Something stinks

And it’s diapers. Or more specifically what happens when parents can’t afford to buy them. In case you don’t have young children, you might not realize how much diapers cost (up to $1000 a year)! Yikes. That’s a big percentage of someone’s income if they are making $20,000 a year or less. But that’s not the kicker. Many childcare facilities won’t let you leave your child if you cannot provide an adequate supply of diapers. And if you don’t have childcare, you can’t go to work. For parents in low wage jobs, they often have to choose between diapers or food in order to get their kids off to daycare and themselves to work.

Babies are gonna poop, so lawmakers in California proposed a bill that would give families on public assistance money for diapers. Because you can’t buy diapers with food stamps (they are considered a “luxury” item like booze and cigarettes).

Leslie Knope saying WHAT?

It remains to be seen if this California bill passes, but I think it’s great to see this issue being talked about. A friend of mine is grouchy that they are talking about such a small change, when we really should be talking about the big problem of poverty and exploring big solutions. And he’s not wrong. But I’m excited about the potential for this to spark bigger conversations. Addressing poverty and barriers to work are critical to people being abused. Having money gives women more choices about their relationships. If talking about diapers is the window that opens our eyes to the bigger issues of poverty, that’s fine with me. Diapers for all!

Catalyst for change: Shirley Chisholm

“At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.” – Shirley Chisholm

471604-01-main-270x350The late, great Shirley Chisholm was recently commemorated with a stamp, so I decided an in-person trip to the Post Office was in order. As I placed my order at the counter, the woman next to me asked who this Shirley Chisholm was. I’m always surprised at how few people seem to know about her. So I’m taking the opportunity to spread the word here.

It is often hard to wholeheartedly admire a politician, but Chisholm is one that I do. When I watched the 2005 documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, I was captivated by her dynamic presence and unwavering vision. As I learned more about her, I couldn’t help but wish that we had more politicians and leaders like her.

She represented New York’s 12th Congressional district for fourteen years, prioritizing issues of poverty, education, and women’s health and reproductive freedom. She deliberately hired women for all of her office positions, half of whom were black women. She was whip smart and had the ability to incisively cut to the heart of the matter; at the same time, she was also known for being warm and kind, with a great sense of humor.

Among her many notable accomplishments:

  • She served on the Education and Labor Committee. She worked on a bill to give domestic workers the right to minimum wage, worked to revoke the Internal Security Act of 1950 (a McCarthy-era holdover), and pushed for increased spending on social services, education, and health care. She authored the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972, which would have implemented a national childcare system; it passed the House and the Senate but was unfortunately vetoed by Nixon.
  • She taught politics and women’s studies at Mount Holyoke and Spelman, after her retirement from Congress.

In her own words, “I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.”

My teenagers get ACTIVE

MLKpinI am not talking about exercise or turning off the electronics—both good ideas—but about social justice work. Last week, the speaker at our Shabbat service to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Alexes Harris, grabbed my daughters’ attention. Instead of leaving them feeling like the world’s problems are too big to fix, she inspired them to be actors in their own lives and community. WOW! Anyone who gets my kids as excited about justice as the latest beauty blog is someone I need to pay attention to.

One of my daughters said, “This speech was not just about Dr. King’s legacy, but what I can do today, with attainable ideas, small things that are acts of social justice.” Yes, she really said that. Here is a shortened version of the speech that got her there:

I am a mother, wife, daughter, friend, professor and social activist…. I am a person, who was raised in a community that stressed the importance of caring for my family members, my neighbors, and people around me. I am a sociologist who conducts research on social stratification and inequality in the United States…. I was asked to speak about Dr. King’s legacy, what this might mean to us today and how we can become more engaged in social justice work. I would like for you first to picture Dr. King in your mind. Visualize his picture in a frame on the wall in your living room. Then picture a portrait of yourself on the same wall right next to his picture. And envision a square frame around your face. There are four sides. Think of each theme I raise as one part of this frame. With each part of my discussion, I hope I help you think of your role as a social activist—your part to play in Dr. King’s legacy. How do you fit in as an individual in the broader discourse about Dr. King and social justice? My aim is for you not to be passive in the celebration of Dr. King’s life, but someone who celebrates his legacy by taking action all year round.

