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We Are Called to Greatness

18 Nov

Last night I was honored to receive an “Innovator Award” from Outfront Minnesota, the principal civil rights organization for LGBTQ people in our state.  Writing a speech in the aftermath of last week’s election was challenging.  Here is what I came up with.

I want to thank Outfront Minnesota for this incredible honor and thank all of you here tonight celebrating the work of this wonderful organization. I also want to thank the community of activists, the movement that I belong to here in Minnesota–community, faith and labor–and especially to the members of SEIU local 26, the janitors, security officers, window cleaners and, as of just this week, airport service workers, who have given me the honor of allowing me to be the leader of that union for the past 12 years. I also, of course, want to thank my partner of twenty years, John Stiles, who could not be here with us tonight because he had a longstanding, planned trip that he left for last Wednesday morning.

You can imagine that when he planned this trip many months ago, we had no idea that early Wednesday morning would feel like the coming of the apocalypse. I had been asleep maybe just an hour when I was jolted awake with a panic attack like nothing I had experienced before. I literally felt like I could not breathe: the only words I could sob to John were, “please don’t go, please don’t go.” I felt at that moment that my world was literally collapsing and I could not bear the thought of being without him for two weeks. I was able to eventually calm down and John made it out of the country without me making too much of a scene; but that feeling of lack of oxygen, that feeling of breathlessness, stayed with me for days after.

As I tried to work my way out of this desperation, I was reminded a lesson from Tibetan Buddhism that has helped me get through difficult moments in my work.  It is a meditation called tonglen: as you focus on your breath, you first envision yourself breathing in darkness and breathing out light. Then you envision yourself breathing in pain, breathing in the pain of others, and breathing out light. Inhale pain, exhale light. Breathe in pain, breathe out light.

The people in this room who work for social justice know that our work is hard: we see so much pain in the world, and we cannot help but breathe it in. We also encounter, create and breath out moments of joy. When we help a victim of a hate crime rebuild, when we win a higher minimum wage, when we win a union contract, these things add joy to people’s lives. This meditation has helped me out of dark moments.

A few years ago, in a particularly dark moment, I was feeling sorry for myself and at that moment, I thought, there is so much I love about the work that I do but so much that is so hard. What I wished for at that moment was that I could experience more of the joy and less of the pain. And what I learned through tonglen is that when we do the work of social justice, we cannot wish for work with less pain and more joy. The work of social justice is precisely to breathe in pain and emit light. That is the work.  It is both.

***

In 2011, I had the great honor of representing SEIU at the Congress of SATAWU, the South African Transit Workers Union. The South African labor movement was a crucial part of the struggle to end apartheid, and international labor solidarity was also key. Witnessing this congress was a transformative experience. While there, I also visited the apartheid museum and went to Soweto. The home Nelson Mandela returned to after being jailed for 27 years by the apartheid regime is now a museum in that township.

Our tour guide, an older woman, told us about the famous Soweto uprising. I asked her if she had been there during the rebellion and immediately realized it was a dumb question. “Oh yes,” she said, as she pointed to a bullet scar on her shin.

I’ve been thinking about that trip to South Africa a lot this past week.  When Mandela was finally released from his twenty-seven years of imprisonment, he was likely the only person in the country who had the moral authority to accomplish what he did, to lead that country to a peaceful transition of power. He led South Africa to reconciliation and rejected the civil strife that could have become civil war. At that moment, Nelson Mandela was called to greatness in ways that I could never imagine being called myself.

This week I have thought a lot about Mandela and about my tour guide in Soweto. I’ve been thinking of them because I have often said that organizing is a vocation of optimists, necessarily so. But in the last week, I confess that it has been existentially difficult to find the optimism, to find the joy, even to find my breath.

I cannot stand here tonight and paint a bright picture of the future for you. We will soon face challenges we have never seen before. But I can tell you is that in the face of the challenges that are to come, we are called to greatness.

When immigrants, terrified that the country has elected a man who won by demonizing them, are faced with the the choice to live their lives, even if in the shadows, boldly and with joy, we are called to greatness.

When citizens are faced with the choice of sitting idly by or providing sanctuary if the president-elect keeps his promise to immediately deport 2-3 million people, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of silence or creating an underground railroad for women who want to control their own bodies and destiny when the president-elect takes steps to ban abortion under all circumstances, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of doing nothing or insisting our local elected officials resist implementing nationwide stop and frisk, we are called to greatness.

When our Muslim brothers and sisters are faced with the prospect of being put on a registry, and when the rest of us are faced with the choice of letting that happen or fighting back, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of looking away or putting our bodies between our transgender loved ones and their oppressors when their oppressors make them even more a target as they choose to live and love as their true selves, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of continuing to stay divided or uniting non-union and union workers to build power when corporations and the elite who put this president-elect into office go after workers and the organizations they build, we are called to greatness.

