"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Saturday, February 03, 2007

a page from my service journal

Shock and Awe.

OK, so perhaps my title is a bit dramatic. But that's what first came to mind as an accurate description of my first day on-site for the EITC service.

The day began like a typical school day. That is, very early. While everyone in my dorm was still sleeping their Friday nights off, I was up at 7:30, getting ready to make the long trek in the numbing cold to Lane Library for my service, which began at 9. In actuality, my preparation for today's service began on Friday night, when my friend and I were "studying" for our positions as screeners. We role-played and quizzed each other on procedure, foregoing the parties and movie nights everyone else seemed to be enjoying.

As I expected, the first day bore some revelations: First, that there are NO places to eat a hearty breakfast on campus before 9 am. I settled for a blueberry muffin in Shriver, which, though delicious, proved to be too little, and by the time 11:30 came I was hungry. (Note to self: get up a little earlier next time and find enough time to eat a full breakfast uptown. 4 hours is a long time to be hungry.) Next, Lane Library is just about the farthest place to have to walk from Peabody Hall (even though it is one of the closest places on the fringe of Uptown). I say this because Kroger is far enough that you wouldn't consider it walkable. If you were to tell someone you were walking to Kroger, they'd probably say you're crazy and offer you a ride. But Lane is close enough to seem within reasonable walking distance, so no one ever considers it a formidable feat to walk there. In fact, people will often tell you it's close and convenient. But they would be wrong. And in the bitter cold (it was 11 degrees this morning, not including windchill), the walk, no matter how long or short, was insufferable. As I power-walked uphill to Lane on my Saturday morning, I was cursing the cold and wondering how I could best get out of doing this again.

When I finally arrived, I threw down my heavy backpack and checked in with the Site Coordinator, Debra Stanley, and saw that there was already someone waiting. To my complete shock, it was Mary*. She works with another woman, Dorothy, to maintain Peabody during the week. They work all by themselves and never complain, despite the deplorable messes in the bathrooms and halls after long nights of careless neglect. Dorothy and Mary are two of the most wonderful people you will ever meet, and I've spent many an afternoon chatting with them, munching on the many desserts they delight in making for the residents of Peabody. When I see them, they make an effort to say hello and tell me, over and over again, how wonderful they think the work I do for Students for Staff is, and how much they appreciate the little gnome I set outside my door just for them (Mary loves to joke about "the little guy" protecting the hallways). I will update them on my activities and hand them an SFS newsletter, ask them how they're feeling, if their work is going well. Though they are very deliberate in saying they love working for Miami, there's an air of sadness and forlorn weariness. This is the stock answer I get from workers, who, when reminded of their work situation, This is the response I've been getting from workers all over campus. They will say the benefits are great, the atmosphere is nice, the people are always so friendly. They never mention their wages, nor do I ask them.

Nor do I need to. My work in SFS has never assumed that wages are the only problem. "It is not," as one administrator told me, "a wage issue." Rather, I take issue with what Miami's wages symbolize, what they mean to the worker and to the university in terms of intrinsic value. What matters to me is the level of respect and appreciation those wages represent. It irks me that though Mary works 40 hours a week for Miami, she is still only scraping by. When Dorothy's shoulder was injured on the job last year, she had to take time off work for surgery and subsequent physical therapy and recuperation. Those weeks of not working put her back quite a bit, so she had to work over time. Another woman working in my building suffered a car crash and multiple health problems due to her diabetes, and is now working the night shift at Krogers to pay the accumulating medical bills.

If "it is not a wage issue," as some administrators say, then the implication is that it is a problem with the individual workers. I find this accusation even more deplorable, since it seems clear to me that not all workers have a choice in the financial decisions they make. Furthermore, I do not believe it is my, nor an administrator's, place to say what is "appropriate" use of an individual's wage. However, I do believe that financial literacy is an important step in addressing poverty in our communities. If the administration does not see it as a wage problem, it is of great importance to me that I become involved with part of the solution, as they see it.

However, judging from my first day at EITC service, I feel even more justified in refusing to believe the administration's insistence that poverty is not an issue in the Miami community. As I saw from Saturday's service, poverty is much more of a reality than most would think to imagine. I helped clients who weren't older than my younger brother, who's turning 18 in April. In fact, most of our clients on Saturday were teenagers, who were already beginning their dives into the labor industry. Life can seem incomprehensibly unfair, when I'm helping kids younger than myself to get their federal income tax returns. I am glad to help them, of course, but I wish there were more I could do. I wish I could urge them into school. I wish that school could be an option for them as it is for me. I wish that we could be kids together, rather than be two strangers on opposite sides of a table, opposite sides of an experience, on opposite sides of society, with myself helping, and them asking for help. I wish that rather than doing work for them, that I could work with them to make things better.

I am reading Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he talks about effective radical praxis as a combination of deliberate action accompanied by reflection. I hope that maybe this is a start.

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