Planet Over Profit - Photo by Joe Brusky of the Overpass Light Brigade
Forcing Starbucks baristas to write “race together” on people’s drink orders as a response to police brutality. That’s late capitalism. Turning to crowd-funding sites like IndieGoGo to raise money for a new oxygen tank for your grandmother—because her insurance doesn’t cover it and she’ll die without it. That’s late capitalism.
“Late capitalism” is a phrase that was first used by Marxist theorists at the turn of the 20th century. Over that time, it’s been used in different ways by different people, but right now, it’s popping up all over as a both funny and cutting term to describe the absurdity and lack of dignity that comes with our world’s gaping inequality. That’s what today’s show is all about. This is a follow-up episode to another show we put together about the economy: Money Feelings.
We talk with Stephanie Woodward of the Center for Disability Rights about what it was like to occupy Senator Mitch McConnell’s office to protest plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act—and wind up zip-tied and arrested. Then, we hear from poverty scholar Tiny Gray-Garcia (and a backyard rooster) about the Poor News Network and what it means to have media made by and for low-income and no-income people. Then, DC Schools Project Program Director Jessica Lee and Backtalk host Amy Lam discuss the how definitions of “success” are shaped by culture, family, and how much money you’re expected to make.
PROTESTING TO STAY ALIVE
INTERVIEW WITH A POVERTY SCHOLAR
MONEY AND FAMILY
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• The photo of Stephanie Woodward with her hands zip-tied behind her back was taken by Colleen Flanagan. The photo of money being sliced into pieces is by Tax Credits. The featured image on this post is of a protest in June against the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Photo by Molly Adams (CC).
• For more feminist perspectives on making a living in our capitalist economy, check out the “Money Feelings” episode of Popaganda.
This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
STEPHANIE WOODWORD: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight….
SARAH: That’s activist and lawyer Stephanie Woodward. She’s counting up the number of states where just this week, the week of June 26th, groups of people with disabilities are taking over the offices of Republicans to protest the proposed repeal of Obamacare.
STEPHANIE: 14. We have 14 on the list so far.
My name is Stephanie Woodward, and I am the Director of Advocacy at the Center for Disability Rights in Rochester, New York. Which we are a independent living center that does local, state, and national work to fight for the integration, independence, and civil rights of people with disabilities.
SARAH: Trump and other Republicans made repealing the Affordable Care Act a cornerstone of their campaigns last fall. Apparently, many Americans don’t think of healthcare as a basic human right. Too often, we don’t see the ability to stay alive, regardless of your income, as a basic foundation that our society can agree on. The fact that the idea that everyone deserves to have healthcare is controversial, that shows one way American identity is steeped in capitalism.
That’s what today’s show is about: Life under late capitalism. “Late capitalism” is a phrase that was first used by Marxist theorists at the turn of the 20th Century. Over time, it’s been used in different ways by different people. But right now, it’s popping up all over as a both funny and cutting term to describe the absurdity and lack of dignity that comes along with our world’s gaping inequality.
For example, forcing Starbucks baristas to write “race together” on people’s drink orders as a response to police brutality: That’s late capitalism. Turning to crowd-funding sites like IndieGoGo to raise money for a new oxygen tank for your grandmother because her insurance doesn’t cover it, and she’ll die without it: That’s late capitalism.
This is a follow-up episode to another show we put together about the economy. That first episode is called Money Feelings. It came out a few weeks ago, and it features feminist artists and activists talking about how they make a living under capitalism, from what it’s like to be a professional writer to the finances of starting your own podcast. Scroll back through your podcast feed if you wanna hear it. This episode focuses more on poverty. We’re highlighting perspectives from people who are really fighting marginalization in our capitalist country.
[The Avengers The American in Me]
♪ It’s the American in me that makes me watch the blood
running out of the bullethole in his head.
It’s the American in me that makes me watch TV
see on the news, listen what the man said.
“Ask not what you can do for your country
what’s your country been doing to you
Ask not what you can do for your country
what’s your country been doing to your mind?” ♪
SARAH: For many people with disabilities, the political fights over healthcare aren’t abstractions. If Republicans go through with plans to slash funding for Medicaid and repeal the Affordable Care Act, it’ll mean many people are no longer able to pay for things like wheelchairs, medications, and in-home nurses. As Republicans in the Senate were leading the charge to repeal Obamacare at the end of June, Stephanie Woodward and dozens of other people who use wheelchairs took over Senator Mitch McConnell’s office, organized by a disability rights group called ADAPT. Police officers zip-tied the protesters and forced them out of the building, removing some protesters from their wheelchairs and carrying them down the hallway even as they shouted their message.
[video clip of disability rights protestors chanting]
ACTIVISTS: No cuts to Medicaid. Save our liberties!
SARAH: Videos and photos of the horrible scene seem destined to be looked back on in the future as proof of our especially inhumane and cruel current political climate. I mean, that’s assuming we have a future.