And because we are called to greatness, we will love each other fiercely, call out our enemies and call in our friends, creating a community of love and kindness and accountability and justice

Because we are called to greatness, we will breathe in pain.  We will breathe in pain.  We will breathe in pain.

And we will breathe out light.

Because we are called to greatness.

The Insanity of the “Wage Market”, or Income Inequality at the Capitol

4 May

This is a great story about the insane juxtapositions of our time.  While DC lawmakers now talk about income inequality as a national problem, they work in a Capitol building where those who serve them food work for poverty wages:

Income inequality is more than a political sound bite to workers in the Capitol. It’s their life.

Many of the Capitol’s food servers, who make the meals, bus the tables and run the cash registers in the restaurants and carryouts that serve lawmakers, earn less than $11 an hour. Some make nothing at all when Congress is in recess.

Members of the House and Senate collect their $174,000 annual salaries whether Congress is making laws, taking a break or causing a partial government shutdown.

“This is the most important building in the world,” said Sontia Bailey, who works the cash register and stocks the shelves at the “Refectory” takeout on the Capitol’s Senate side. “You’d think our wages would be better.”

You’d think.

These jobs were privatized sometime ago.  It is a quote from the subcontractor who employs these workers that I found instructive:

In a statement, the contractor said it “takes pride in paying above-market competitive wages.” 

Here’s the thing: the contractor is not that wrong.  The market on wages is so skewed that an employer who pays people wages that keep them in poverty can actually claim to be keeping pace “with the market” or be “above-market” and think they are sounding reasonable.

I am constantly reminded of the disconnect between lawmakers and people who work in the “real world.”  Back when the minimum wage was being debated in Minnesota, Democratic lawmakers in the Senate were heard saying “Ten dollars seems high to me.”  Too high for what?

When I hear things like that, I am filled with questions.  Do you know anyone who works for that amount of money?  When is the last time you worked for minimum wage?  Can you at least do the math on how much that is a year before dismissing the amount so easily? Do you even understand that when we are debating the minimum wage, we are literally talking about the floor, about the bare minimum we as a society think a person should make while working?  Is it your core belief that someone working full-time should live below the poverty level?

We hear similar reactions not just from lawmakers but others reacting to fast food workers’ demand of “15 and a union.”  “Fifteen for flipping burgers?!?”  I’ve heard both friends and family say things like that.  I have the same questions for these folks.  Do the math.  The demand for 15 is actually not that aspirational.

The rich get richer while progressives debate the floor.

The rich get richer while progressives debate the floor.

I was thinking about this recently and thought, what if we quantified all of the things that US workers used to be able to take for granted and put them out as our demand for workers.  “I’d like to be able to own my home. I’d like to be able to send my kids to college and not have them saddled with debt afterwards. I’d like to be able to retire and be ok.”  I think if unions and other advocates actually listed the things workers used to take for granted not that long ago and called them demands — many policymakers and certainly the media would react with a “well who the hell do you think you are?”

And it’s not that the country isn’t as wealthy as it was back when this kind of quality of life as assumed.  In fact, as a whole the country is much richer.  It’s just that income is going overwhelmingly to the top income tiers while the rest are being left behind.  Things have become so skewed that the progressive movement is subsumed with debating the floor on wages while making demands that do not even come close to what we used to assume.

Just who the hell do we think we are, indeed.

“Trying to Concentrate in a Digital Age”

30 Apr

That is how MPR has titled a conversation I was a part of with Kerri Miller and Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

You can listen to the entire conversation hereCrawford The World Beyond Your Head.

Crawford is the author of Shop Class as Soul Craft, where he argues for a return to valuing work in trades where skills are developed.  Crawford is himself a motorcycle mechanic and a philosopher, and he sees those two worlds as bound together.  This first book “grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized ass ‘knowledge work.” Perhaps more surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually.”

In the new book, Crawford takes this thinking a step further, arguing that to become fully realized individuals in today’s world we must (a) engage in the world with an understanding that we become complete individuals through our interactions with others.  In order to do this we must (b) rid ourselves of Enlightenment notions of the individual as a rational actor who independently decides what is best for herself in the world. And (c) one path toward achieving this true individuality is through learning skilled crafts, as one becomes skilled only in relationship to other practitioners and the community of knowledge they create with each other.

