Friday, May 2, 2014

The Importance of Work, The Integrity of Being One, The Inspiration of Community @fairfieldu @sonyahuber @yohuruwilliams

Feast of St. Joseph at Fairfield University
"It’s not who marketers say we are but our deeds, our student achievement, our fairness with faculty and staff, our equitable treatment of maintenance, food service and janitorial staff that make us Fairfield." ~ Dr. Yohuru Williams
My father let me know at a young age, "As you get older, you have to make your way. You need to get a job. You need to contribute." Although that advice stressed me out as a teenager, I am forever in debt to his wisdom and the fact that because I listened to him, I've been a worker ever since I was legally allowed to be employed. Many of the jobs I've had along the way have been far from lucrative, but I have always contributed my labor as a means to be part of my family, a member of society, and a contributor to a better world. I believe in giving my best. For me, it has paid off.

$3.35 per hour is what I made at my first job. I lasted a week making hotdogs at a butcher's shop and mopping floors, however, before KayBee Toy and Hobby called and offered me $3.45 an hour to stock shelves. My checks were minimal there and when a new mall opened up and offered $4.75 an hour to work in a department store, I jumped at the opportunity. This, of course, came with 10% commission selling women's shoes and unlike most high school laborers, I was able to save a substantial amount of money (there are few jobs for teenagers today, I wish to point out, because many of the jobs they would have are taken by older Americans in desperate need of any job). I was able to help my parents send me to a four-year university and, throughout my time there, I always maintained a part-time job and worked two full-time jobs in the summer. At the time I thought the cost for my education was outrageous, but I had all my memories of hearing my father and his friends talk over beer cans about the way they were treated as employees. They worked for airlines, car part assembly lines, and at air conditioner plants. Each and every year, I learned how their conditions were getting worse and, as a young man, I heard how they grumbled and grunted at the minimal appreciation they received from their employers. I also began to see, tragically, how many of the industries they worked for began to move the labor overseas. Those at the top found more and more ways to capitalize off of those doing the labor at the bottom. Rustbelt cities are the result of the elite - the avidity of a few to harvest capital amongst themselves.

But I believed in the promise of college and knowing I didn't want to be trapped in the stressful finances that came with jobs leaving CNY. I put faith in education. Education pays, is what I heard.
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world ~ Nelson Mandela
While putting myself through graduate school, too, I worked in a home for men with mental and physical disabilities making $6 an hour. I also took graduate assistantships where I filed paperwork and worked in a nature preserve. The labor I committed allowed me to sustain an inexpensive apartment, a used car, my books, and the investment to educate myself. In that time of my life, I worked 7 days a week, 365 a year so that I could become a teacher.

I received my first teaching job in an urban district where I taught for 10+ years. I knew that teaching wouldn't be a lucrative career, but in comparison to the wages given to the fathers and mothers in my neighborhood, I did alright. In fact, a few years in, I began to make a salary that was equivalent and more than what my parents made combined after decades of laboring. I thought to myself, "Hmmm, education does pay." Of course, in 2007, I left my teaching job to work on a doctorate and went back to graduate wages. Somehow, on $20,000 a year (if that), I kept my head above water.

I am okay with being a laborer - I believe in knowledge, working hard, and being socially responsible. Teaching is the perfect career. Yet, in the same way that some purchase purebreds for large sums and others go to a local pound to buy a mutt, I've always wondered how price tags are put on our work. Since I was 16 years old, I've worked the same pace, invested myself in doing a good job, and wondered how others, sometimes working far less than me, seemed to be better off. I've come to realize it's because of America's class system and the return to the early 1900s where monopolies and robber baron's exploited its people. The market, which has also allowed us to be more democratic than most nations, has also created industrial emptiness like that which can be found in Syracuse and Bridgeport. A business/corporate model seeking profit, lower wages for workers, and higher salaries for managers, I'm afraid, has spread into K-12 and higher education. Rather than building worth (spiritually, emotionally, educationally, sustainably, psychologically, and physically), this new paradigm is financially driven -  it caters to an elite few while denying a large majority their fair share.

