The Broad is Back!

September 20, 2017

Oligarchy is Real & Love Doesn’t Make Money

The Graham-Cassidy bill is out and has people in a frenzy.

I keep seeing social media postings of parents telling the stories of their seriously ill children. “Are you willing to let my child die?” they ask in one form or another. Short answer: yes.

Prolonging the lives of the sick and dying who can’t be saved or cured is a waste of money and resources.

Did I just say that? Yes I did. Do I believe that? Logically? Yes. Do I think it’s morally right so something we should allow? NO!

And that’s the difference between me and the people in charge. I put human life at a higher value than wealth. Many of us still do.

But we will never change minds about our moral stance unless we can back it up with less emotional reasons than “my child will die”. Appealing to law makers’ humanity is a waste of time. Their standards are not ours.

Even when they profess to be Christian, it’s a different Christianity. Bet you dollars to donuts they come from a Calvinist strain, where financial reward is an outward sign of being one of the elect. While not all Calvinists are less than Jesus-like in their approach to the poor, there is a strong idea of “deserving poor” in this country. And fewer and fewer are falling into that category.

I went looking, quickly, I admit, at the net for real information about it, and most are against it for good reasons. FamiliesUSA: the voice for health care consumers posted “12 Facts About the Graham-Cassidy Repeal Bill” which, while written by a biased organization, pulls in information from non-biased sources like the Congressional Budget Office as well as other biased sources like AARP, the AMA, and Children’s Hospital Alliance.

From all I’ve read, and I’ve been reading a lot these days, it looks like an awful bill.

So yes, I’ve written and called and made my voice known. And yes, I’m shaking in anger. It’s no secret that I have a pre-existing condition as does my son. And it’s no secret that I am in medical debt up to my ears. This year alone, and it’s not over yet, I have a stack of bills totaling $8000. That’s not a lot considering what our health care needs have been this year, but put in context, I make a little over $27k a year. I made less the year before. I’ll pay, but it’s taking a while.

Now, part of that was a choice to live in a lower paying state so I could live with my mom and pay reduced rent. If it weren’t for my 85 year old mom living on a pension, I’d be in much worse shape. Now that I’m back in NYC, my salary has gone up, but so have my expenses.  And I’m still part time. So no health care and no guarantee I’ll be working in the spring. I think I will. I have hopes I will. I’m a damn good teacher and schools usually want to keep me because I am cheap as an adjunct, but nothing is guaranteed in this life.

But that’s a problem for another time. Yes, I have a sad story. Millions and millions of us do. My son is literally alive thanks to the ACA and my mother’s help. He had a crisis, it’s over, we know the problem, and blood monitoring 4-5 times a year should keep him healthy and back in the workforce. I’m at the start of my chronic illness, but if I take care of myself stringently and luck and God remain on my side, I should be able to work for another 25 years, which is the plan. I’ll be 81 when I retire, but I work with many people in their 80s who are still teaching.

So how to change minds, then? There’s the problem of living in an oligarchy. The Koch brothers have warned Congress: no more money till there are changes in health care, changes that save insurers money, not the insured. Google it. It’s been in the news since March. Now while I applaud their criminal justice reforms, the Koch brothers and the rest of our wealthiest citizens should not be running our country. That’s not democracy when the rich can buy the kind of country they want at the expense of the poor.

So we can vote Blue or Green or anything but Red and vote out the people in charge of the law, but they will be replaced by other people who can be bought and sold. As long as we have an oligarchy, we have a problem.

We’d think people would revolt against this, but they are held in check by that other bogeyman, socialism.  When I hear people talk of socialism, their fear and disgust is palpable. They collect their social security checks, but socialism is bad!

Socialism, I’m told, gives us Death Panels that decide who lives or dies.

That’s what insurance companies basically are doing now.

How many times have I donated to a crowd-funding campaign to help people I know get through devastating illness? I don’t mind at all, and I am happy to give, and frankly, I think we should care for each other. Many people think that this is how it should be done–communities and churches should help one another, not the government.

I get it–the frontier spirit of the Americans and our “I’ll do it myself” attitude. I believe that, too, but this is the 21st century. The world has changed radically since the days of the American frontier.

And they will say that they do support the sick, but they want to be able to choose who gets their money. That’s fair. I can understand that.

But often their money is earmarked for the “deserving poor,” and they are the ones who decide who is getting help or who isn’t.

And that’s the Catch-22.

I’ve lived in two countries with national health. It had problems, but it had benefits. I’ve lived in Switzerland, which had excellent health care which was mandatory, but expensive. But it was honestly the best medical care I’ve had in my life. But for mental health? It was terrible. So there’s that.