That is how I would distill this admittedly quite dense book.  I found the thread of political philosophy particularly engaging.  Crawford essentially argues that the rugged individual that has stood for the American “character,” was born of an Age of Enlightenment where the philosopher juxtaposed the rights of the individual to the rule of the despot.  In that context, the rational individual who can decide for himself what is right was a radical and necessary concept.  What the advance of capitalism has created, however, is the ironic situation where we define “freedom” as the absence of any regulation — which in turn has created a world where large corporations increasingly take up all of our attention.  He gives the example of an airport.  The bins TSA provides to place your belongings through the scanner now have ads at the bottom of them. There is sound all around you at all times.  Ads in every space that can take one — except if you happen to be in the Admirals Club.  There, the room is quiet.  Silence has become a commodity available to the privileged.

We see the way corporations have taken control of our attention in sometimes creepy ways.  I have had the experience of shopping on Overstock.com for a briefcase and then, for weeks after, visiting other websites an ad would pop up for that very same bag I had browsed (and, ironically, by this point had actually bought).  Crawford’s point is that what looks like freedom today — the multiplicity of options available to us at all times — is actually the opposite of that.  Corporate gather enormous amounts of data about our habits and likes and then take every opportunity they can — the ad you see between games of Words with Friends or Trivia Crack — to cater to those desires.

While the philosophical argument I found both intriguing and empowering, I found the argument about skill-building craftsmanship as the path to individuality less comfortable. I do agree that learning to make things with our own hands — cooking, mechanics, gardening, etc — is something we have lost and that there is an inherent value to regaining it.  And I love the idea that the individuality one creates while becoming an expert in something is an individuality that is built in conversation with others and by working together.

Crawford’s argument, however, depends on a definition of the present where the author finds virtually nothing redeeming, including and especially technology.  He is dismissive of the capacity we have today to build knowledge in cyberspaces through crowd sourcing:

Now we are fascinated with ‘the wisdom of the crowds’ and ‘the hive mind.’ We are told that there is a superior global intelligentsia rising in the Web itself.  This collective mind is more meta, more synoptic and synthetic than any one of us, and aren’t these the defining features of intelligence?  Of course all of this crowd-loving lines up pretty well with silicon Valley’s distaste for the concept of intellectual property, and with the fact that is a lot more money to be made a an aggregator of content than as a producer of it.

In being dismissive of the concept of crowd sourcing, Crawford confuses, or over-simplifies, issues.  Aggregation is not the only thing the web is used for–yes, there is that.  But think of the crowd sourcing project that is the “It Gets Better Project,” where thousands and thousands of people have told their stories about living past childhood rejection and onto fuller lives.  The project was born out of the crisis of LGBT youth suicide, and that bank of stories has literally saved lives, as testimonies bear.  Occupy Wall Street, in a few short weeks, changed the national and international conversation about income inequality.  For decades in the United States wealth has steadily moved from the middle class to the wealthy, but that fact was hidden in our culture by a myth of mobility (“The American Dream”) and a rejection of any description of greed as “class warfare.”  Occupy changed that conversation, it seems permanently.  The occupations in town squares have long gone by, but years later even conservative candidates –those who would defend the deregulated markets that have created obscene wealth for the very few–are taking on income inequality as an issue to talk to voters about.  I believe that the tools we have available to us today, particularly social media, allowed Occupy to fundamentally transform our cultural conversation, in a matter of weeks, not years.  Yes, that gadget in my hand feeds me all those Overstock.com ads – but it also helps me organize to a scale that was not possible before. (I wrote some about decentralized or “leaderless” organizing in “#Pointergate and the People of the Internet”).

In short, I do not think that Crawford’s call for a reevaluation of our concept of the individual — his push for understanding individuality as coming from our lives as social beings — depends on such a uniformly negative portrayal of the present. In fact, if we are able to harness both the power of the present and the tools we have now  and also learn from.

***

This obviously isn’t a complete review of the book, just some thoughts I had that we weren’t able to fully discuss on the show.  Give it a listen if you’re interested in more and definitely give the book a try if this write-up is at all compelling.

I read The World Beyond Your Head while sitting by myself in a small hermitage in the middle of the woods.  The setting went well with the author’s argument for where we can focus on something other than the constant messages corporations are throwing in our direction.  I’d recommend a similar setting if you’re going to take on this book.

I also just have to say what a great experience it was to be asked to discuss this book on MPR.  Kerri Miller has had me on her Friday Roundtable several times, and I have noticed and been grateful for the fact that the show’s invitations have never pigeon-holed me as a labor guy, a Latino, or anything really.  I left the world of academia — where I used to read books like this all the time — in order to work in organizing and feel more connected to the world as it is and work side by side those seeking to change it for the better.   It was a treat to bring to a conversation about political philosophy that experience I now have.

