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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy Youngstown

I teach at a state university in a community ravaged by the collapse of the steel mills. Of course the segment of the city that was hit the hardest was the city center, mostly black. White flight drove explosive growth in the suburbs decades ago, and the beautiful older homes, mopped up by black residents, were well maintained until the mills went down. Youngstown lost half its population, and unemployment devastated the black neighborhoods. Predatory lending and the mortgage crisis compounded by the recession has left 1000 of these historic homes abandoned and vulnerable to looters, who strip downspouts and flashing from the roofs, plumbing, fireplace mantles, doors, whatever can be carried off. Our governor cut funding to cities by 50%, and eliminated the estate tax, and poor cities like Youngstown are reeling. Racism is a long-standing problem - I just learned there was a thriving KKK here - but sky-high unemployment rates for young black men have led to, of course, drugs and gangs, and that has fueled racism as well as a spike in property crimes and a rash of gun violence.
Out of this background enter my students. The white suburban kids are sometimes nervous about being downtown, although our campus is statistically very safe. The black kids are often from schools that look more like juvenile detention centers than public schools. Black and white, many are the first in their family to attend college. As typical American youth, most of them don't read, and they're not used to confronting ideas different from their own.
But it's richer than that. Many students have kicked around in their lives for a few decades. One of this semester's is a former homeless vet. One is a woman in her 50s whose son was killed by rival drug dealers, at a time when she, herself, was an addict. One man is single parenting his 2-year-old daughter. A few are caring for gravely ill parents, or helping to provide income to laid-off parents. One 22-year-old is pregnant with her third child. I know these details because they write about them. All are working hard at their low-paying jobs, juggling work and school and home, fixing and re-fixing piece of crap cars.
Ohio used to pay 70% of tuition for each student, spreading the cost of our future over all of us. Now it's 25%, and since the cost of health care for university employees has rocketed up, students pay that too, so they take out massive loans. They will graduate into an economy of Walmarts.
I don't lose track of this reality. In part, it would be difficult to, since as an adjunct I am struggling, myself, to stay alive on a pay rate that hasn't been raised in 25 years, and without health insurance. So I both sympathize and empathize.
And stay open for little miracles. I use my class to examine the rhetoric of our public discussion. When the governor says we need to cut the pay of teachers to 'restore fairness,' I encourage them to look into that for an understanding of what is fair. When union members talk about the right to collective bargaining, we talk about what rights we have, and what rights we have changed our minds about over time. Liberal or conservative, I want them to engage in an examination of how the way we talk and think frames our beliefs. College writing is about rhetoric, but more than that, I want my students to have the language to feel they have a place at the table.
It doesn't always work, of course. Lots of times I'll throw out a discussion question, and my students will look at me and blink. They're tired, or shy, or distracted, and so we resume our work of commas or citations. But sometimes it catches. I have a class like that this semester, and it's all I can do to squeeze in a bit on commas, because they walk in with the big questions. "Why does the birth rate go down in a recession?" Heh, great question, and that's a bit out of my area of expertise, so let's look it up. On a day we had serious English stuff to do, I kept saying, ok, one more comment and we have to get to work, and after saying that about 7 times, I said, really, now we have to stop, and right before they got to work one young man said, "We're like a family in here."
I can't stop thinking about that. They are 17 to 60, black, Hispanic, white, blended, urban, suburban, from great at writing to struggling hugely. And our state, our country is failing them. They're working so hard, and falling further behind.
I thought of them at the Occupy Youngstown event yesterday, our first here. It felt great to hear some rational discourse - we're not against corporations, said one speaker, we're against corporations running our government, rigging tax, environmental, credit, housing, wage and every other kind of policy in their favor. We should all be against that, right and left, and so should our politicians, and the ones who came to speak here, are. As we have shifted wealth to the top 1%, we have also shifted opportunity. We have been trained against hoping too much, but here's a toast to all those who stood in the cold wind yesterday to listen to some people make a lot of sense. Here's to my students: may the future open its doors for you when it hears you knocking. May the doors open wide.

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