This current crisis will pass. I’m hoping that Graham-Cassidy will go down in flames, but I have a sick, sinking feeling that it won’t. It will be a shallow victory, though, because I’m thinking that this might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Take away people’s health care, take money from their pockets and food from their mouths in dire emergencies, and then all Hell truly will break loose.

 

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January 27, 2017

Too Big to Fail

When the financial crisis of ’07-08 was addressed by incoming president Barack Obama, many Americans were unhappy with the resolution. Yes, we got “back on track,” and things did get better for many. But banks were declared “too big to fail” and were bailed out.  That, I think, was one of the seeds that led to our current president.

For good reason, people blamed the banks. When banks got help and no punishment, many Americans who had lost homes, cars, jobs, and even a lifetime’s work got rightfully angry. And for the next six years that anger brewed.

Sure we got the ACA, which to me will always be Romneycare as I first encountered in when I came back to the US in ’07 and lived in Massachusetts, but I know people who literally had to choose between insurance and food. Even the subsidies through the ACA were not enough. It depends, of course. When I came back to the US the second time, I used the ACA because I had no health care in my part time jobs. I paid a lot but got excellent coverage. My subsidy was about $500 a month, but since I literally paid more into the government in taxes than American Airlines, United Continental, and Hewlitt-Packard, and now it seems, President Trump, my conscience is clear. I have always paid every penny of taxes due, and I am willing to pay them to cover things like medical care and roads and so on.

So in spite of the ACA, we have millions of people who realized that they were unimportant to the government in spite of all its propaganda. Protecting the banks was protecting them, we were told, because if the big banks failed, the economy would suffer.

Well, you know what else is too big to fail? The United States of America. And failing we are.

We have a sitting president who is totally unfit for the job. Yes, he is a businessman who gets things done, (including bankrupting himself and many, many small businesses left in his wake) but countries are not businesses. It’s not about the bottom line. It’s about people’s lives. He has not divested himself from his businesses. He has named unfit people for almost every position in his Cabinet. Most are now in the position to make the very wealthy even wealthier. Many of them have outright conflicts of interest.

Many don’t know a thing about the departments they’ve been nominated to head. I could see Ben Carson as Attorney General. I wouldn’t like it, but the man is a physician. But as head of HHD? No experience. And don’t get me started on Betsy DeVos. As a career professor, I am appalled. I have been teaching students who have suffered at the hands of federal interference in education for decades. I’ve seen the steady decline in knowledge and skills. Not intelligence—preparedness. The thought of her policies literally makes me shudder. And I know the meaning of literal.

Ironically, in light of people’s growing fears of more wars, I think one of his best picks for a Cabinet position is Gen. James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. While more hawkish than I’d like, he has the experience needed and is respected by folks in the Pentagon.

But the worst thing I see is the polarization between every day Americans. It’s been growing since the 2016 election cycle started, but instead of calming down, it’s getting worse. We are hating like we haven’t in a long while. We’re mean, petty, bitter, snide, personal, not only to people in government, but to one another.

We call each other names, generalize and stereotype. We’re more openly prejudiced than we have been in the past 50 years, not just against race but against one another based on political beliefs. I was never a fan of being “politically correct,” but I have always been a fan of trying not to offend people. I try to use non-gendered and people first language. I try to use the identifiers people prefer. To me, that’s just good manners and a fulfillment of the Golden Rule. Many quip that the new Golden Rule is “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Not a quip, the truth, and always has been the truth. But if we say we are the best country on earth, let’s treat each other with respect and humanity. Let’s act like the nicest people on earth. Bullying and hatred are not parts of greatness.

Don’t like someone’s choices? Think their life is a sin? Fine. But don’t curse them, threaten them, harm them or kill them. That’s not acceptable. And I’m not looking at one side or another or another here. I see people on ALL sides of the political spectrum acting unacceptably.

The true core values of our country, democracy, equality, and freedom, have eroded at a pace that frightens me. America is the only thing that’s too big to fail. And we are. America is an idea. And ideal, really. And because we are no longer living up to our ideals, because democracy was trampled on for decades, because corporations have the same rights as citizens, we’ve been a functional oligarchy for a long time. Equality in this country is a joke. Some lives are just worth less. Many see this on color lines, but I believe it’s more on wealth lines. The poor of this country have been abused, manipulated, lied to, and used as tools of the ruling powers since the beginning.

Race is also a problem. A middle class person of color does face stereotypes and prejudice. I am not unaware of the problem, and I’m not stupid. My own son identifies as “non-White” and has faced prejudice both from law enforcement and regular folks. But a poor white person has more problems and inherent difficulties than that middle class person of color. I live in a predominantly white place and the problems of poverty I see are only slightly different than the ones I saw in NYC. Drugs, poor education, lack of family structure (I’m not saying a traditional family is necessary, but when mom and dad are meth dealers, life is nowhere near normal), poor nutrition, poor medical care, and the list goes on.