 

Through Pain, Towards Joy: Thoughts on the President’s Immigration Announcement

20 Nov

I wrote this recently as a reflection of a difficult period in my career as a union leader and organizer. I remembered it today as I watched news coverage of President Obama’s announcement tonight (Thursday) that he will take executive action to provide temporary relief for millions of immigrants living in the US but in the shadows. It weaves the very personal with a story about organizing work, and it feels incomplete, but I thought I’d post this today as a personal reflection on this moment. The president’s announcement is only a partial victory; we cannot fully celebrate until our laws are actually fixed. We must go beyond temporary fixes. This does, however, seem like a good moment to reflect on the pain we have been living and on the work ahead we have to create a future of joy.

This vacation was supposed to be a break from stress. It was on the tail end of a short sabbatical from work, and the hot sun on this beautiful beach in Puerto Morelos, 30 minutes south of Cancun, was supposed to be a reprieve. But no sooner had I put on shorts and gone out onto the sand, I noticed the spot on my foot and I start to panic. I know what that is. And it’s not the first one so I definitely know what that is. I tell myself not to freak out, that after a week of sunning I’ll see if it goes away. And I actually did manage to forget it. But on Friday of that week, when I was admiring my tan brown body –I’m Puerto Rican, I get very dark in the sun—and there is that one spot, as discolored and white as it had been before, now standing out even more from my tanned skin.

I know what this is and a few days later my doctor in Minnesota confirms it. He took one look at the spot on the foot, said “it’s vitiligo.” My eyes well up. “Oh,” I say. “Were you worried about that?” and I say yes as a tear falls. He gives me a referral to a dermatologist and doesn’t say another word. As angry as I was at my hip, gay Uptown doctor and his utter lack of bedside manner, looking back I kind of understand why he didn’t think it was the big deal I did. Vitiligo is Michael Jackson’s disease. No one ever believed he had one, they thought he was just lightening his skin to be white, but he actually suffered from this autoimmune condition where your skin gradually loses its pigment. The darker your skin the more noticeable it is because of the contrast. Vitiligo is not deadly. It’s not a symptom of anything and it doesn’t cause anything. It doesn’t hurt, unless you count vanity.

I read everything I could about vitiligo and found a dermatologist who specializes in its treatment. There’s no real cure, although there are some effective treatments. I learned that, although they don’t know what causes it, for people who get it later in life it often comes after a period of extreme stress. That I knew about.

 

I am the president of a union of close to 6,000 over 4200 of them janitors. The members of the union come from all over the world – the industry has always been sort of an Ellis Island of occupations. Our members clean all of the downtown buildings, the skyways, the airport and commercial office buildings across the metro area. I had taken that brief sabbatical from work because the previous year and a half had been brutal. Around 4,000 janitors are members of the union and on June 6, 2009, hundreds of janitors and their families were packed into our union hall for a big meeting. Our member meetings are not usually that well attended, but just two days before we had gotten word that our largest employer was being audited by Immigrations Customs Enforcement.

What happens during one of these audits is ICE collects from an employer all of the documents that employees fill out when they’re first hired. We got word that 1,256 janitors were on a “Notice of Suspect Documents” and that every Monday for six weeks 200 would be notified they were on the list and told they had until Thursday to present new documentation or be fired immediately. No due process, no time to correct honest mistakes – they didn’t even tell people what was allegedly wrong with the documentation they did present, sometime 10 to 12 years prior, when they first applied for the job.

1256 people on a list. This was the Obama administration’s supposedly softer, gentler version of immigration enforcement. They did away with the swat team raids of the Bush era and replaced them with these silent, desktop raids. We were all, of course, panicked. What we fought for when we worked to elect president Obama was quick immigration reform. We did not get that, but we did get access. Within a week I was in a meeting in Washington DC with the Chief of Staff of ICE, and for the next month I shuttled back and forth, was on constant phone calls, begging. We need more time. You can’t expect people in three days to be able to figure out what is wrong and fix it. What if people are mistakenly on the list? When we finally got the complete list it didn’t take long to find US citizens, residents on the list. But even if someone on the list was not authorized to work, if they are indeed undocumented, can they at least be given more than 48 hours to prepare?

Hundreds turned out to meetings we’d have where we had an army of volunteer attorneys trying to help find people who might have legal recourse to a work visa. At those meetings, members agreed and understood that until we fix our insane, broken immigration laws that all we could do was buy time. We knew that people who had non-union jobs in situations like this got fired on the spot. And every day of work was eight more hours on a paycheck. We got the company to back off their initial plan of 200 letters going out a week while I continued to try to get DC to say definitively they would give us more time. For six weeks we were in limbo. DC would tell us one thing, local ICE would say something different to the employer.

Six weeks the uncertainty lasted. I got a phone call from the Chief of Staff of ICE. It was brief. She asked how much time we needed. I said 90 days. She hung up. Not long after, I got a call from our employer.  They confirmed ICE had finally loosed their grip and provided the time extension.

