Poverty and Covid and Black Lives Matter

I was asked to deliver a special class for two hours a week for the college custodians. I did make the point with my Dean that with a couple of hours a week, the custodians were not going o be able to learn to read and write, certainly as the hope was so they could assume more administrative responsibility for reporting and supervising. While this was the rationale presented for the teaching, I came to discover the actual motive for the new custodial manager was to help the custodians feel more valued as people, not just treated as workers. The manager wanted to convey through the gift of the course some respect for the custodian’s personal well-being and more than simply for the number of times a day they cleaned the washrooms. I thought it quite an enlightened view since well-being is hard to measure and so not apparent to administrators for whom metrics define, defend and prove their competence. Yet, I have to think that for the custodial management’s initiative placing value on the person, the outcome was the washrooms were likely better cleaned by people who were happier cleaning them. Respect. For advancing quality of life, respect goes a long way. Respect for the fact that all people are people, not just important people count.

It’s a lesson recognized with Covid when the work of cleaners and personal support workers and truck drivers and grocery store workers is surprisingly seen as vital.And they are applauded for their front-line work on behalf of all of us, and I hear in the voices of those workers interviewed, a pride, a dignity for themselves, their work, because of the affirmation by the society. Did it take that, illness and death of workers, for us to recognize their dignity? Suddenly we give their work some dignity. Before they simply were a means to a service, to serve us, nothing more. Dreams and hopes and aspirations are not restricted to the educated, the thoughtful, those with opportunity, the important people. No, the cleaner dreams of a good life just as much as the one paying a million dollars for a home. The cleaner hopes for a good life no less than any college graduate.

A teacher begins a semester course with a diagnostic of the new students which means the teacher’s starting point is the need of the learners. An ideal class would be a group of learners sharing a similar diagnostic, and even, though it’s not even considered, a similar learning style. You might say but isn’t diversity of background and learning style much better for problem solving.Yes, but not so much for today’s classroom. And that’s because the typical classroom is not ideal. A course is so many hours a week and so many weeks a semester, (hours and weeks reduced over the past 10 years) and there is a strict plan of learning and the learners are tested and examined on how well they achieve that learning. It’s quite managed and the metrics extracted are the building blocks of administrators’ careers.

While costs for administration rose enormously, the classroom suffered all kinds of cost-cutting and shrinking of resources for 24 years that I taught the savings achieved by providing for a poorer resourced education, of reduced student contact hours and lowering the minimum standards for passing. For the last 15 years I had wanted to say enough is enough.

While there is more openness in recent curricula adopting group projects and selection of study topics, the system I knew never could get beyond the measure and grading of students, never be an exploration and discovery of learning. Diversity of the group and the openness of the discovery and outcome was at best a hybrid proposed by a progressive sounding administration, the promotion of that idea helped advance their careers, but at the same time, the same administration restricted open learning and demanded full control and metrics to justify their control. To manage that system, uniformity of student ability and learning effort was most efficient. In classes with double the number of students research clearly shows is best for learning, a lot of students got lost in the mix, but they’d pass with lowered standards because the admin was very clear: only 3% failure rate allowed each semester.

My custodial students were a delight. But for one, English was their second language. All were illiterate in their first language as well as English. I had had experience teaching such a literacy class who were new to the English language in a practicum placement in my teacher training. We could spend weeks learning the same oral language function day in and out. I had to be creative with the context for the learning such as preparing for a field trip to the local fast food restaurant one morning to order coffee. We spent weeks in training. One man in particular was so keen to be able to go up to counter clerk and order coffee in English like all the other people did that this activity became a burning desire in him; he worked and worked and practiced, and when we went out one morning to the Arby’s a week or so later, he was so full of happiness and trepidation. He pulled open the door, walked in confidently, not looking back to me at all, and ordered a coffee. He did so well the clerk didn’t pay him a second of notice. Sitting at a table with his coffee, his dream achieved, he was beaming. So brightly.

My custodial students had the same uphill effort for a seemingly small end result. They didn’t realize what enormous odds they were contending with to achieve what they did. They weren’t going to be reading articles and writing reports after our course. But that wasn’t my concern. I wanted them to feel proud of their victories. I looked in their eyes and saw beams of anticipation, sparkles of hope and excitement s they achieved something in language they hadn’t done before, but I was also looking into 40 year old eyes that had never read or written a sentence in their own language let alone English, let alone to fill out a detailed report.

