A few years ago, I was teaching a unit on the $15 minimum wage issue. This was before it had become law in Seattle, back when it was still a hotly debated issue. We read articles, watched videos, and met guest speakers to learn more about it. The CEO of a mid-sized business visited my classroom and shared stories with students about how the proposed law would affect him and his employees. He was in favor of the wage increase.
The conversation lasted about an hour before he posed a question to the group, which was populated primarily by low-income students of color. He asked them:
How many of you support the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15?
In a room of 60 students, maybe two or three raised their hand.
How many of you are opposed to it? About 15-20 students raised their hand.
The business owner was stunned. He couldn’t understand why students opposed a law that was designed to put more money in their pocket. So he asked the question. Why?
One brave student volunteered a response: “I don’t know, I just feel like $15 is a lot of money. I don’t know if we’re worth it. $11 seems like it might be more fair.”
The adults in the room lowered their heads and stared at the floor.
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This is why I’m having a hard time matching the fury and outrage I’m reading on social media in the wake of police violence this week. Those incidents were undeniably horrific. We should be upset. We should demand justice and reparations. But in my work as a public school teacher, I see violence every day. It’s a different kind of violence—it’s not graphic, or visual, or spectacular. It’s structural. It’s systemic. It’s a force that teaches people to live a life that’s less than what they deserve.
I read a report recently that revealed that Black and Latino students in South King County who enroll in a community or technical college have approximately a 2-in-10 chance of earning a two-year credential within three years. I know very few people who are talking about this.
Taking someone’s life with a gunshot is wrong. But so is setting up a system that traps people into poverty. One is sensationalized in our news feeds. The other is business as usual.
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We need to stop fighting. We need to stop fighting racism. No more fighting rape culture, oil companies, and corrupt criminal justice systems. We need to stop fighting, and rededicate ourselves to the work of building, supporting, encouraging, and growing the society we want. Instead of responding viscerally to graphic incidents of violence in our society, we need to recognize that there is violence—perhaps not the kind that is visually spectacular—that’s hurting people every day, all the time, constantly. Responding emotionally, with a march and protest, is understandable and cathartic. But we can do better.
We can respond with a genuine commitment to seeing and responding to structural violence—the kind that doesn’t necessarily fill our social media news feeds.
We can do boring things like identifying a local politician who represents your values and signing up to make a modest monthly donation. If we all contribute to candidates who are committed to helping the most vulnerable among us, those candidates don’t have to spend as much time raising money from big donors and can focus on creating solutions. (As for me, I’m with Pramila. Who do you support?)
We can do boring things like finding a local nonprofit that’s doing important work in the community, and signing up to send them money, consistently. That way, the staff members can focus on providing services to people in need instead of planning yet another fundraising event. (As for me, I’m with FEEST. Who do you support?)
We can look around at the systems in place at our workplaces, schools, communities and ask if there might be a better way. (As for me, I’m doing little things like trying to find allies for change at my school, and big things like starting a new nonprofit. What little and big things can you do?)
We can deepen our understanding of institutionalized racism, which is work so complex that it can take our entire lifetime—and is so important that it deserves our entire lifetime. (I’m grateful to the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which elevated my consciousness and put me on a path towards wholeness.)
We can, instead of responding with fury and outrage in the moment, recommit ourselves to playing the long game. We, as individuals, didn’t pull the trigger. We, as individuals, didn’t cause the structural violence that hurts so many. And we, as individuals, are not going to solve these issues by ourselves, today.
But we can cultivate a disposition within ourselves—with a bias towards action, especially the boring stuff—that can help us build, support, encourage, and grow something beautiful.
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None of this is new. It’s merely a loving reminder of what we already know.