Right after that call we scheduled another meeting attended by hundreds. I was so happy, we had done it. I had done it. I did what no one said could be done—I got us more time. At this meeting, I think I even had a smile on my face as I gave everyone the good news. But as soon as the words came out of my mouth I realized the mistake I had made. You fucking idiot. You self-involved prick. You. Fucking. Idiot. You come in here declaring we’ve staved off the execution but here is your date certain –and you expect people would cheer? That they’d be happy? Yes, everyone said they understood that until our laws are fixed all we could hope for was borrowed time. But now, you’ve given them a date. You have 90 days. In 90 days you will be fired. And you come in here with a fucking smile?

We thought – I thought – that if we had had a big public fight with the Obama administration about this raid that we would essentially be admitting that many of our members were not authorized to work and that that would accelerate the process of firing people. And so we chose silence. Members agreed, but that’s where I led. And I was wrong. Our members felt betrayed by everyone – their employer, who of course knew, the government, who also knew, and the union, who didn’t stand up to all of this hypocrisy, even if it meant people getting fired immediately. I didn’t stand up and publicly say. This is fucking wrong. This union that had had big, public campaigns to win good contracts and affordable healthcare was silent. We were invisible. And it has eaten at me ever since.

I don’t know that I can ever forgive myself for that mistake. Yes, we bought more time. And in those 90 days a couple dozen people were able to be helped by lawyers and got their papers fixed. Others at least had time to prepare. When we surveyed members, 600 said their home was in foreclosure or they feared it would be soon.   During those 90 days and after, rumors flew around. We heard some were saying that in my shuttling back and forth to DC I had actually sold everyone out. As much as those rumors still pierce my heart like a bullet, the frustration they express had an essential truth at its core. Of all the characters involved in this drama – the employer, ICE, President Obama, the union—we, the union, we are the only entity whose charge, whose reason for being, is empowering and protecting workers. And we were powerless to do anything. That we should get disproportionate blame – it may not be correct, but it is understandable.

This was not the first desktop raid we suffered. A year later, 250 more members lost the jobs. Then they started going after smaller companies. I started joking with my friends about the stress and my vitiligo, These mother fuckers are not going to stop until I am completely white.

There is a lot I love about my job. When you work in social justice and you have a victory, you take part in adding joy into the world. It’s now five years later and the raids have stopped, or paused. We’re still waiting for DC to fix our immigration laws. The vitiligo is still around, though it has not spread, and I know that the stress that I feel doing this work is nothing compared to the stress experienced by undocumented workers living in the shadows every day.

When I am in a bad place about work, I try to remember all of the joyful moments in organizing. When we work together and win healthcare and wage increases, when we fight a Big Bank and save someone’s home from foreclosure. There are many. And then I think, if only the work was more about all of those moments of joy and not all of this pain, or at least a lot less of it. I had a prolonged moment of funk centered around these thoughts.

I came out of that mental cloud reading the work of a Tibetan Buddhist, Yongey Minghur Rimpoche, author of The Joy of Living. I was especially drawn to a meditation on compassion where you visualize yourself on your in breath, taking in pain, suffering, all of the pain and suffering in the world, and on the out breath you emit life. Breathe in, pain. Emit light. Pain. Light.

I realized that in this kind of work you can’t wish for just one side of that. “If only I didn’t have to deal with all this…” The work is both. Breathe in Pain. Emit Light. And I try to remember this, especially at times when it feels just too hard to breathe.

*****

Tonight, the President will be announcing temporary relief for millions of people. I’ve been going through my head today the names and faces of former member who I know will be helped by this action, and it is overwhelming. I’m looking up old phone numbers, calling people up to invite them to a party we will be having to watch the president’s speech in Nevada where he will detail the impact of the relief the administration will provide. Yes, the Right Wing is already fighting back, talking retaliation and outrage that the President is doing the same thing that Presidents Bush and Reagan did before him.

But, tonight and tomorrow, all that stuff is just noise. We are celebrating the lessons learned of the past. We will not lead from silence any longer. We are celebrating the promise of the future. This fight is not over until we have not just temporary relief but have fixed our unjust laws. We are celebrating the lives of men, women and children who have worked through years of pain and fear to seek what all of us seek–because we all deserve to live lives of joy.

 

Race and Education. Some Thoughts, Post #pointergate

18 Nov

This is the first of two, maybe more, posts about education and the polarized debate surrounding it in Minneapolis. This post provides mostly background thoughts. Subsequent posts will deal more specifically with the recent Minneapolis School Board election.