One man in particular had fiery eyes. I could see him not just taking in what we did but searching for connections, going beyond the details, spinning them around, looking at them from different sides, combining them in new ways. I could see that absolutely. I could see a good mind working. But nothing came out. The man, a cleaner, was in his early sixties, born on a small impoverished farm in Italy, pulled from school after a couple of years to work on the farm. His younger brother was allowed to stay in school. His younger brother is a medical doctor.

Covid-19 has hit certain communities harder, poor communities where a number of families share a dwelling, for example. People in those communities don’t have the same resources and opportunity to safely self-isolate, or a garden to sit in, or a designer kitchen to bake bread in. For decades in the city of Toronto, known to administrators poor black communities have consistently had a high school drop out rate of 40%. Enough is enough, you might say, but it doesn’t phase the authorities.

The protests over the murder of George Floyd are being heeded. Politicians and chiefs of police are taking the knee because of the widespread public attention. Enough is enough isn’t, I feel, just to say enough with the impunity of police brutality; it is to say enough with a system that oppresses people with poverty and injustice, that keeps people in a place, keeps them from being competition for great paying jobs and luxuries enjoyed by a privileged elite. They are the privileged elite because they weren’t born into poverty, because they had resources. If everyone had the same opportunity for resources, then those in privileged positions would have to be better at their job with more people to compete with for the job. Yes there is mandatory school attendance so the black youth get to go to school but in Toronto 40% of them drop out. The problem isn’t just being able to sit in a classroom; that only makes the privileged feel justified and not have to ask why 40% are dropping out. There’s a lot more work to do than just window dressing of the system. Will it get done?

People need resources. In my own case, I was put to work at 14 to support my family. I had to pay room and board, buy my own clothes, my own toothpaste. Along with meals and a bed, my parents provided toilet paper, but my father made a specific point of how many sheets of paper I could use each time. I remember the instruction word for word and remember exactly where I was standing and where he was standing when he told me this. By 16, I spent 68 hours a week going to school and going to work. In addition to that, I had to find time for homework, reading which I loved but couldn’t do, recreation and social life. I was able to get through school with average grades and little study. I was lucky. I remember as an adult working in a restaurant and the busboys were high school students. I thought what am I feeling regret about losing an opportunity for a better education when they too are working as many if not more hours than I did. Then I also remembered they were at vocational school and were failing that.

There are some very bright people, sometimes lucky but more often gifted in some way, who escape poverty and become accomplished. And that person gets pointed to by privileged people to claim the system is working and justify the accepted order. Just not the case. There would be no 40% drop out rate, and there would be two medical doctors not one in my custodian’s family, and what benefit to society would there be from the achievement of all those racialized young people graduating instead of dropping out. If the conditions of poverty were addressed with anything of the same urgency and force of our adopting new technologies or drug research or centenary celebrations, what might we have?…if only.

I want to remind you reader of research I’ve quoted elsewhere and that was described in the documentary Capital in the 21st Century. A University of California psychology researcher conducted a project where two people would play chess but from the outset by flip of a coin one player would have twice as much wealth as the other to start and would benefit by using two die instead of one. The privileged player with two die would move faster around the table collecting money at ‘GO.” And at ‘GO’ would collect twice as much money as the other player. Of all the observations of the experiment, one in particular stands out for me. At the end of the game, the inevitable winner, the one privileged at the outset by the flip of a coin, was asked what the player thought contributed to her or his success. Not one of them said it was because they started the game with a lot more and were given a lot more throughout the game than their opponent. Not one mentioned that as a reason for their success.

Dr. Pimm explains how people who have better and more resources in life, who then achieve more, also believe their achievement results because they feel they are better people and brighter and more talented. For this they feel they deserve what they have and those without don’t have the same merit and their lack of worldly success is a consequence of that, not that they had less resources. I know a person accomplished in education, even attending an expensive, reputable American university, also accomplished in a career whose parents bought him a house near the university for the duration of his studies. There are others whose families pay for their children’s education and living expenses over years of study and the children don’t realize that is a big part of their achievement. They don’t realize a safe home and supportive adults and family holidays and a warm bed and a full stomach every day are a big part of their achievement. The fact that a person of impoverished means occasionally beats the system is proof to the privileged children that they are operating on a level playing field.

