I’ve been fighting off illness for the past 3 days. Between the nausea and loss of appetite, I was grasping for clarity amid a fog. While I did not get as much work done as I wanted, I did have time to reflect on my Self and my life.
If you asked my 21 year old Self what she wished to accomplish, she would have given you a timeline that looked something like this:
21 – finish undergraduate
22 – get into law school
24 – marry
25 – finish law school, pass Bar exam, begin work in human rights/international law
27 – work at the UN
30 – Have first child (with a 529 Plan to cover college costs down the road)
Thing is, that didn’t happen. I finished undergraduate at 21, but was unable to find a job. I became one of those “boomerang generation” kids who was forced to move home due to high costs of living, extended periods of un(der)employment and depressed wages. Frankly, even making minimum wage full-time, I would not have been able to stay in the Bay Area without some outside assistance. The costs of living were climbing as wages were falling. Still, in my precarious state, I took the LSAT and prepared to apply for law school. But after more careful research into law school programs and the job market for recent graduates in the legal field, I reconsidered. What I wanted to do wasn’t really “practicing law” so much as it was a general sense of “making a better world.” Practicing law is for the patient, competitive and peculiarly gifted. I do not mean that in a pejorative sense either. I took philosophy courses and was exposed to Logic and Argumentation. I understood it intellectually, and could apply it, but it went against my way of being and doing. What is logical is not always what is real. Applied in terms of law, logic and the law are reflective of a set of norms codified by lawmakers (most of whom occupy privileged subject positions in terms of race, gender, class, ability, sexuality…). And argumentation can change minds, but it hardly changes worlds. (There’s a time and a place for everything. This is not a dismissal of the importance of the legal field). Really, I was more interested in the hands-on work of social justice- whether it was teaching in underserved communities or tutoring immigrant parents who wanted to read bedtime stories in English to their kids. So I gave up that dream and focused on anti-trafficking work, teaching and writing.
In reality, my timeline looked something like this:
21 – finish undergrad
22 – move back into parents’ home
23 – move out of parents’ home to start a non-profit, get into graduate school
24 – begin graduate school
25 – graduate with MA degree
26 – ?????????
I am 25 years old now. I just completed my MA degree less than 4 months ago, and I was fortunate enough to procure employment 3 months after graduation. Three years ago, I would not have dreamed of this fortune. As a recent undergraduate who graduated into the height of the recession and was forced to move into my parents’ home in a county with one of the highest unemployment rates, I clung to my dreams even as it seemed everything else around me crumbled. My safety nets were tenuous and conditional, and the support of my loved ones seemed to wane as their frustration reached a pitch. Slips of the tongue revealed that they thought my un(der)employment was due to laziness or a lack of effort. “Pound the pavement. Hand out your resume.” I even heard “Pack your shit and enlist” several times- but the armed forces didn’t want me, on account of my vision and hearing.
But none of their advice worked- the temp agencies wanted me to go to remote locations, but without access to a car or a decent public transportation system in sprawling suburbia, that was not feasible or cost-effective. “Pounding the pavement” and handing out resumes didn’t work because most job applications were online, and many businesses in the area were downsizing and operating with the smallest staff possible. Even in the mall, most of the retail shops had, at most, 5 employees- most of whom were teenagers or 20-something year olds who could afford to work part-time for minimum wage.
So, at 23, I was at a cross-roads. The little money I made freelance writing and editing was enough to cover my student loan bills and rent, but I felt that I would stagnate if I stayed any longer. So, I moved across the country to co-found a non-profit which focused on community organizing in homeless and low-income communities across the South with specific emphasis on voter registration, education and empowerment. The work was difficult and worthwhile. Post-Voting Rights Act, many states delegated voter registration to the county registrars, meaning that in any state, one could have 100+ different procedures for voter registration. Add in voter disenfranchisement of those convicted with felonies (linked with cutoffs from public assistance in food and housing), and the issues we addressed were far more complex than many would assume. It was never simply “there’s a shortage of housing” but “we’ve been systematically priced out of housing- even ‘affordable’ housing.” Even “there aren’t enough jobs” wasn’t enough- what about those who face employment discrimination because they have a ‘record?’ Or those who have been systematically pushed out of schools and thus do not have the requisite high school degree (or cannot afford to attain a GED)?
The most apparent irony, however, was that while doing this work with homeless and low-income communities, I was keenly aware that the only thing that kept me from being in the soup kitchens and shelters was the informal support network that kept me housed and provided food when I couldn’t afford it. (This was true of most service providers who served homeless and low-income clients.) That is what made me realize that the systemic nature of poverty is not just disenfranchisement and disinvestment, but also the destruction of human networks which have historically sustained brown/poor people. One example is the privatization of public spaces (a manifestation of neoliberalism) which have enabled and sustained these networks, which is marked in the most banal ways, such as the redesign of benches to make them uncomfortable for anything other than short-term sitting. Another example is anti-loitering laws and ordinances that penalize ‘idleness’ in Black and brown bodies which have historically been used for extractive labor.
Now that I’ve moved to Chicago, I am even more attuned to these effects when I walk to my place of employment. I work in the Gold Coast, where there is a staggering amount of wealth on display. Simultaneously, I cannot ignore the homeless people on the corners, who always seem as though they are on the move, even when they are still (because they belong no-where in a society where consumerism (effective demand) mediates belonging.) I occasionally stop to buy water bottles and meals on my lunch breaks (but this is never enough, and I will never have enough to do this continually.)
So, these past few days, I have been reflecting on the ways in which I am one of the fortunate few. I don’t mean to do this in a self-congratulatory manner at all. It is humbling to look at what I’ve been able to do, the access I’ve had to ‘elite’ and ‘prestigious’ spaces, and recognize that I would not have had those opportunities if it were not for the networks my class ‘privilege’ afforded me. There is some prideful part of me that would love to pat itself on the back and say “good job,” but I resist that. There was no ‘merit’ that separated me from others with similar social/subject positions and circumstances. There was no ‘merit’ that afforded me funded offers to graduate school (I will not pretend away the fact that top-ranked programs tend to select from alumni of ‘selective’ schools)- another instance of privilege reproducing itself).
That’s all for now.