A while back, right before the election, I said I would write up a fuller synopsis of the depressing Minneapolis School Board race and the broader issue of the polarization of the debate around education in Minneapolis. Then #pointergate happened. It wasn’t just that I was personally pretty preoccupied with that story and its impact on an organizational ally, Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), that kept me from writing this post. I saw in the first few days of that big story how united Minneapolis—and in fact Minnesota and the country—became around an issue having so deeply to do with racial divisions in society, and it was inspiring. And, as several friends mentioned on Facebook, it was nice to see Minneapolis coming together after the bitter divisions that the school board race surfaced (some might say caused, but I chose that word purposefully).

And so writing about difficult issues at a time of unity feels a little like knowingly taking on the role of Debbie Downer. Pointergate has made me think more deeply about the issue of education and the racial divisions of both our education system and the divisions caused by the proposed solutions to fix those problems. These posts are my sometimes sprawling thoughts on the issue of education in Minneapolis, why I think it has become so divisive, and how getting over our societal inability to deal openly with the issue of race is key to us moving forward collectively.

Naming race. This is my point of departure for connecting the two topics of pointergate and Minneapolis schools. What was so gratifying to many who fight for racial justice was the way in which a broad swath of the public immediately saw the story for what it was, the worst kind of race baiting. By blurring Navell Gordon’s face and merely identifying him as a convicted felon, erasing all context of what he and the Mayor were actually doing that day (getting out the vote in low income neighborhoods), KSTP made Gordon into the anonymous Scary Black Man, and people got that. In a state where it often feels exhaustingly difficult to discuss race, this remains amazing to me and it gives me hope. So often we are caught in the US in “OJ moments,” where the media story is about how differently different groups see the same situation. The universal condemnation of pointergate has been truly edifying on that point.

If you followed KSTP reporter Jay Kolls’ twitter meltdown on the first night of the broadcast saw that his defense was simple: I didn’t mention race! You guys are the ones bringing race up! It’s a particularly facile suggestion, that unless one actually mentions race then surely something isn’t about that. Kolls’ impulse, however, is a caricature of a real problem, an impulse to not mention race, to allow it to be subtext and not dealt and talked about openly. This seems especially true in Minnesota, where the mere mention of race seems, well, impolite.

Race and Education, Minneapolis and Everywhere

Very recent coverage of an issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools highlights, to my mind, the challenges and necessity of engaging deeply with race when it comes to education. On this week’s edition of the Wrong About Everything podcast, conservative Mike Franklin and I tussled over the recently announced suspensions policy of the Minneapolis Public Schools. The policy, which was immediately misrepresented and ridiculed as schools now need “permission” to suspend black and Latino students, actually states that the district will review, after the fact, the suspensions of students of color as a way of responding to an issue that is not unique to Minneapolis: the insanely disproportionate rates at which students of color, especially young black men, are suspended in public schools vis a vis their white counterparts. There are horror stories of children as young as pre-k receiving suspensions as discipline, even as studies show what seems so obvious: keeping kids from school does not help them learn. The less bombastic criticisms of the policy suggest there is a constitutional issue with only reviewing the suspensions of kids of color, made by Franklin on WAE and attorney Tom Corbett in the Star Tribune, suggest the policy won’t pass constitutional muster once the first white or Asian kid who gets suspended sues the district alleging her/his suspension is discriminatory because it wasn’t reviewed.

On the podcast Franklin suggests reviewing all suspensions, something I don’t disagree with but that I also think doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. His and others’ reaction seems to fundamentally rest on a discomfort with using race in the analysis at all. I’m left wondering, how are we to deal with issues of inequity and discrimination, if we do not look at race? And to Franklin’s credit, he does acknowledge that there actually does seem to be a problem with the suspensions of kids of color in MPS. I’m just not clear he or any other conservative would be satisfied with any proposed solution because it would necessarily require at some point looking at the race of students. (If you want to hear an in-depth, at times heart-wrenching account of the issue and its ramifications, listen to this episode of This American Life. It’s stunning.)

While I don’t pretend to have the perfect solution for this particular issue, the point I want to underscore is a simple one: discipline is just one of the many issues we cannot deal with if we try to do so without talking about race. We must deal openly with the fact that white kids and kids of color have fundamentally different experiences and outcomes in Minneapolis Public Schools and in Minnesota generally. That is the problem before us.

Why Do I Care?

People have asked me why education is an issue I have an opinion about. Some folks in the teachers’ union in Minneapolis have asked in a rather pointed way – this is our issue, why do you care? It’s a fair question I’m happy to answer because by some of the measures we traditionally define the issue, I don’t fit the bill of someone who should care about our schools. First, I have no kids (that’s best for everyone involved). Second, I’m the president of a union of janitors and security officers in the private sector. With the exception of security officers who work in Saint Paul Public Schools, SEIU Local 26 does not represent educators or support workers in schools.

