Fighting for Change with Hearts Wide Open

The environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore looks out at the Occupied social landscape and sees “The Big One”–a movement that will bring all the disparate struggles of our society together on common ground, and effect deep, lasting, structural changes.

“The lines that connect climate change to jobs to the environment to education to health to justice are strong and undeniable,” she says. “The time has passed for an environmental movement. The time has passed for a climate change movement. The time has passed for isolated grassroots movements. We stand on ground that trembles with tectonic movement. Along the straining fault lines of our civilization, we feel the forces building for justice, sanity, and lasting ecological and cultural thriving.”

She’s certainly right that isolated movements are not going to change the world. That’s what’s been so great about the Occupy movements–they’ve been widespread and inclusive,a big big tent spread out over a lot of ground, coast to coast.

As Moore says, the moral ground of the Occupy movements is quite simple and clear: “it’s wrong to wreck the world.”

That’s something I knew instinctively as a child, as most children do.  Part of the great tragedy of our society has been the way we slowly deaden and numb the compassionate, empathic instinct of our children, teaching them to ignore pain and injustice, to just keep walking and mind their own business.

I know that’s what I was taught as a privileged young American growing up in a deeply unequal, unjust and exploitative society.  I know now that it was wrong.

And thanks to Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupy movements, I am beginning to know what to do about it.

We need to stop going about our business as usual, and relearn how to see and feel suffering and inequity.

We need to think outside the box of our normalized capitalist assumptions, making well-being rather than profit the goal of human effort.

We need to make protecting our planetary home our highest priority, because without a healthy environment, we will never build a healthy society, and things are so far gone that bringing back ecological balance will take everything we’ve got.

One of the reasons that revolutions are almost always carried out by the young is because they are closer to the instinctual compassion of their childhoods.

If only the stuffed shirts in Congress and in corporate office buildings all over America could remember what it was like to live with their hearts wide open, we might start to see the great boulder of social change really start to pick up steam.

On Becoming a Statistic

I have never felt like such a statistic as I do now.

As of the past few months, I have lost a job, and the health insurance that went with it; gotten divorced and become a single mom; and so suddenly found myself the proud possessor of a mortgage I can no longer afford.

The full catastrophe.

I take some small measure of comfort from the knowledge that it is not just me.  Women have been hit harder in this recession than men, and single women, especially single moms, worst of all.

“In today’s economic and political climate, women are being dealt a triple blow,” says Anika Rahman, President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women. “Indeed, what was once termed a ‘mancession’ is now a ‘womancession.’ Women are losing jobs faster than men because of drastic cuts in areas like education and health care where they make up the majority of the workforce. As the majority of state and local public-sector workers, women are affected most by attacks on public-sector unions. And women suffer most from cuts to social services because they’re more likely to be poor and care for children and the elderly.”

As a matter of fact, the job I lost was in the public education sector. I taught for nine years at SUNY Albany as a Lecturer in Humanities (ie, a salaried professor on a three-year renewable contract), and I was a member of the union, United University Professionals (UUP).  Because it is very difficult for the university to fire individual union members who have been performing well in their jobs, the administration decided, in the interests of saving money, to terminate my entire program, an innovative first year “living & learning” community that had just been shown by external reviewers to have positively impacted students’ success rate at the university.

The administrators I talked with about the program termination made no bones about the fact that it made better financial sense for them to fire a salaried worker like me and hire a few adjunct professors instead.  Why would you pay someone a living wage and benefits when you can get away with paying someone else a pittance with no benefits?

Sadly this is the state of our higher education system these days.  At least 50% of college and university teachers are now adjunct; at many places, including Harvard and my alma mater, New York University, some 70% of the professors are employed on an adjunct basis.

And we’re not talking about graduate students; we’re talking about people with doctorates, who have worked very hard and spent a lot of time and money to attain the highest degree in their discipline, now reduced to working on a semester-to-semester contract, generally for about $4,000 a course (much less at community colleges), with no benefits.  And no end in sight.

So here I am, living in a house I love bought just before the housing bubble burst, when I was married to a man with a decent job, and working two jobs myself–a house that my current income will not cover.  I am lucky that I have the other job to fall back on; but because I worked two jobs all those years, I am still only part-time at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.  I have two teenage children to support, financially and emotionally, at a time when I myself feel like the one needing support.

There is no doubt that I am one of the lucky ones.  Coming even this close to the edge makes me empathize all the more with the millions of Americans, especially women, who are having to roll with the punches of unemployment and economic contraction.

The stresses on the family are huge.  How many men and women are turning up at the doctors’ office begging for anti-depressants to help them get through the day, or drinking too much, or simply zoning out in front of the TV set in order to escape a crushing reality?  Domestic violence is on the rise; so is suicide.

Listening to the political debate over jobs infuriates me because the whole discussion is so superficial.  We need more than a “stimulus” in our society.  We need more than “shovel-ready” jobs.  We need more than an extension of unemployment benefits, or even a restructuring of our tax system.

What we need is to put the soul back into our social relations.  We need to think deeply, as a society, about our priorities and goals.  Do we really want to become a society where the elite managers live in luxury and ease behind heavily guarded gates, while the masses toil miserably on the edge of ruin, and the prison populations grow ever larger, serving the function of Scrooge’s infamous “workhouses”?

We live in a country, and a world, that is rich in natural resources and talented people.  With proper stewardship, there could be enough for everyone to enjoy a decent existence on this planet, a life lived in dignity, with meaning and reward found in service to the common good.

Where is the social movement that will mobilize people like me to stand up and insist on a better future?  Who will throw the spark that ignites the fire for change?

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