This economic disparity, this racism, this throwback to “traditional Christian values” of intolerance and hatred for those who choose to live outside one’s ideas of Christianity, these are also seeds that led to Trump’s shocking victory.

Folks like to argue that race is the only reason he’s president, but that’s balderdash. Back in ’92, Bill Clinton’s famous campaign reminder was “it’s the economy, stupid” hasn’t changed these 24 years later. We allowed the oligarchy to grow, and now the White House has become the Palace of Versailles, especially the gilded New York White House in Trump Tower. Cronies and supporters are put into positions of power, regardless of ability, and dissent is harshly treated.

I’m not buying into Trump’s rhetoric of “make America great again.” It has needed work my entire life, but it’s always been a great country. Things are possible here. I am the daughter of a construction worker who earned a PhD. I have taught young people who have literally gone on to change the world, young people who grew up in poverty, or were immigrants, or were people of color, or all of the above. They are America. I love my country, and I love its people. We are what’s made America great, but America has failed too many because money rules.

Greed is not one of America’s values. We’re too great to fail, and this is something that needs to be addressed. I am not calling for communism. That was tried and failed in the USSR and China, among other places. I’m calling for competence in government, experts in charge of departments, not political cronies, corporations losing the rights of citizens, and support for measures that give a leg up. I’m calling for democracy to come back, unhindered by lobbyists, restrictive voting laws and outside manipulation, for freedom to come back through solid educations so that people can make good choices and for humans to live as they wish as long as they remember that their rights extend no further than the tip of their noses. That’s what I learned in 7th grade social studies. My rights are for me, and I can not force others to do what I think is right unless it’s something protected by the Constitution. And finally equality. No human being is born better than another. There is one race, the human race. Because of my personal beliefs, I believe we are all brothers and sisters, and I should treat you as I would a sibling. You may infuriate me, you may test me, but at the end of the day, I do love you. But you do not have to share my beliefs. Believe me, most people don’t as I don’t identify as any specific religion. But as members of the same race, we have to work together.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is my manifesto, I guess. We’re too big to fail. We’re an experiment in democracy that needs to backtrack a bit and see where we went wrong. I’m pretty sure I know where that was. Who will join me?

August 8, 2014

The End is Near

I am writing this with something of a heavy heart: this is one of my last The Broad is Back columns. Faithful readers won’t be shocked to learn that the Broad is going to be abroad again. After seven years back in the US, I’m leaving again for a job.

My heart is heavy because I don’t really want to leave. Once again, I’m being pushed to leave my family, my friends, the familiar, but I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. I don’t have much of a choice, because since I’ve been back in the US, I have not been able to find full time work. I’ve been working two, three, sometimes four jobs at a time trying to make ends meet. There have been a few “flush” times, but for the most part every year I’m back in the US I fall deeper and deeper into debt.

Luckily, much of that debt is to the National Bank of Mom, so the terms are easy and it doesn’t impact my credit rating. The only other debt I have is my student loans, another debacle facing Americans. Every time I have to get a low income payment adjustment or that double edged sword, the deferment, the interest added to my debt goes up and up and up. In fact, my debt is now twice what it was when I graduated, purely on fees and interest. I paid for years, but then hit a stretch, going on 10 years now, of financial difficulties. I could pay off the principle, but the interest and fees are killing me.

Full disclosure: I have to admit that I did get two job offers, both in the NYC area, where I am from and where I’d theoretically like to stay. Both offered salaries that would have meant my rent would have been over 50% of my gross income. A doctorate and experience were required for both, but neither was going to pay a living wage. I had to turn them both down for economic reasons.

The dean at one school, a publicly funded one, mind, actually admitted in the interview that their salaries were geared for people who were in a dual-income situation—someone’s spouse or partner. I had a teenager and a husband working on getting a visa with no promise of a work permit for at least nine months. That’s just bad policy. I should be paid what I’m worth and what my job is worth. I have a doctorate; fewer than 3% of Americans have that degree. Tells you what Americans value, doesn’t it? We say we value education, but we don’t. I didn’t go into teaching to be rich, but don’t insult me. If I can’t afford to house, feed and care for my family in a reasonable commuting distance, I can’t possibly take the position. This past year, I commuted 20 hours a week, so my idea of reasonable is rather generous.

Again to be frank, if I were offered a position at that salary now, I’d take it and moonlight. But why should I have to? My doctor keeps telling me that I am destroying my health working 60-80 hours a week. And I am, so this must change. But if I worked less, I’d be homeless.

So I applied to a position in Dubai, and three days later was given an interview. A few interviews later, I was offered the position with a salary and package that blows away anything I’ve been offered in the US. I won’t be anything like “rich,” because I’m still a humanities professor, but I’ll be able to pay bills and support my son.