This is not good for any community. We need to be wary of the ways governments build themselves to oppress its people. There's a need to bring exploited people together to stand up to the avidity and swinishness of the indulgent minority. I learned this from reading poetry from Kentucky's one and only, Wendell Berry.
The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life ~ Wendell Berry
Yesterday at Fairfield University I attended a rally for the Feast of St. Joseph and listened to many of my colleagues share their concerns about leadership unwilling to respect faculty for what they bring to the University. Costs of higher education - totally out of faculty's control (and I thought it was harsh as an 18 year old) - have skyrocketed, but many of us wonder where this money is going. While this happens, less support is given to the workers who are here for the students: those who teach, those who work in food services, those who maintain facilities, and those who keep the infrastructure buzzing along. The tuition at Fairfield (and the fact I now teach here) keeps me awake at night, and my only regret in my choice to be part of this family is the hypocrisy I feel trying to balance out what students must pay, what I know of neighboring communities, and the Jesuit mission that attracted me to bring my services here.

And then I heard Cliff Price, an adjunct professor at Fairfield University, speak. He is also my friend, my neighbor, and a brilliant man who keeps me entertained, thinking, and loving books. He teaches six courses a semester at varying colleges and universities to maintain a life for himself and his family. He is not provided health insurance at any of these facilities and he has only enough time to teach his classes at Fairfield before he has to head to the next campus to teach there. Cliff Price is the face of higher education, too (like other adjuncts across the nation). Universities rely more and more on individuals like him to teach required courses and as the tuition increases one has to ask, "What quality education is possible when our fellow educators live under these unfair conditions?"

I realize Connecticut is extreme. I experience it every day and  live a 1/3 of my life in Stratford, a 1/3 of my life in urban schools, and a 1/3 of my life on Fairfield's campus. In this sense, I live within and between the greatest economic and academic divide of the United States. The Nutmeg State exemplifies zip-code apartheid, indeed; it is a model of excess and an eerie variation of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. I also work with refugee communities, who come to the United States for a chance to have a better life and who leave horrific conditions caused by poverty and violence in other nations. Most of the young people arriving and attending American schools from refugee camps around the world, live in single-parent homes where mothers clean hotels or work custodial positions at $10 an hour. They may make $20,000 a year and, although better off, continue to face extreme stress as they try to make sense in a new nation.
 Education pays?
Over the last few years, I've begun to wonder. This morning, one of my academic superheroes, Diane Ravitch, shared her thinking in an article called Why Powerful and Greedy Elites Scapegoat Schools. My pontification blanches in comparison to hers, but as I read her writing I couldn't help but think that yesterday's conversation by Fairfield's workers is a result of this avarice.

There have been numerous corporate/business attempts to take over urban school districts (and Connecticut's Governor and Education Commissioner have been at the helm). Some argue the Common Core State Standards are aligned with these efforts, too, and many of our U.S. politicians have found their way into office because they have financially benefited from the deep pockets of these funders who are dead-set on profiting off the poor (and yes, the joke, "What's the difference between a Republican and Democrat? The way it is spelled" suffices here).

That is why I was extremely proud of my colleagues at yesterday's rally and even prouder of the students, workers, and staff who shared their thoughts. In the end, we stood in solidarity about equity and I felt, for an hour of my day yesterday, that Fairfield University really does have a mission for justice and fairness. On our website it is written,
Fairfield University is a Jesuit, Catholic university in mission and spirit. Our objectives include promoting a sense of social responsibility, and making sure all students embrace and develop their full creative, intellectual potential.
Why is this important? Because the ways we labor comes with a social responsibility to others - men and women for others. I'm far from being religious, but I came to Fairfield because I believe in the tradition of teaching young people to live a moral, ethical life. I come with immense spirituality and faith in the Great Whatever (that is - hope for a better world).  I realized, though, from yesterday's rally that there is much, much more laboring to be done to counter the detachment a few have from the everyday reality of workers: students, faculty, staff, and members of our community.

One Fairfield makes sense to me. It is why I chose to move to Connecticut in the first place. To me, education is about acquiring awareness so that I can continue to fight for the rights of others. It is my duty as an educated man to find ways to help not just students, but everyone I know, to 'embrace their full creative, intellectual potential.' It has never been to recreate an elitist class that is thirsty and driven to exploit others for their own personal gain.

Sadly, in public K-12 schools and higher education, today, this has become the new mission. Connecticut is becoming the poster child for the nation's incorrigible extremism. That is not, however, why I became an educator. It has never been a financial endeavor to exploit others and that is why I am frustrated by the current state of affairs. It is why I am thinking again of John Dewey.
The good man [and woman] is the man [and woman] who, no matter how morally unworthy he [she] has been, is moving to become better. ~John Dewey

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