I managed a couple of degrees with my mediocre education. I was lucky enough with my mind. But then I saved every penny I had over three years working and returned for some more education this time having enough money I didn’t have to work and study, beginning again really with my education. And I learned and enjoyed learning and jumped up to the top grade point average. It was wonderful. They work even went beyond the three years but I couldn’t keep up financially. I kept going by working a restaurant to the early hours of the morning getting home between 3 and 4AM and then rising at 8AM for my ‘real’ work. I tried but I crashed. I didn’t have it in me, didn’t have all that was needed to get above my circumstances, turn things around. Some don’t even get the chance I had, never escape the poverty, get anywhere near their potential, never get over the wall. The previous provincial government gave free college tuition to poor young people. The next government quickly took it away. They didn’t want to share their wealth. Greedy elites. Keep taxes low. Come on! Enough already, enough wealth for the elite, surely, but no.

For extra income while teaching and an activity which also fascinated and inspired me, I read students’ college entry essays used to place the students in appropriate-level communication courses. I read thousands of essays over a few years and many for students going into the college social work program. The essay topic for the social work applicants was to explain what in their background would lead them to a career in social work. So I got to read about their lives growing up. Out of hundreds of social worker applicant stories all but one had benefited in their lives from help from a social worker. They in turn wanted to help others in pursuing a social worker career. And the one who didn’t need a social worker growing up? It was her friend who had benefited from the help of a social worker. I read story after story of incredibly harsh, brutal living conditions, physical, and psychological. Call it consequences of poverty.

I recall what I discovered for myself from some 250 hours of training in a penal institution. Half my time in the prison was given to formal instruction and half the time was spent on a unit floor talking with the incarcerated men. I eventually made a point of asking each man the same question about their family because I had come across the same answer so often. Of all those men I spoke with, I did not speak to one incarcerated man who had ever in his lifetime sat down for a meal with his family. Not even thanksgiving dinner. One man, quite matter-of-factly, recounted that if he was eating in the kitchen with his brother in the room, he would eat with one hand behind his back holding a knife, just in case.

So the assumptions which Black Lives Matter proponents wans to address in this current window of opportunity, is to draw attention to the many reports and studies from over the years that show the reasons behind the racist judgement and treatment, behind the mental health issues treated as crime, behind the response handled with guns and billy clubs, not empathy, reports that demonstrate behind the so-called anti-social behaviour is poverty and lack of resources and opportunities, and disregard and disrespectful treatment by the authorities, and enslavement and abuse by the system favouring on every single count, the power elite.

I would like to tell that accomplished person I know whose parents bought him a house near the university and paid for his education, that it’s not just some exceptional qualities he assumes of himself that gave him what he has. I’d like him to see where he’d be if he grew up in a family where he feared for his life from the very people he lived with, living in a madness because of huge social pressures of poverty and harsh living conditions and lack of support. I’d like him to wake up to that. I’d like to be able to cut through the psychological walls where he feels justified in his privilege and justified in living in a society as rich as ours still prevents so many people in poverty from realizing their dreams and hopes and potential for life. As one academic said, to revitalize a depressed neighbourhood in L.A. with a sustainable system for productive lives for thousands including libraries and good education, etc, is the cost of three military planes when already there is so much overkill of weapons to destroy the planet many times over, but the planes get bought and thousands of Americans live and die with no chance to make something more of their lives, the dreaming the pilots have who fliy the planes.

Let me recount again for you one thing I learned when in Arviat, Nunavut. There is talk about the problems in the North and mostly the assumptions of the south, identical to the racism being protested now, the assumptions hold the Inuit responsible because of alcoholism, laziness…Lelt me recount their story so we can try to put ourselves in their place and see where we would be, and see if we would like to be blamed for our indiscretion. Inuit people were taken from their way of life, a way of life going back thousands of years unchanged and were put into settlements of shacks. They were escorted onto a plane with only the clones on their backs and had to leave behind their tents and beadwork and tools and culture later bulldozed by the southern power-brokers. They had to kill their husky dogs. These dogs are of such remarkable ability they could find their way home in a whiteout blizzard from 200 km away. The dogs all had to be killed off in the southerners plan to avoid the Inuit returning to the land. The southerners gave the Inuit some money to spend on necessities in the Hudson Bay Post, maybe some more clothes since they were no longer permitted to hunt. Now, take the place of a person who has had every shred of dignity stripped from her or him. The whole of their being and identity, what they know to be a meaningful nomadic life living on the land denied them forever. Living in now in horrible poverty where before the wildlife gave them everything, even the tiny bones of the elk spine used for their games. And now these mocked and abused people walk into the Hudson Bay post with their bit of southern money, and as shown in a photograph that was displayed in the Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg of that very Arviate Hudson Bay Post, here’s what they saw walking: a clerk standing behind the counter. Behind the counter are shelves and shelves of alcohol and in front of the counter shelves of cigarettes. And why is that, we ask? Well, sale of alcohol and cigarettes gave the highest profit margins to the Hudson Bay Company. Good business. And we southerners make these assumptions about the character of the Inuit. God help us.

