Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure to talk with high school students from the @Idea School, here in Bergen County. I first encountered them when I went to speak to a group of students from the Idea School, Teaneck High School, and Drew University in a course called Allied Against Hate taught by @Jonathan Golden at Drew.
We had an interesting, discursive discussion that ranged from Black-Jewish relations: how can we people of the “two diasporas” (as my dear friend @Robert Montera said in my wedding) find our way back to a closer shared purpose against the isms and white supremacy to the current culture wars and what it will be like to be in college with kids from communities that can barely teach history or read Maus or Beloved.
One student shared a great metaphor she had read recently. The nation is like an old house that you move into. You didn’t put the holes in the walls or break the pipes, but the house is yours now, so you must fix it up. Another explored the concepts of equity vs equality.
I told them what I learned from the work I did with the Cleveland Fire Department years ago, that too often the “remedy” makes things worse.I couldn’t understand why grown fire fighters, some of them on the job for decades, were still talking about their test scores. The courts, to redress the lack of diversity in the department, gave Black and Brown applicants extra points. What the courts did not bother to learn or understand is that test scores also determine seniority among a class that joins the department at the same time.
Seniority determines everything from assignments to who get the holiday day off sign-up sheet first. So, every time a White firefighter finds him or herself working Christmas Day, they are reminded of the unfairness of a Black firefighter who got a lower score but got extra points. It is like a pebble in their shoes that irritates them at every turn.
The students and I struggled together to understand why in the US we feel compelled to blame people for being poor as if there is something wrong with them instead of the collective us. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator nowhere in the US can a person or a family live on poverty wages—NOWHERE.
So how is anyone to get out of poverty, if the Federal Poverty Level is so low, you can’t survive? All programs and services in the world won’t solve that problem.
And if they do rise above the poverty level, if they aren’t able to make twice as much money, they still can’t afford to live but they are not eligible for the services and programs.
As I write this, Congressional committees are debating dropping eligibility back down to 125% FPL from the Pandemic expanded 200% FPL. Yet, here in Bergen County true poverty begins at 337% FPL. As proud as I am of the work of @Greater Bergen Community Action, sometimes it feels like we are expected to drain the ocean with a teaspoon.
I was impressed by the students’ curiosity, their compassion, and their humor.
Critical thinking is a beautiful thing to behold.
And compassion combined with intellect is awesome.
We talked about hard things, respectfully, with an open-mind and a listening ear.
These students struck me as people willing to take a whole new approach to fixing our old house, because they recognize that tinkering around the edges won’t make the kind of change, we need.
On behalf of adults everywhere, I apologized to the students for the “hot mess” we are handing them; and I thanked them for their leadership.
I left feeling energized and hopeful.
I am not sure they did.