New York City, NY
“The public is getting scared. They don’t know what to do, and they’re going to strike out. They just know the system isn’t working and they don’t want to wait around.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg, November 17, 2011.
My vision of justice is participatory dialogue, similar to what is occurring in the OWS General Assembly and the thematic spokes, where people knowledgeable and/or passionate about a given topic work together on creating workable plans of action.
As a disciple of Paolo Freire, my justice centered practice is rooted in sharing information with clients that raises their consciousness about the systems they rely on, and self-awareness as consumers of services provided by enormous dysfunctional bureaucracies. I describe to my clients the caseload of underfunded, short staffed and over extended caseworkers who have to troubleshoot hundreds of thousands of food stamp, SSI, Medicaid, and other entitlement cases that are mishandled, seemingly by design. I suggest that the system can’t handle all the requests; the dollars just aren’t there to support everyone in need of financial assistance. I also encourage my clients to get involved in protecting their rights by joining and working with organizations that advocate for them, like Picture the Homeless, an organization founded by homeless and formerly homeless people that organizes this population in promoting affordable housing. I encourage my clients who live in public housing to get involved in their tenant associations and I have encouraged the councilwoman I work with to resume her work in organizing public housing tenants. We are currently working with tenant leaders to strengthen their organizing skills. Thus, I make my clients and cohorts aware of the “here and now” which they understand or as Freire states, “which constitutes the situation within which they are submerged, from which they emerge and in which they intervene. Only by starting form this situation – which determines their perception of it – can they begin to move,” to take responsibility and act.
Similarly, I relay to decision makers, in the City Council and City agencies that inadequately serve my clients, the problems I encounter and offer suggestions on how to provide more compassionate and user friendly services. The most common proposals involve reducing the red tape, having a dialogue with the client and agencies, like the New York City Public Housing Authority and the Department of Homeless Services, communicating with each other. In meetings with decision-makers, I point out how a living wage and affordable rents are more economically sound and much more humane than the current system. With my cohorts, progressive social workers, we talk about radical changes required for the system to survive; for instance, regarding the mass unsustainable unemployment demands recognizing that our infrastructure is deteriorating and is due for significant maintenance. We have a shortage of engineers, doctors and scientists. We can put people to work but to do so we have to bring our education system into the 21st century. It also has to be more caring and relevant. This requires globalizing the curriculum. Such pedagogy validates other cultures and ways of knowing. It does not rely on standardized tests where success is not measured by filling in the most number of bubbles that are correct with a number two pencil. Instead, the next generation must be skilled in communicating succinctly with multiple audiences simultaneously and be able to operate high tech machinery to be eligible for basic jobs. To educate our young people, we also must reform the military complex, the police state in which we currently live. Students cannot be expected to learn when they are greeted at the front door as criminals and searched daily by the police.
I am increasingly aware of how the system that is in place to protect the interest of the one percent, uses people among the 99% to keep the system in place. The most obvious is the NYPD. During recent peaceful demonstrations, it is clear that the police have been trained to demonize anyone who challenges the status quo. Yes, indeed they are paid to protect the 1% and are given the latest gizmos and toys to do so. Yet, their wages are meager compared to those of the masters they serve (the wage of Police Commissioner Kelly, $209,000, doesn’t come close to the 19 million that Jamie Dimon, the CEO JP Morgan Chase earns). Furthermore, the pensions of police officers are susceptible to the economy crashing, just like the rest of us. At the PATH office, it is striking that those young single mothers of color are policed by young single mothers of color. The one thing that seems to be working is the use of oppressors to oppress their own kind. This is also true of the Walmart model. Who are the people who get hurt in the crush to be the first to shop on black Friday? It is the working class who is desperate for these sales because they earn unsustainable Walmart salaries.
Lastly, since I work in the office of an elected official, I stride both worlds, the establishment and anti establishment, since I often represent the councilwoman in meetings and regularly attend demonstrations to end budget cuts and increase the tax burden on the rich. Thus, I make sure to inform the councilwoman and her staff when I attend demonstrations and also share information about organized activities as a way of encouraging other staff
to participate. This information sharing serves to open up the conversation about social injustices, provides the opportunity to illustrate how the system doesn’t work and allows me to check in on how far I can go in challenging the system in meetings where I represent the councilwoman. Luckily, I work for a progressive gay activist who believes in affordable housing and got into office by being an organizer. Yet, the constituents in her district are rapidly getting whiter and wealthier, so if she wants to get re-elected she has to appeal to very diverse populations: privileged white entrepreneurs and public housing tenants of color. In occupying social work, it is my job to raise the consciousness of the privileged white voters about the social injustices in our city, while raising the awareness of marginalized people of color that they can play a role in changing the status quo.
Freire Paolo (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Continuum International Publishing Group; New York.
The New York Times (October 28, 2011). “Where the 1 Percent Fit in the Hierarchy of Income”