I was so inspired by the social worker applicants writing their essays and telling me about their hard lives, not bragging, not showing off, just saying how it was, and here they are pursuing post-secondary education. Wow. All of them had far harder lives than I ever did. They had come so far just to make that application, with such courage and spirit, coming from so far back. What if they had a start much farther along, a little more support, say the support of my accomplished friend whose family bought him a house and an education; then what even more could they do?

One essay stands out of all the social work essays I read. The young woman writing the essay tells the simple facts of her story. Those facts were heart-wrenching. And then I read her words in the last paragraph, “but I know others have had it worse than me.’ I wasn’t thinking of her grammar when I read that. I had never read or heard of worse conditions for someone, let alone a young girl, to live through. Never. Not in the hundreds of other social worker essays, not in 25 months helping on a crisis line, not in the penal institution, not as co-therapist in a drug and alcohol therapy group. Her life was so demeaning a human being. And she had in her mind others she imagined worse off than herself’ she shouldn’t complain, she said, and as I read that I was saying no, no…no one i know of in this country has had it worse than you. And I just broke down in tears, sobbing head on my desk.

That American college-privileged person I know with wonderfully accomplished children, a magnificent house, all kinds of attention for his brilliant career, well if he only knew, he might not feel so much better a person when he sees his success as the result of his heightened life opportunity not just his exceptional capability. Enough is enough.

The anger over one more unnecessary death of a person George Floyd, judged because of the colour of his skin, the higher risk of Covid in under-privileged communities -are we at a point where this convinces the power brokers to step back, show some empathy, ensure equality of opportunity for all, real equality? Are we there?

An Ontario premier some decades ago in his narrow view, likely racist view, cut funding to an after-school program for at-risk and underprivileged youth. I think the wealthy politician didn’t like funding them. Why should they get this special treatment, the argument would be. The premier was lauded for his attitude, elected by popular vote. But twenty years later after the cancelling of the highly respected after-school programs, Toronto had a gang problem. Do we look for a connection? No we don’t. Make a point of it? No we don’t. Hold anyone accountable? No we don’t. As a society we don’t bother. People are telling us enough is enough.

The current premier in power in Ontario who is trying so hard to be popular and a great leader at this time of crisis got caught out for saying racism isn’t as bad up here as in the terrible U.S. It’s the same premier who cries on camera over the sad plight of nursing home residents, who pledges to be the man who finally deals with this terrible long-term-care crisis that he says has been known for so long but failed to be addressed by previous governments. He says he is the man to make things right. Yet prior to the Covid crisis he was the man to cut $34 million from the long-term-care budget. He made drastic cuts to public health delivery. He cut library service in half. He slashed funding for indigenous fisheries, for at-risk youth, for mid-wives, for safe injection sites… These weren’t efficiencies as purported by the government but the assumption of power and privilege that the weak in society do not have the same value as those who have privilege. As we’ve seen, the assumption for those who have much is they have much because they are better, not luckier benefiting from resources and privilege, but better people that justifies their status and privilege. Why, the political power brokers feel, should they support the failures of others in society, give them handouts. Handouts! The basic rights of all humans: handouts! What does the premier know about handouts: he was born into wealth. His brother failed first -year university and returned home to be appointed a senior executive of his father’s company.

Enough is enough. We’ve had 40 years of incredible financial growth for a powerful, privileged elite and a stagnant minimum wage unchanged in value for 40 years, and a declining middle class having good jobs and homes. It seems to be the way of the world drifting from oppression to concession by those holding all the cards. Justice, always a struggle. Are we moving toward respect for the dignity of all or turning to more oppression? That’s the moment we have; not a moment to pretend it doesn’t matter, to do nothing. Will it be any better than the struggle to do anything about global warming. Seventy percent of people believe Global Warming is a serious crisis. Just thirty percent believe the consequences of global warming will affect them personally, or that they have to do anything about it. Enough surely is enough.