To be brutally frank, I feel like I’m being exiled from my country. I’ve applied for US teaching positions all over America, so it’s not like I didn’t try. I’ve sent out over 300 applications in the past seven years, and actually had a number of interviews. I’ve been a sub a few times and a visiting professor, but nothing permanent. I’m an award winning professor with 25 years of experience and a PhD from a very highly regarded school. I’ve done scholarly work, as much as I can, while teaching seven to eight courses a term, usually 11 months a year. Believe me, every term, I turn down adjuncting work because I’m that good at what I do. That’s not hubris. It’s the truth.

Am I angry that I can’t get a full time position in this country? Of course I am. On some levels, I’d even say resentful of a system that is destroying higher education and taking advantage of people who have a vocation for teaching. I am not a nun! I’m not a missionary! This is a profession, but I’m certainly not being treated like a professional. I’m not alone in this. It’s a national disaster that I’ve written about many, many times.

But there’s no use crying for water from the moon.

I’m off to start another adventure. I’ve never lived in the Middle East before, and now that I’m reconciled to leaving behind my family and friends, I’m looking forward to new exploits. Nothing beats living somewhere for learning about the culture. And Dubai is a very international place, I hear, so I’m sure it will be exciting and vibrant.

The Broad is Back is a reference to my original blog, A Broad Abroad. I will be starting A Broad Abroad Again in order to record my adventures overseas, and I look forward to seeing you there. I will post the link when it’s up and running!

I came back to a very different America, and sadly, more and more I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes it’s easier to feel like that when I truly am the stranger.

Thanks for your time and your faithful reading!

January 3, 2014

But Why Did You Come Back?

Yesterday I had a conversation with a stranger (I will talk to anyone, really) who is currently waiting for his green card to settle in America. We were doing the “food talk” (where to get good tea–he’s English) and chatted a few minutes.

Then he asked me: “Why did you come back?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked that once people learn I’ve lived overseas.  Family is the answer. But sometimes I think, “I have no freakin’ idea. Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

I came back to an America I don’t fully recognize and it’s one that is crushing the life out of me.  I hobble together a life from three part time jobs; I’ve had no health care for the past year; my son is ill and even though I pay for insurance for him, medical bills are mounting because insurance refuses coverage; and I’m one of those middle class people who falls through the cracks. I make too much to get help but not enough to easily make it.

 

Luckily, the National Bank of Mom has easy lending terms and doesn’t mind missed payments, but being my age and needing the NBoM is demoralizing to say the least.

I am a highly educated person who is very good at what I do, but while I was gone my society decided to change the rules. It decided that money was more important than quality eduction, and it’s slowly but surely destroying one of the best systems of higher education in the world.  It’s already destroyed the k-12 system, so higher ed’s demise was a foregone conclusion. And no, this isn’t hyperbole.  Google “destruction American higher education” and you’ll find information on both sides of the political divide.

I also blame that political divide. The US is more polarized than it has been in a long time, with idealogues on  both sides so deeply entrenched that I fear compromise and cooperation are words that have been lost in our political discourse.

As faithful readers know, I have been trying to leave again.  I have realized that for right now I’m here for a reason, so moving has been shelved for a while.

I really do want to stay here and make America better–to serve people who need me–but I may not be able to. American society loves people who serve, but just be willing to live hand to mouth like everyone else.

Feeling a bit hopeless today.  That’s why I write, because as long as I’m writing, that means I must be hoping–hoping that there are enough people out there who are ready to take America back, to steer us to a better way.

And this doesn’t mean moving more Right or more Left. It means letting go of those labels; letting go of entrenched politics and policies and seeing that we need something else, something new.  Because right now America is on a collision course with destruction, but too many people are too harried trying to survive to notice it.

September 19, 2013

The Sad and Lonely Death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, Adjunct

A story has been circulating academic newsletters and forums this week, a column called “The Death of an Adjunct” by Daniel Kovalik. It’s terrifying, to me at least, for it tells the true story of 83-year-old adjunct professor of French Margaret Mary Vojtko who died last month in abject poverty.  You can find the story here if you would like all the sad details.

I found the story terrifying because it’s the future I face. Teaching at 83 is not unheard of. I know many people who are working long after retirement age because they can not afford to stop.  In the comments, someone posted, “what about Social Security?”  I was very surprised to learn that there is actually no minimum monthly benefit, but for administrative reasons, the SSA won’t pay less than $1 a month.  And we all know, or should know, that benefits are based on salary. If Prof. Vojtko was an adjunct for 25 years, her yearly salary was low.