So why do I care? The first reason is personal. Education opened doors for me that were not available to my parents, which is why they insisted that all of their children study and study hard. My siblings and I are the first generation of college graduates in our family, and my parents are very proud of that fact. And how did I, a kid from a family of very modest means, get a fancy Ivy League college education? First, a lot of debt that I will probably still be paying into retirement. But debt and scholarships is how I paid for it once I got in, and I got into a school like Yale because I was lucky enough to be educated in US public school system that succeeds where others do not, a school system where kids of color excel and where achievement and opportunity gaps are not the mammoth problem they are for here in Minnesota. My father was an enlisted soldier in the US Army, and so my entire schooling happened in Department of Defense Schools, first in Germany and then on a military base in Puerto Rico. Like so many who enter the volunteer army, my parents did so escaping poverty in the early 1960s. He did two tours of duty in Vietnam in combat. We were always very aware that the sacrifices our parents made they made so that we would have opportunities they did not.

The second reason I care is indeed professional. SEIU Local 26 is a union of janitors, security officers and window cleaners. The largest group, the janitorial division, is made up of members who come from all over the world. We have a fairly young membership. If you come to one of our member meetings, you will see small children running around; there is a lot of joy in the room. And when, over the years, I have asked members why they decided to make the difficult decision to come to a country whose language and culture is different from theirs, I most often hear my parents’ voices in theirs: I came to make a better life for my kids. For the members of Local 26, the “achievement gap” is not an abstract concept. Those are our kids.

In the next post, I will go more deeply into the polarized debate around education in Minneapolis and how an analysis of race, where we all challenge ourselves, is essential to solving the issues before us.

Wrong About Everything This Week – #pointergate and more!

17 Nov

logo smallFor those of you new to this blog through #pointergate, as you can see I don’t write very consistently.  I wish I had the time.

I do co-host a weekly podcast, “Wrong About Everything,” that is an irreverent, fun and bipartisan look at Minnesota and national politics.  t’s two Democrats and two Republicans, and the funnest part of my week is getting together with this group every Sunday to talk serious policy but also laugh and be silly with each other. You can find the show in iTunes, stitcher, or wherever you prefer to download podcasts.

On this week’s episode, we discuss Stanley Hubbard’s Mr. Burns impersonation in his MPR interview meltdown at

KSTP owner Stan Hubbard was interviewed by MPR late last week. Go listen listen.

KSTP owner Stan Hubbard was interviewed by MPR late last week. Go listen listen.

the end of last week, giving me a “Dear White People” moment where I give advice on what not to say when asked a question about race. We also have some fun talking about the (Mac)Gruber Obamacare Follies and ask, will the Republicans be able to stop themselves from saying crazy racist stuff when President Obama signs his upcoming Executive Order on Immigration.  Also, the silver lining to this year’s election fiasco for Democrats? The Return of our Republicans Gone Wild segment!

We didn’t discuss this on the show, but if you’re following #pointergate, don’t miss this takedown of KSTP from the St. Cloud Times.

Minneapolis School Board Race. Some Thoughts Before You Vote.

3 Nov

In Minneapolis this year, the race for the at-large school board seats has become one of the nastiest and divisive elections in recent memory. Trying to carve not even a middle path in this fight between the union and reformers, let alone a conversation, seems impossible, especially during the heightened tensions of an election. I’ll have a much longer post-mortem after election that will go into detail my frustrations with certain segments of both the reform and union crowds, but here I’ll just stick to my pre-election day thoughts that I hope some Minneapolis voters will find useful.

Let me begin by acknowledging that everyone running is seeking what is essentially a volunteer job, paying around ten thousand dollars a year (insane when you consider they manage a budget of almost 800 million dollars). It is also a thankless job with a ton of work, very little if any staff support, and the job description consists of trying to chart a way forward for kids in the midst of lots of adults yelling at you that you are not doing your job right. Kudos to all willing to put up with the current electoral vitriol they are sustaining only to win and accept that job.

Iris Strib Editorial EndorsementAnyone who knows me knows I am not unbiased in this race. Iris Altamirano is not only SEIU-endorsed, she is a good friend and someone who worked as political director and internal organizing lead at Local 26. She has been on strike lines, is extremely smart, and her story is the one of so many Minneapolis Public Schools students. There are three viable campaigns for two at-large spots: Altamirano, Don Samuels, and Rebecca Gagnon. Ira Jourdain is also vying for a spot, but his campaign has been lackluster, though he has a base of support in the hardcore left of the teachers’ union. Samuels is the darling of education reformers and Gagnon the darling of the mainstream of labor and the teachers’ union. Altamirano’s is the only campaign that has actively sought to build a conversation across groups and differences of opinion. That is what we need in a new school board – as she says, a new conversation, led by people willing to challenge all sides to do better and focus on kids.