FRAME #1

For the first part of our frame, the right part, I will begin by discussing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy…. Dr. King spoke and wrote about poverty, inequality, and racial injustice in the United States, he fought for the right for all people to vote, he eloquently spoke about the insidious effects of poverty, state oppression, and violence. He spoke out against the Vietnam War; he fought for workers’ rights, equality in living wages, and the right for unions to organize.

“I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.… I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land (Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech).”

He was arrested over 20 times, had his home bombed, and gave over 2,500 speeches. His legacy is that everyone who says his name respects him and that we have the right to vote and we have a social justice vision to strive for: three meals a day, education, culture, dignity, equality, and freedom. For everyone regardless of our race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, pay grade, nationality, immigration status, and age. This is Dr. King’s legacy and this is social justice.

FRAME #2

The second piece to our frame, the top part, is the connection to current issues today—pressing down on us…. Many people note that we have a president of African American decent and suggest that we are “post-racial” that racism is no longer a problem. Unfortunately, many of the same issues that Dr. King spoke about we still struggle with today…. We see in every arena from education, to poverty, to homelessness, to incarceration rates, to HIV transmission, people of color and poor people continue to suffer in this country. Whether it is from direct racism, color blind racism, or inattention to or lack of caring and love, we have several problems in our society that need attention.

We need to continue to make changes in our criminal justice system—we need to tackle the racial and ethnic disproportionality. We need to tackle the criminalization of our mentally ill, of our poor, and of our children. Washington’s incarceration rate has roughly tripled since the 1970s, and is estimated to increase by 23% in 2019. Partly due to the war on drugs we have over 16 million people with felonies (7.5% of the U.S. population), and over 2 million living behind bars. Nationally, 1 in 3 adult Black men have a felony conviction. In Washington, studies show that among felony drug offenders, Black defendants have higher odds of being sentenced to prison than similarly situated White defendants. Criminal conviction leads to limited housing and employment opportunities, legal debt, political disenfranchisement, and a host of problems experienced by families and communities….

FRAME #3

Third side of our frame, the left side, what is social justice and what does it mean to you personally?… Dr. King said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” What does your conscience tell you? I can’t write this frame for you. But, in Dr. King’s words we can find encouragement. Dr. King outlined common goals for social justice—beliefs that are common across all faiths and societies. Speaking on poverty and inequality he said, “In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny … We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

Dr. King told us that we must care about each other, we must care about those less fortunate than ourselves…. This is our common bond across faiths, cultures, and age groups. I encourage you to reflect on what social justice means to you personally. What does your faith, your education, and your experiences tell you are unjust and that you must change? Even if we are afraid, or feel overwhelmed? What can we do to make a difference?

FRAME #4

Finally, for the fourth part of our frame, the bottom, I ask you how can you become engaged and take action?… I suggest that we start within our families and among our loved ones. How can we make their lives better?… We can talk about our values, what our Rabbis, Priests, Imams, and teachers say. We can reinforce to our children that what they read in the Torah or learn in school is not just about words or ideas but about action and interaction. It only means so much if we don’t live by example.

We can make sure our children look out for other children who may be different from them, who may be new to their school, or may not have as many friends…. We can acknowledge our own mistakes, that we are not perfect, we have limitations, but tomorrow is a new day to try again.

We can call others into question when they make racist or homophobic statements in our presence. We can simply say, “Your words are inappropriate and hurtful.” We need to be mindful, as Dr. King said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” When we are at work we can say that that joke is not funny, in fact it is offensive. We can stand up in little, but immense ways for ourselves and others.

In sum, if you think about our four frames for social justice:

  • To our right, we have Dr. King’s legacy—and Mandela’s—and so many others who have come before us who have given their lives for social justice: freedom, equality, and improved quality of life for others;
  • Above our heads we have—pressing on us—contemporary social problems: poverty, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, inequality in terms of living wages, health care, access to quality education. Problems that can weigh us down but we are reminded that our fear, our sadness, is our fuel to push on…. Let whatever you are afraid of be your courage to fight for change. Only you can figure this out;
  • To our left we have our personal definition of social justice—issues we personally care about and want to make a difference in; and
  • Below us, guiding us, we have our action steps: every day actions, short-term and long-term actions we can take to make bigger strides towards social justice.