Why adjunct? It used to be the domain of grad students or people who wanted to keep their hand in or make a little money. Now I know a number of full time adjuncts, but obviously not all at one school.  I am one, something I’ve bemoaned for a while. I left America (because a Taiwanese school was the only full time job I could get) and was out of the country for well over a decade. Since I’ve come back, nothing full time permanent.

I have glowing reviews from peers and students, and frankly, I am very very good at what I do.

But my income varies and my health coverage is spotty, in spite of my union.  The SSA very helpfully sends me what my social security benefit is currently projected to be when I retire. It’s in the three digits per month still. I have a very very very small IRA because one temp job I had was a year long, so I was part of the Massachusetts Retirement Fund, but when I left I had to roll it to an IRA.  And that’s about it.

I would love to sock away funds for my future, but right now I’m not making enough money for living now. So Prof. Vojtko’s story? This could very well be me in 30 years.

I have hope, of course. Hope of a full time job somewhere in the near future. Or of moving out of America again (which is getting harder and harder to do–everyone’s economy is bad). Or I will finally have time to finish my book and sell it. And then maybe publish another.

I’ve written about the adjunct situation before. Schools have figured out that they can hire “contingent faculty” with little to no benefits, no job security and very little pay. In that way we’re no different from many who work in corporate America. Except most of us have advanced degrees. We’re some of the best educated and least appreciated people in the country. We hear the pundits and the politicians say “We need more educated people in this country.”  But why bother if there will be no jobs?

I didn’t go into this field blindly. When I was deciding between a PhD or law school, I did my research. I talked to people in both fields. I looked at the market research. According to statistics, there would be a 13-20% increase in college teaching jobs. The law field was facing a glut of graduates. Seemed like a wise choice.  And there would have been that uptick in jobs. The hirees of the 60s and 70s were getting ready to retire when I was finishing grad school in the mid-90s. But instead of replacing those who left with other full timers, schools hired two or three adjuncts instead and saved a lot of money.

I can’t totally blame not-for-profit schools, especially the public schools, whose budgets are being slashed. But quality is hurt.

But here I am, living one paycheck away from poverty. I can’t afford to be ill or hurt because I’m allowed one paid sick day per term.  And anything that would entail a few weeks of healing time? They’d get someone to replace me. I get it. Students can’t miss the class time.

Something in this country has got to change. Our colleges and universities were some of the best in the world, but running schools with a majority of adjunct labor is not a sustainable situation. Students suffer; education suffers; America suffers; and the adjuncts suffer.

I cried for Prof. Vojtko when I read the article. She died in miserable conditions, in spite of working hard all of her life. She died alone, stressed, and frightened. I would cry for anyone in that situation. But quite literally, there but for the Grace of God go I.

To anyone thinking of an academic career in America, I have one piece of advice: don’t do it. I love teaching. I don’t teach; I am a teacher. But I can’t live a sustainable life and I know many many others who are in the same boat.

September 2, 2013

A Call for Labor

Because today is Labor Day, I want to make a plea for those who would labor in this country but who can’t. I want to make a plea to bring manufacturing back to America.

We keep saying the jobs of the future are in technology. Many of them are. And factories don’t need as many people as they used to before robotics. But because Americans want to buy cheap, cheap, cheap, we’ve taken bread out of our neighbors’ mouths.  And hurt the country in the long run.

Why should a company pay a living American wage to a craftsman or a worker when work can be done in a developing country by someone with no union, no laws protecting workers? I may be thought naive because I’m going to answer, “it’s the right thing to do.”

Our country prospered when our working class prospered. When a “working man” or in many cases a working woman, could support a family with an honest wage. I hear many people blaming the unions. Hogwash. Unions got you a weekend and safe working conditions. Unions make sure you’re compensated if you’re injured at work.  Is there corruption in unions? Yes. Is there anywhere humans are that does not have corruption? No. Unions, churches, governments, corporations. It’s humans who are corrupt, not unions.

Since I’ve been back in America, I’ve gone through countless small appliances, clocks. chairs, the list can go on and on. Things break. They just stop working. I’m not saying one country or another is doing shoddy work, and I often think, in my paranoid moments, that companies do it on purpose to up their bottom line. But I know I would rather pay more for something that will last than keep throwing things in the trash. Living in a disposable world is wrong on so many levels.

But I’ve started to look at labels very carefully. I’m buying more things built in Germany, Switzerland and England because I want better quality. Yes, I’m paying more, but in the long run, I am sure I will save money.  I would rather buy things made in America in order to support my fellow Americans. But I can not find them!

I’ve said it before, more than once. If a clever person opened a factory here and made kitchen appliances, he or she would make a mint. Yes, I would pay twice as much for an American made toaster. I did it already for an English made one.

