Monday, April 22, 2013

My Socialist Awakening

My sister and I went to the same college, and we did a lot of the same things. We were both English majors, we hung out in the same crowd, and we lived together during our final years. But we were not identical. Her passion for serving minority groups and the less fortunate was something I admired, but could not seem to emulate at the time. For much of her career at William & Mary, she was involved in the Tidewater Labor Support Committee and participated in a student campaign petitioning the college to pay their staff a living wage. She got the Anarcho-Syndicalist flag tattooed on her arm, would talk at length about LGBT rights, institutionalized racism, how the government was bullshit; and during this whole time I did not really catch on to what she had wholeheartedly embraced.

I struggle to understand why I did not investigate the teachings of socialism earlier. I worked at two restaurants while in school, and many of my coworkers were from low-wealth backgrounds. There were many times when they confided in me the hopelessness of their situations and the challenges they faced on a regular basis. Their cries did not fall on deaf ears - still, I did not know how to help, and at the time I did not believe that I could really do anything for them.

When graduation approached, I began to realize that I did not know what to do next. It was my adviser who suggested non-profit work, and I followed his advice and became an AmeriCorps VISTA, ending up in Wichita Falls, TX to serve as the Financial Stability Coordinator for North Texas Area United Way. My primary responsibility was to help run the Volunteer Tax Assistance Program; since that did not start until January and I got there in July, I had months to conduct research, and my supervisor encouraged me to start my own projects.

I discovered the Bank On model and decided I would try to set up a coalition in my city. I made phone calls to upper management officials from different financial institutions, and, to my surprise, they listened and agreed to meet with me. My position as a United Way representative gave me a sense of agency and purpose that I had never felt before. Now that I knew I could have an impact, I increasingly felt more responsible for the well-being of others.

The more I studied wealth inequality and the methods of addressing it, the more I began to question the financial education projects I had started. Something felt wrong about teaching people how to better manage their money when they did not have any money to begin with. I knew this from the start, but like most people I understood poverty and financial misfortune as a sad but inevitable part of American society. Even though I did not believe it was their fault for being poor, by promoting financial education I was insinuating that it was their fault for staying poor.

Fortunately, my curiosity (and the internet) led me to great socialist writers like Noam Chomsky, Helaine Olen, Chris Hedges, Robert Jensen, among many others. Granted, I still have not made it through Das Kapital, but I have read enough to believe that it is the capitalist system that creates poverty and that fighting for workplace democracy is the only way to ensure financial security for every American household.

Charting this personal history, it should be clear that my socialist conscience and capacity to act derive from being placed in a position of power. Not much power, for sure, but enough to be heard and enough to be taken seriously. There is no reason why anyone should be denied this. It is the cornerstone of citizenship, labor, and life.

The major employers of Wichita Falls include Wal-mart and AT&T, both notorious for their unfair labor practices. Only three unions exist in the city, and there are no socialist or workers’ rights groups of any kind. My service year ends in July. Will I be able to make a difference for workers here in that short window against those odds?

Although I did not know how to respond to my restaurant coworkers when I was younger, I hear their voices more clearly every day. I cannot ignore them anymore. I am ready to join my sister and rage against the forces of injustice. With or without hope, I’m ready to fight.

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