You have your personal frame for social justice. Now, you can no longer wake up and ignore social justice. You can no longer only remember Dr. King on his birthday or our national holiday. You have a personal reminder of his legacy—a personal frame—that should remind you of the work you have ahead of you…. I leave you with Dr. King’s words, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Want to hear more from Dr. Harris? She has a book coming out, A Pound of Flesh:  Monetary Sanctions as a Permanent Punishment for the Poor where she talks about how the system extracts money from criminals as further punishment, even after they completed their incarceration, and how this stops them from ever returning to society as contributing individuals.

Una Moraleja acerca del Privilegio y la Coerción Reproductiva (A Cautionary Tale of Privilege and Reproductive Coercion)

En Junio los noticieros irrumpieron con la noticia de que 150 prisioneras fueron coaccionadas a firmar papeles de consentimiento para ser esterilizadas en unas cárceles en California desde el año 2006. A algunas mujeres se les pidió consentir a la esterilización durante el parto. Otras mujeres fueron intimidadas a dar consentimiento por doctores que repetidamente las humillaron por ser pobres o tener más de un hijo.

handcuffed-uterus

Hasta el momento todas las que han denunciado el hecho son mujeres de color. Las prácticas de esterilización forzada como este han impactado desproporcionadamente a las mujeres de color y a la mujer pobre a lo largo de la historia de los Estados Unidos. Esta forma de coerción reproductiva es solo un ejemplo de la violencia cometida por las instituciones e individuos en contra de las mujeres de color.

Las personas que perpetran esta violencia institucional en contra de las mujeres y adolecentes de color frecuentemente la disfrazan de cruzadas con intenciones de salvarlas de los errores inminentes que están condenadas a cometer. Como si ellas no pudiesen responsablemente decidir cuándo ser madres pero solamente decidir a “no serlo.” De ésta manera usamos los embarazos de las adolescentes latinas y negras como cuentos de moralejas, como fue el caso en la ciudad de Nueva York donde los mensajes claramente intentaron de humillar a las madres y padres adolescentes. Las mujeres de color encarceladas son coaccionadas a consentir a la esterilización por la creencia de que ellas no tienen la habilidad de tomar ‘buenas’ decisiones sobre sus cuerpos y sus familias.
El mensaje de que las mujeres pobres y los adolescentes de color no debieran de ser padres o madres facilita le existencia de la coerción reproductiva. Mientras que la creación de un ambiente de apoyo por los derechos de cada persona a ser padre/madre hace que la coerción institucional e individual tenga menos chances de prosperar.La prevención de la coerción reproductiva requiere que apoyemos el derecho a la reproducción de todas las personas. En el momento que nos planteamos el problema como si algunas personas se merecen ser padres más que otras quedamos atrapados en un debate de valores y asumimos el rol de Policías del Derecho a Reproducir. Muchos de nosotros podemos nombrar fácilmente las dificultades de convertirnos en padres y madres muy jóvenes o sin tener suficiente dinero para hacerlo (y muchos de nosotros pensamos que el ser madres/padres es solamente una bendición lo que es frecuentemente un valor en las culturas colectivistas). El desafío para muchos de nosotros es el de también reconocer que no debemos marginalizar a las personas que han decidido reproducirse comunicándoles que cometieron un error que no resultará en nada bueno.

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Back in June the news broke that 150 inmates were coerced to sign consent forms to be sterilized in California jails between 2006-2010. Some women were asked to consent to sterilization while in labor. Some women were bullied into signing consent forms by doctors who repeatedly shamed them for being poor or having multiple children.

So far, all the women who have come forward are women of color. Forced sterilization practices like this have disproportionally impacted women of color and low income women throughout the history of the United States. This form of reproductive coercion is just one of the many types of violence perpetrated by institutions and individuals against women of color.

The people who perpetrate this institutional violence frequently disguise it as a campaign to save women and teens of color from the impending bad choices they are doomed to make. As if they could not responsibly decide when to become parents but only not to become one. We use Latino and Black teen pregnancy as a cautionary tale like in the New York City campaign that clearly intended to shame teen parents. Women in prison are coerced into sterilization because of the belief that they do not have the ability to make “good” decisions about their bodies and their families.