Not everybody wants to go to college.  Not everybody wants to work in an office. I’ve never worked in a factory, but I’ve worked in a factory lunch counter. It was not pleasant. It was hard work. But it was 9-5 with a regular and good paycheck.  The more skilled workers got paid more, which makes sense, but they had jobs. Now the jobs are gone.

Don’t tell me that working for a subpar wage with no health care or retirement benefits at a big box store is less stressful or easier on people.

My late father-in-law was a machinist in a mill. He and my mother-in-law raised nine kids on his paycheck. It was tight. Very tight. He supplemented his income with providing much of his own food with gardening, hunting and fishing, but his children were fed, educated and went on to good lives. But there’s no mill anymore for any of them to work in. The area they live in has been hit hard economically, and not just in this century. Things were getting bleak there in the 80s and they’ve never truly bounced back.

There are only so many tech jobs that can open up.

We’re being sold the story that we live in a service economy. That the jobs have moved overseas and there’s no getting them back. Why not? Prices will go up if people get paid a living wage. Americans have to say well, I will pay $6 for quality that will last instead of $1 at the dollar store. I’m no stranger to dollar stores. But how many times have I thrown out things in a matter of months and then had to replace it?  That’s false economy.

I feel like I’m on a soapbox right now. There are so many issues that are part of this problem. But I know there are people who want jobs and we keep telling them: “There are none. Learn a new skill.”  We have the factories, shuttered, many being turned into luxury housing for those in the professions. Housing is good. But so are jobs. Why repurpose a factory into housing when we could reopen it and start bringing in jobs?

I’m not an economist, so what the hell do I know? I read, though. I know history, though.  We see what happened to Detroit. We’re at a crossroads. Time to start a revolution in thinking about this country. Americans have to wrest America back from corporations and governments, local, state and federal, that pander to their needs.

August 28, 2013

One Summer that’s Not Fading Fast Enough

“The sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

On today’s 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, it is more than appropriate to quote from it.  This is a speech that looms large in my life. I was only two when it was given–and at the time, I had a brand new baby brother in the house, Just two weeks old. The actual speech didn’t register.

But as I’ve mentioned in the past, I was blessed to have a mother and grandmother who believed in equality, who raised me to know that we’re all brothers and sisters, end of story.  So Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, these were childhood heroes whose influence stays with me today.

I’ve taught this speech in many settings for decades. Over 22 years ago, in a memorable public speaking class of adult women (there were just no men in that course), all at least a decade older than me, we watched the video of the speech. All of us sat there, tears streaming down our faces, not just because of the beauty of the words and the eloquence of the speaker, but because we realized the dream hadn’t been achieved yet.

In the past 50 years, there have been some cool days–some thought that summer was ending–but it never seems to stick. People say to me, but the president is Black! Two secretaries of State have been Black. Look at Oprah!

Yes, I know this is not the America of my childhood. Things are better. Marginally. But I teach in schools that are predominantly non-white. I see the difference between the lives of Black folk and White folk every day. More Black young men got stopped and frisked in NYC last year than there are young Black men in NYC. My students get to college primed for lives of mediocrity, and it breaks my heart.  Ask them. I go on rants weekly, because I expect magnificence, not mediocrity.

I live in a country that is not fulfilling its great promise, and this infuriates me. Yesterday, in my other blog, I also quoted Dr. King: “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”  I was writing about my students, but it stands for my country, as well. I love this country, truly and deeply, but I am sadly disappointed in the place it has become. Or perhaps I am disappointed in the place it has not become.

The rich are getting richer and the poor are in worse condition than they have been in decades, and a disproportionate percentage of non-White folks are on the poor end of the spectrum.  The middle class, the hope of America, is disappearing at an alarming rate. I like to think that it’s not a racial problem, but a class problem, but that’s me ignoring facts I don’t like.

How can I look my students in the eye and say we were ever on an even playing ground? Me? The green-eyed blonde? That they have the same opportunities as my child, my nieces and nephews? That it’s no harder for them? That people aren’t pre-judging them?

Actually, I do know the truth quite well, as my son has a Arabic name. Try being a 20-something young man with an Arab name on your passport in this country.

There are glimmers of hope. Proportionately speaking, young people today don’t “see” race. They understand that it’s a meaningless societal construct. After all, these are the kids raised by my generation, and many of us bought the message of the Civil Rights Movement.

There are other indicators of progress, but for every indicator, there’s something to remind us that it’s dangerous in this country for people of certain complexions.  A Black young man in a hoodie is perceived as a thug. A White young man in a hoodie is perceived as a skater boy. A Black young man in a nice car is perceived as a drug dealer. A White young man in a nice car is perceived as a hard worker or the scion of rich parents.

On the other hand, a young Black woman dressed in sexy club clothes is seen as tart. So is a young White woman. Ah, equality. I oversimplify there. Black professional women aren’t always seen in the same light as their White peers.

