As the economic inequality gap continues to widen, students at Grand Valley State University in Traverse City, Michigan, started saying that they were tired of “talking” about economic inequality; they wanted to “do” something.
We feel that there is a growing emergency. Waiting for things to get better in some far off future began to feel like a moot point. We live in an area where the gap between the rich and the poor is especially obvious, since the town is a well known tourist town which caters to the wealthy. You will see people working two or three jobs at minimum wage, barely making ends meet, waiting on the rich. Life for some here is pure bliss, while for others, it can be a living hell, as people get bounced from one system to the next, or get no services at all, while drowning in debt, judgment, and dead dreams.
Structural economics inequalities exist but are not seen, and the dynamics can feel a lot like a form of slavery. Some people reported being so depressed that they have given up, literally. Residents in the area cannot find affordable housing, people cannot afford to pay basic bills, many do not have healthcare, and residents have lost jobs and their homes. Teachers make middle class assumptions about their students’ realities which causes pain in school. Many residents are exhausted from economic stress and overwork. College graduates with degrees are competing for scare jobs and who you know appears to be more important than who you are or how hard you have worked to obtain your degree. It is very painful to live within this space, day in and day out, especially when you are surrounded by extreme wealth where you see people living a very different kind of reality. Depression and anxiety are high but people often are convinced that their issues are due to psychological conditions rather than sociological ones.
Because the personal is political, and students wanted to focus on change, I (the instructor, Nicole Braun) thought long and hard about what we could do to address the issues for the upcoming class. I decided to create a more hands on assignment for a 300 level Social Class Inequality course in the fall of 2012, to appease the students who wanted to create economic justice locally.
Classism and class inequalities are embedded within all systems and institutions. I narrowed down the systems/institutions to six: Health care, mental health care, employment, housing, the criminal justice system, or education/academic institutions. The plan was to research one of the six topics individually, focusing on “real issues” in the community, which would then be put together into one big research paper.
We then hoped to share our findings with the Traverse City Human Rights Commission. Our first challenge was getting some of the students to think sociologically, because people are in different places in consciousness. Because we are well socialized to believe that hard work pays off, and people “deserve” their lot in life, some students had to first begin to deconstruct their socialization, to learn new ways of seeing, to see what is really going on, inside of themselves, as well as outside of themselves, beyond US values.
What we learned is that a lot of people are suffering, and the suffering has roots in classism and the class structure, and all of this is a social construct, i.e. a human creation. Many people also internalize class oppression, which causes further damage, and professionals are often uninformed about the systemic “nature” of class, thus reproducing inequality in interactions. As one example, a former student worked in a large medical office where she witnessed all kinds of comments behind the scenes made about patients on Medicaid, and so she documented the classist comments.
We spent the entire semester reading, researching, thinking critically, deconstructing, observing, talking, and writing. It became very clear, through the results of the research, that class is the issue of the day, it intersects with other forms of oppression but it needs to be a protected category in and of itself. Traverse City has a reputation for being progressive, too, so the students wrote a letter to the Traverse City Human Rights Commission, asking the commission to consider adding class as a protected category.
We received a response from the board almost immediately. They said that they have a lot of questions, which we understood. They said that they could put us on their agenda and we could come in and speak for five minutes. They also wanted examples of other communities which had adopted socio-economic status as a protected category. They also wanted a clear definition. How do you know when you are experiencing classism? What does it look like? How should the issues be addressed?
We realize that many people are resistant to adopting the idea of class as a protected category, because that is part of “change,” and change always brings fear and resistance. We only have to look at other oppressed groups to see that the struggle to become protected by the law is a struggle indeed. We realize that people in the US are socialized to think that class is an open system, unlike other protected groups, and thus we have free “choice” to be rich or poor. We know that up until recently, sexual orientation was also considered a “choice,” and the struggle has been long and hard to get people to deconstruct their ideas and we still have a long ways to go.
Currently, a few of us are researching other communities which already include socio-economic status as a protected category locally, and we are trying to find ways to define class in the most concise way possible for the human rights board.
We are very open to hearing what you might be doing, in other areas of the country/world, to address classism, how to define it, and what your process was in terms of getting socio-economic issues added as a protected category. We will keep you updated as the Traverse City Social Class Human Rights Project unfolds.
Written by Nicole Braun in collaboration with TC Rice and Roses HR Project members Serena Szimanski and Heather Carson