Step back from the day-to-day slog to meet your pressing needs. Put aside the daily onslaught of depressing bad news. Take a deep breath to take five away from the insecurity of its all.
Imagine what life would be like if the needs of you, your family, friends, and community were met. What if you didn’t have to worry about any of it?
What would it change if ….
- the cost of high-quality health care was not an issue for anyone?
- no one had to choose between going to work and taking care of themselves and their families when sick?
- a decent place to live was assured to everyone?
- all schools got the same resources as upper middle-class schools?
- public post-secondary education was free to all?
- paying for food, clothing, and care were not an issue for any seniors?
- all work was respected and was paid with a living wage?
- clean energy was assured in the near future for our children and grandchildren?
What if we were not alone in dealing with all of it?
Pie in the sky? It’s not possible? Not so, fast. A lot of folks in a lot of other countries get some, most, or all these needs met. In the U.S. none of it is assured.
It’s not just that. Unmet needs fester, driving insecurity, toxic resentment, and helplessness.
Shifting that dynamic is all about organizing to shift who has voice and power. It is all about a shift perspective from, “I wish I had that,” to “That is my right!” And then, “We demand it.”
To achieving it, we need to know what we are up against. A recent example: Dismissing the voices of workers, Congress just preemptively stepped in to settle a private labor dispute ahead of a potential strike–undermining the only leverage unions have, withholding their labor–without even stipulating the modest demand for seven paid sick days. Railroad owners won. Railroad workers lost. Elected Democratic and Republican lawmakers regularly prioritize the voice and power of corporations and the wealthy over that of workers and their families.
Another: With a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court appears to be preemptively poised to take up a case that may block President Biden’s modest student-debt relief program ahead of the customary wait for lower court rulings. Lenders will win. Students will lose.
The list of such examples is just too long. Why? Campaign contributions, surely. But not only.
On a deeper level, it continues to be about the failure of elected leaders and the judges they appoint to identify with and act on behalf of people who must struggle to make ends meet. It’s about the persistent refusal–from positions of privilege–to even imagine another’s life, to empathize with daily insecurity. It’s about the ongoing failure to even listen. Across way too many basic issues, political leaders ignore the voices of parents, the sick and going to be sick, the elderly, teachers, nurses, farm laborers, people who stock shelves, people who wait tables and clean houses, delivery truck and taxis drivers, and cost-burdened renters and homeowners.
The list of discounted needs–no, rights–goes on and on. It’s too long.
Most damaging, the failure to heed and consider the lives of people who struggle–some more than others, but most of us really–has become so normalized that it barely registers. Paying due attention is the exception, not the rule. Again, such is the fuel for toxic counterproductive resentment rather than successful organized opposition.
The wealthy have power, and they know how to use their voices to keep and enhance it. The empowered have made bending public ideas and beliefs an art form. Over and over, any effort to shift power to low- and middle-income people is framed as an unacceptable assault on the economy. Hence, even elected Democrats resist efforts to make medical care or post-secondary education affordable through a fairer tax system as unaffordable or inflationary. Strikes– withholding work–are dismissed as too disruptive to the economy rather than an inviolate worker right, as if somehow everyone benefits from protecting the status quo, structural inequality.
If the voices of workers have been ignored, certainly one contributor is low union membership compared to other developed countries. Unions have potential voice and power. But the U.S. is at the far low end, ranging from 91.4% in of all employees in Iceland to a mere 10.3% in the U.S.
Another reason is that popular media is beholden for advertising revenue, if not directly owned wealthy corporations. As a result, they fail to prioritize the stories of working people or people of color or immigrants. Television and radio, Facebook and Twitter won’t prioritize the voices of working people or the unseen demanding to be seen. It’s not the dominant media’s business model. In fact, their advertisers depend on getting folks with little money to identify with those who have a lot. “I want that too,” is how stuff gets sold.
It doesn’t have to continue. Voices matter when they are heard. That’s the job of organizing–to engage with people to imagine what if and then work together to make our voices heard and build power. People matter when they are seen. That is why–for a little time after the murder of George Floyd–the slogan Black Lives Matter, combined with the direct action that accompanied it, had resonance. For the media, the spectacle got viewers to watch ads. So, while it was profitable the voices rose to a public crescendo and then faded.
Going back, it’s why organizing combined with dramatic television images of the young and old defying the heckling and often violet crowds and police to claim their right to vote, to integrate schools, to sit at lunch counters, to ride in any seat on buses, and to march to gain a measure of public support for countless direct actions, ultimately advanced the civil rights movement and legislative victories.
Six years ago, as my wife and I planned to retire, we moved to Beacon, New York. We chose Beacon because of its racial and economic diversity, hiking and walking along the Hudson River, and a vibrant arts community. However, the diversity we value is threatened by developer-led, and government-permitted gentrification. We knew we couldn’t solve that problem on our own, so we turned to other organizers at Community Voices Heard. As a result of person-to-person organizing, Beacon residents turned up again and again up at City Council Meetings to tell their stories of unjust evictions and refusals to renew leases, and landlord intimidation. Our voices told the empowered, “It doesn’t have to be this way. Housing is a human right.” Our numbers, stories, and convictions persuaded some initially skeptical City Council members to pass a law to prioritize the housing rights of tenants over the claims of landlords to their unrestricted private property prerogatives. That’s just beginning of work that needs to be done to ensure housing justice.
Housing is one of many compelling unmet rights. There are plenty of other what ifs. The strategy to turn what ifs into needs met hasn’t changed. Imagine what if. Refuse to be divided. Instead, join with others across differences, build relationships, and organize. Turn to and join one of the many local groups organizing to build the power needed to turn what ifs into needs met.
You won’t be alone.
Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He writes about education and social justice. He works part-time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.
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