trying desperately to keep from being sucked down the hole…next stop, you are officially poor!

For the past couple of years, I have seen a change in the types of folks that I see looking to receive social services. No longer is it the so-called typical poor person, it’s folks who up until a few years ago used to help the poor themselves. Now they need help. Sadly in most parts of the country, once you leave the larger cities, social services in most rural and suburban areas is woefully inadequate to assist the surge of the newly poor. I was just in a meeting today, trying to plan summer feeding programs in the community that I work in. Three years ago, my agency was the only summer meal site for one of Maine’s largest cities, now we will be one of nine sites this summer. In my line of work, that type of growth isn’t necessarily good especially when we are discussing kids in families without the means to adequately feed their own kids.

Poverty in the land of plenty is a dirty little secret, especially in a society that decided that talks of income and money is just gauche. Yet I know personally in my own personal circle, most people that I know who are teetering on that edge are people you never would expect. Some time back a casual acquaintance revealed that she and her husband were receiving food stamps, this is a woman I knew that just a few short years ago was driving a pretty plush Mercedes. I did a double take when she told me; this is a college educated woman, solid background…what happened? Closer to home is a friend of mine who has taken to publicly writing about her journey to poverty from her upper class privileged background.

America may be a place of dreams but for too many those dreams have become nightmares because once you cross the line into poverty, poverty is a lot like the Hotel California. You can check in, but your chances of checking out and staying out are damn hard. The only way we will break this trend is to start talking openly and honestly about poverty, stop thinking that it is something that happens to other people and start demanding real safety nets and discuss and plan ways to change the economic inequalities that have become the norm.