I was shocked when a well-known environmentalist criticized my students’ campaign to make drivers education accessible to low-income students. The campaign ran into a lot of classism, but that was the low point.
When I was in high school, drivers training was part of the public school curriculum. Obtaining one’s drivers permit and license were rites of passages and symbols of movement into the adult world. I don’t remember anyone experiencing barriers to obtaining the license, other than the obvious: one had to make sure they passed all required tests. Not in this day and age: drivers training is now privatized, so families without class privilege are unable to pay for drivers training.
Since I teach Sociology, I raised the issue with my students. This group had a strong sense of social justice, and wanted to address the glaring inequality. They decided to hold a fundraiser to help a few local families pay for drivers training while using the fund-raiser as a consciousness-raiser, too. They called the project “Open Road.”
A well-known environmentalist, peace activist, and author who frequently travels the globe promoting her books and who has more status than all of us put together and then some, called the college and complained that they were supporting non-green actions by letting us do this project. Instead of communicating with us directly, though, she used her social position and status to discredit our hard work and project by contacting the college without any consideration for the issues; she seemingly had no conception of what it feels like to be poor; no awareness of what it feels like to be unable to participate in “normal” rites of passages as a teenager; and no awareness of what reality is like for those who are less privileged.
I would have liked her to sit down with the families who were struggling, to hear another reality. Perhaps after deeply listening to the families while exploring her learned classism, she might have used her social position to work with the families and my students to create a win-win. She also might have taken pause for a moment to examine her own carbon footprint, as well. I hear that flying around the globe is much worse for the planet than driving from home to school or work.
Another environmentalist agreed that we should change our project. “We don’t need more cars on the road as they damage the earth. Wars are fought over oil. We are healthier when we walk. It is better for the air. Plus, we really do not want to continue to support the auto industry, “she said, not taking into account that many poor people live out of town and thus, cannot easily walk to town. Another person said, “You should put your energy towards working towards creating a mass transit system.”
We could see their points, and agreed , but felt it was idealistic to put our energy into environmental concerns without taking into account social class inequality and the immediate concerns first, like teenage self-esteem, safety, and chances for mobility.
We are all safer when drivers have gone through drivers training. Poor teens die on the road at a higher rate than privileged teens. In addition, research suggests that poor teens living in isolated and rural areas are more apt to achieve social mobility and a healthier quality of life when they are able to get to work, school, and extracurricular activities. Despite our concern for the earth, until we abolish the automobile altogether and find other ways to reach our destinations, we would just like to see all teens, regardless of class background, obtain their drivers licenses in areas where mass transportation is a problem. We would also like to see progressives open their minds to classism and what it feels like to live in the taxing space of economic struggle.
A special thanks to former student Katie Kettner for all her help with this project and for always going above and beyond the call of duty.