Preventing reproductive coercion requires that we support everyone’s right to reproduce. The moment we approach the issue as if some deserve to be parents more than others, we are trapped in a debate about values and we assume the role of Reproductive Police. Many of us can readily name the challenges of becoming parent’s too young and/or lacking the financial resources to do it (and many of us can think of parenthood only as blessing, a prevalent view in collectivist cultures). The challenge for many of us is understanding that we shouldn’t marginalize those who choose to become parents by telling them that they made a bad choice and no good will come of it.

The narrative that poor women and teens of color should never become parents makes reproductive coercion more likely to happen. Creating an environment of support for the rights of anyone to become a parent makes institutional and individual coercion less likely to thrive.

Leadership

women-graduatingFrom an early age, I always thought to myself that education was “my way out.” I thought it would give me a voice, power over my choices, and freedom. I saw it as a way to equalize myself to boys and men. For the most part, things pretty much worked out how I imagined—I found my voice, I have more power over my choices, and I have the experience of freedom.

But lately I’ve been wondering, what if I focused less on trying to achieve what men have and more on how to develop myself to achieve what is most important to me? What if every girl and every woman did the same? What if each and every community valued educating girls to fulfill their goals?

What would women, as leaders, achieve? How would our communities be different? I imagine a whole new world of possibilities. And I am interested in hearing what you think!

What ever happened to human compassion?

I got a bit political in a status update on Facebook the other day. A comment about taxes caused a ruckus with my more conservative friends back home in the South.  Comments started flying about the role of government and how much we should be expected to give to our communities versus what we deserve to keep for ourselves. Looking back at the conversation I wonder: What has happened to basic human compassion?

I think we would do things very differently in this country if we could all tap into real, nonjudgmental compassion for others. To me, compassion means admitting to ourselves that other people’s experiences are not the same as ours, and that they still matter. This is actually quite difficult, and I struggle with it myself.

What if we all worked a bit harder to understand how big social problems like poverty, racism or domestic violence impact people’s lives? What would it be like if we took a walk in their shoes? For those of us who’ve faced some of these hard situations, we’re still not off the hook. Our task is to realize that our way of dealing isn’t the only way.

There is actually research that suggests that compassion causes a chemical reaction in our bodies which makes our desire to be compassionate grow stronger. All we need to do is exercise it! Imagine if everyone in your community was just a little more compassionate. Albert Einstein had it right when he said:

“A human being…experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest…. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures.”

I’m busting out of that prison. Will you come with me?

Welfare is not a dirty word

I cried at work this week. More than once. It’s something I don’t often do. Like so many of us, I’ve learned to become desensitized, detached even, to the horrific tales of suffering that I hear. But then I met Claire.

Claire has five kids between 6 months and 16 years. She was a teenage mom and has suffered abuse her whole life. She’s had to go on welfare several times since she was a teen on her own. Now it looks like she’s about to lose this safety net no matter how bad things get.

In Washington, you will soon get cut off of welfare if you’ve been on for a total of 5 years. Losing these benefits is about to be a new reality for many struggling families and is a direct result of our state’s budget crisis.

I could tell you more sad and horrible details about Claire’s life in an effort to convince you that what’s happened to her is not her fault. But I think you’ve heard stories like this before. I remember what it was like for me before I started this work. When I heard about an awful situation I thought “I must not know all the facts. They might have made bad choices.”

After years of working with people living in poverty, I now know that there is not always the opportunity to grab those bootstraps and pull your way out. Meeting Claire hammered this home for me once again.

Claire has worked harder in her life than I will ever have to. She’s surely made a few mistakes, but haven’t we all? She has also done a lot of things right. So it makes me angry that in this country, where we have so much, she should get so little for all her efforts.

I am asking you to change your perception of people on welfare. It’s supposed to be a safety net when a person falls on hard times, but over the past 14 years this net has been neglected and cut to the point where it’s not very reliable anymore. Welfare is not a dirty word and it should be there to catch us if we fall.

(c) Independent Media Center