So the conditions of the summer of ’63 stretch out. Many of the things I’ve read in the anniversary of the March on Washington have asked: “What would Dr. King think?” No one can answer that. The one person who had the deepest insight was Coretta Scott King, a brave civil rights activist who probably knew her husband’s true attitudes better than any of the rest of us. But married people can tell you, even wives don’t always know how husbands will react. And anyway, she’s gone, too.

I think he’d see some progress, but not enough. Not enough. That promissory note  has yet to be redeemed.

August 1, 2013

And Sometimes the News is Good

I work for the largest urban university in the United States, the City University of New York.  I know that it’s world-renown because I’ve lived all over the world, and people every where I go know it.  We are leaders in research and scholarship, but most times all the glory goes to the senior colleges and the Graduate Center.

But today I was just reminded of how great our community colleges are.

Today’s blog is  inspired by some former students. I’m so proud of them that I need to share.  I’m no longer at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, but I’m still part of the family.  And a small group of students in the Hostos Repertory Company are bringing the play  Rough Magic to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a major coup for any college group. But for Hostos, it’s even more. The college doesn’t have a theater department, the group doesn’t have a manager, it rehearses in a classroom, and shoestring is probably overstating the budget.

What they do have, though, is the support of their professors, members of the administration, and each other. And most important, each one of them has realized the magic of believing in self.

I know I believe in my students. I really do think they are worthy of success. I admire them enormously for the drive that gets them to college in spite of so many obstacles. I currently teach at an urban community college where the demographic is rather different from the demographic at many four year public schools. The average age of our students is higher and many of them have been knocked around a bit before they find our doors.

I truly love working for a public university because in so many ways, public colleges, and especially the community colleges, embody the American Dream for me.  For me, the American Dream is the freedom to be all you can be, without family position, tradition, class, creed, race or gender holding you back.  Community colleges, and then later the four year public colleges truly do even the playing field for hundreds of thousands of students each year.

Today I’m full of pride: for my former students, for my former college and for my university.

Many politicians treat community colleges poorly. Believe me, our budgets are constantly being slashed. Half the time at work, I’m reminded of the saying from St. Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”  I see my fellow professors doing the impossible every day.  I see my students doing it, too.

So sometimes the news is good.  And I’m more than happy to share it.

 

February 5, 2013

Americans are getting to me

Walking home from class today, I realized that I was in trouble. I’ve been saying “Americans” a lot. As in “Americans are strange,” “Americans are screwed up,” and “I don’t get Americans sometimes.” This worries me because as my friend has pointed out, “Sweetie, you are American.” And this is my trouble. I’m starting to feel very alienated in my own country.

It might be because this term I have had two Europeans in my class, reminding me of what I left behind, but I don’t think that’s it.  This has been building. The sorry state of my profession in this country has been eating at me for a while.

I went to the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) annual conference in January. The MLA is my professional organization, and to hear modern language professors from all over America discussing the de-professionalization of the profession, the overuse of “contingent labor” (that’s a pretty phrase for underpaid part-time workers, mostly without benefits, who are the mainstay of college faculties all over the country), and the alarmingly poor job market, well, let’s just say I realized I should have gone to law school. Or med school. Or done anything else.

Alternately, I could be a literature professor and be well paid and respected. I just have to leave America. Again.

I think this might be part of my problem. I’m gearing up to leave again.  It’s not set in stone that I’m leaving, but I’m definitely looking at options. In order to leave, I have to remember all the things that bother me about America in order to make the leaving easier.

And I have to say, after five years back, I’ve had a good long look at the fruits of American education. The majority of students I have in class are truly not prepared for the work they are expected to do in college, so I spend my days teaching 6th-10th grade level skills.

I still teach one course a term in Sweden, and my student exams from that course are often better than the papers I get from my native students.  This breaks my heart.  It’s not that I begrudge my Swedish students their skills. But I am brokenhearted that what was once one of the top educational systems in the world is now broken. It’s not broken beyond repair, but I honestly believe the entire system needs to be dismantled and then rebuilt.

But even if we did that, it still wouldn’t work. Our society is broken, as well. There is precious little respect for teachers and education in this country. Oh, we say we respect teachers, but ask any teacher, at any level, and listen to what he or she thinks of the respect we receive. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Yeah, right.  People laugh, but they think that. We’re either inspired selfless zealots who teach to change the world, or we’re losers who can’t make it elsewhere.

Granted, I teach in New York City, mostly in community colleges, so I’m not getting the top of the high school classes, but I’ve taught at “big name” schools here in New York City, as well, and frankly, I’m not impressed.  So I’m back at the community college because I have a union supporting me (I’m part of the contingent labor force), and at least I think I’m making a big difference in people’s lives.  Whatever gets you through the night, right?