Minneapolis kids are in crisis, especially kids of color. We have the greatest racial disparities in outcomes in the entire United States. Let that sink in. Worse than Mississippi, worse than Alabama, worse than Texas, where Iris Altamirano grew up.

Iris knows the plight of Minneapolis kids; she too was expected not to succeed. She is the proud daughter of a janitor who worked at her high school. When the superintendent of that school found out that Iris had been accepted to Cornell University, he did not celebrate her as the first student of any race to be accepted to an Ivy League from his district. No, he pulled her mother aside in the hall she cleaned every day and asked her, “Why your daughter?” Iris’s mom replied in her accented English, “Why not my daughter?” Iris and her mom cracked the code. They figured out a way for her to be successful in a system stacked against her. She has since then dedicated her life to changing that system. She will be the first Latina elected to the School Board and the only member with a direct connection to the largest community of immigrants in the city.

If Samuels and Gagnon get elected together, the school board will be bitterly divided, polarized—and the polarized debate has helped no one, especially kids. (More on that in the post-mortem).

DFL-endorsed Altamirano came in a strong third in the primary, but there are only two spots open on the board, and she is clearly the underdog. She is up against former City Council Member Samuels, who last year ran for mayor and won the highest number of second third choice votes and support across the city. He had a network of donors ready to go and the passionate support of some key stakeholders, including former Mayor Rybak. As soon as he announced, electing Samuels became the top priority of the “reform” crowd.

Then you have the incumbent, Gagnon, for whom the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation re-wrote the rules of endorsement in order to support her, choosing for the first time not to screen candidates and instead support the “DFL ticket.” That meant labor could put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the DFL while she could say she is not beholden to labor. (That is literally why it happened; it’s how she wanted it). It is abundantly clear that, if the rules of the game are re-written to fit one person, that person is your priority. Having been a strong supporter of labor, especially the teachers, on the board, re-electing Gagnon is the top priority of most the “union” crowd.

Coming out of the gate, Altamirano was neither group’s top priority. Unlike Gagnon, she is not wealthy enough to feed her campaign with thousands of dollars. Unlike Samuels, she is not known citywide. Although she comes out of the labor movement, organized strike lines and helped thousands of workers in the Twin Cities make their jobs better, no one has rewritten any rules to support her. The DFL endorsement was valuable; that and Altamirano’s tireless work got her a decent close third in the primary. Third place doesn’t get you on the school board.

Post-primary Altamirano continued a strategy of talking to everyone and began gaining their support. Reformers who donated to her did not give in as high quantities as they did to Samuels, and although she does not agree with them on all issues, they have seen in her someone who will at least listen and talk. Likewise, teachers and other union folks have invested in her campaign. She has run on her organizing experience, even when many in labor have attacked her viciously (and I do mean viciously) simply because she does not believe that being pro-labor means you have to close off communication with everyone else and be open to ideas wherever they come from.

Her work to engage people across groups has garnered her high praise. Just today, the 2014 Educator of the Year, Tom Rademacher, endorsed Iris, writing: “The conversation needs to change. I respect Iris Altamirano for her willingness to talk to everyone working to make schools better. Iris seems to understand that our biggest problems need allies more than they need enemies, and has refused to take the easy way out of picking a side in an argument and scoring easy points attacking others. Again and again, she has refocused the conversation through this campaign on finding solutions and staying centered on our students. She has my vote for Minneapolis School Board.”

In a surprise to the establishment, newcomer Altamirano also received the endorsement of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Are there also people supporting her candidacy financially—principally through independent expenditures that she legally has no control over—who progressives disagree with on a whole host of issues? Absolutely. Why should you support her anyway? Because, in a world where money flows into elections to absurd degrees, Altamirano has been upfront about the fact that she is talking to everyone. If any of her critics who also cannot afford to self-finance their campaigns would care to run for office in the current campaign finance climate, I look forward to watch their learning curve.

In sum, whoever of the other two frontrunners you like, Samuels or Gagnon, Altamirano should be your other choice. If you want someone who will lead a new conversation, vote for Iris. If you are passionate about Rebecca Gagnon, you should also support Iris. If you are passionate for Don Samuels, you should also support Iris.

This race has been hard on everyone involved. Both the reform and the union side have engaged in tactics I find deplorable (more on that later). If the each group’s work gets Gagnon and Samuels elected, each will have elected the candidate they really wanted and the opponent each deserves. Minneapolis will have the most divided and divisive school board in memory, and we will have a much more difficult time healing from this election and focusing on kids.