So maybe alienated isn’t the right word. I’m angry. I’m angry with the state of my profession, the students’ lack of preparation, the full-time salaries being offered that won’t even support me in New York City, the seeming waste of my education.  But I’m alienated, as well. How can I live in a country that thinks like this? How can something so precious, education, be so disregarded?

Hopefully, this is the beginning of me doing some serious writing about American society. I feel a strong need to write, to chronicle what is happening.  American education is on the edge of a huge change.  Thomas L. Friedman’s essay in the New York Times last week, “Revolution Hits the Universities” sparked much discussion with my co-workers, and that’s just the beginning. The Broad is back, but for how long? I spent 13 years out of America. Was that too long? Is it time for the Broad to be Abroad again?  Time can only tell.

January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, a childhood hero

I was brought up in a house where dad out Archie Bunkered Archie Bunker and mom and her mother were fighters for social justice. Luckily mom’s view took root in me. So in my house, Martin Luther King was a hero. I was seven when he was assassinated, and even with all the things we hear about him today, he’s still a hero to me all these years later.

Surprise, surprise! He was a human being, and humans are flawed. But the good he did far outweighs any of the bad and in my accounting, that’s what counts.

I’m a professor at a public university because education is the way to change lives and promote equality. I believe this deep in my soul. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I really do believe that love is all we need and love will light the way and all that hippie stuff of my childhood. Or more precisely, all that Transcendentalist stuff I drank in when reading Alcott as a child. And all the charismatic Catholic social justice stuff my mom taught me. I was doomed from childhood to be an idealist, and that’s all there is to it.  No wonder I have an activist Christian preacher as a hero.

But this is a rough world for idealists. Lately I find myself discouraged. I have students in the South Bronx of New York City who tell me that they never heard of Martin Luther King in school. I’m not sure whether or not to believe them, and I suspect they never heard of King because they weren’t listening, but still, this is disheartening.  I know my students overseas know King. In fact, America’s civil rights struggles are very interesting to those abroad.  They love reminding me (as if I needed it) that America has a troubling past when it comes to race. Find me a place that doesn’t, though.  Sometimes I sense a little spite in their glee.

I seem to live in a world consumed by hate, anger and nastiness. Reading the papers is a chore that I will put off for days at a time sometimes. I used to read three papers a day, but lately Twitter is about all I can handle. Actually, Twitter keeps me abreast of most things, and 140 characters on the topic is about all I can take at times.

I think that’s one reason why I haven’t been blogging as much as I used to. I’m so overwhelmed. There is so much that needs fixing.  What would Dr. King think if he were still alive?

Things are definitely better than they were in 1968. There are President Obama, Secretaries of State Rice and Powell for starters. I know many young people who don’t even “see” race and this fills me with joy.

Statistics still stink, though. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, Blacks and Hispanics have higher poverty rates than other groups (see NPC’s Poverty facts). A lot of this ties to education. Blacks, especially Black men, are less likely to finish high school, especially here in NYC.  In 2006, two-thirds of young Black men in NYC didn’t graduate on time. These statistics chill me. We are wasting one of our most precious resources! Black men are also over represented in correctional facilities, which leads in turn to the finishing high school problem.

I teach a number of the success stories, the young men who graduated high school or earned a GED. Like their female counterparts, most have terrible academic skills, weak vocabularies and below par reading ability. They are bright, and they want to succeed, but they don’t know how. I’m told by people who study these things at my school that nationwide, 75% of those who start at community colleges in America never finish. How can they succeed when they aren’t prepared?  Of course, I have a number who do graduate. And many of them go on to four year schools, even Ivy Leagues. As I tell my students, anyone can get into CUNY, but if you get out with a diploma, you can go anywhere.

Black and Hispanic women have similar problems, of course, and they are over represented in the teenage pregnancy statistics. Too many American teens are getting pregnant, but Black and Hispanic women are three times more likely to been teen moms here in New York.  Going to school takes hard work. Going to school with a baby? Not good odds there. Not impossible, though. Some of my best students are former teen moms who have realized the importance of education in order to make their children’s lives better.

It all gets back to education with me, doesn’t it? But I think Dr. King would agree. After all, his doctorate isn’t honorary. He earned a PhD from Boston University in 1955 at the incredibly young age of 26.  He pushed through and got the degree. PhDs aren’t worth much in American society, believe me, but they represent something. They show, on some level, that education is important. It’s not the only thing, but it’s something.

So today as we remember Dr. King, I want to thank all those who still work for the dream. I’m a battered idealist, but I’m an idealist all the same. And as long as there are people out there working, the Dream stays alive.

And I can only say Amen to these famous words:

“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: / we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I Have a Dream Speech, 1963.

 

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