STEPHANIE: When I say that this is about our lives, we take that very seriously. And without Medicaid, our people will die. We would rather go to jail than die without Medicaid.
SARAH: What has it been like occupying Republicans’ offices? Can you tell me about what it felt like to be in Mitch McConnell’s office last week in the hub-bub and the chaos there?
STEPHANIE: I mean, it felt necessary. I don’t know that there’s any other words to describe it. It wasn’t scary for me. It was rather an empowering experience, because I got to bring a lot of people from Rochester with us that, their lives depend on this. To see the way they fight so whole-heartedly for not only their lives, but the lives of millions of their brothers and sisters in the nation who need Medicaid to live, it feels really like an honor to be fighting next to these incredible people who won’t let anything stop them from fighting for their rights.
SARAH: After her arrest, a friend snapped a photo of Stephanie sitting in her wheelchair in the police station with her hands zip-tied behind her back. The photo went viral, spreading around the Internet and inspiring outrage about the arrest of protesters.
STEPHANIE: After I was carried out of the building, I was set on the sidewalk outside of the Senate Russell Building, which is where we were protesting. I was zip-tied, and then I was given my wheelchair. I got in my wheelchair and just remained zip-tied, because well, I can’t push myself being zip-tied behind my back. So–
SARAH: What was it you were charged with?
STEPHANIE: I was charged with incommoding, which is–
SARAH: Wait! [laughing] Incommoding? What is that?
STEPHANIE: Incommoding. It basically means that we were in the way; we were somewhere that people didn’t want us to be. Which, I guess generally describes the existence of most people with disabilities. Most people just don’t want us around. So the charge seemed fitting. It also seemed fitting because there was no accessible ladies room in the police station. So while they were charging me with incommoding, I was like, “So, about the commode. Let’s talk about that because not giving me a bathroom seems like much worse of a punishment than what you’re telling me.”
SARAH: It sounds like you were incommoded by the lack of a commode.
STEPHANIE: Exactly! I’m so glad that you have a sense of humor about this too, because that’s all I was doing was making jokes about, “Charged with incommoding, but I can’t use the commode. Tell me more.”
SARAH: I think it’s so funny that when you see a photo like that, I think people will see that as like, wow, this brave moment in our civil rights history. And at the same time, you’re making toilet jokes.
STEPHANIE: Well, when you’ve gotta go, it’s hard to think of anything else.
[bright, upbeat musical break]
SARAH: Stephanie, I saw some responses to the photo of you that made it clear that people were surprised to see someone with a disability protesting. This was just one protest in a long history of protests led by people with disabilities for access to healthcare and equal rights. I’m hoping you can talk a little bit about that history and the persistent assumption that if you use a wheelchair, you’re not going to be a fiery activist.
STEPHANIE: So I think that there’s always been this stereotype and stigma that people with disabilities can’t speak for themselves and certainly can’t fight for our own rights or our own lives. We’re expected to be complacent and just accept whatever our able-bodied overlords allow us to have. And you see this not only with health care but with rights in genera. As an attorney, I get upset about the little things like a one-step entrance in a restaurant. The law is pretty clear: You have to have an accessible entrance. A one-step entrance violates the law, whether or not your building was built in 1990 or 1972 or before. You can easily get rid of a one-step entrance, but you don’t. And when I complain about it, people are like, “Well, why can’t you just be happy that there’s a back entrance?” Why can’t I be happy with a segregated entrance? Is that your question for me? Would I have the right to enter the front door like everybody else? I’m expected to just be thankful for what people decide is acceptable for me to have. And that’s just not the way that people with disabilities should be treated, and it’s not what we will accept.
SARAH: This sounds like a really basic question, but just bear with me. How does having access to healthcare shape your relationship to the economy? And how does that access, or lack of access, show the real human impact of our capitalist economy?
STEPHANIE: So I’ll start with a very basic example of me. I am certainly not the most complex case, when it comes to disability. I’m a wheelchair user, basic as that. I have pretty good mobility, but I need a wheelchair. I am a lawyer. If I did not have a wheelchair, I could not work. I could not pay taxes. I could not buy a house or feed my four cats named after the Golden Girls. I need my wheelchair to do that. However, getting insurance companies to pay for wheelchairs, you would think that I was asking them to buy me a gold-plated toilet.
SARAH: I think when you do the math of it, it seems to me to be really basic that having health care available for every American saves money in the long run and is also just the right thing to do from a moral, human standpoint. But it’s such an uphill battle here, in the United States. And so I’m wondering, right now Republicans are in the process of trying to repeal Obamacare, and about 30% of Americans say they wanna repeal the law. Why do you think so many Americans think expanding health care is a bad idea? Why is it so damn hard for us to get the kind of basic care that’s offered in countries across Europe as a norm?
STEPHANIE: I think there’s this idea that I work hard. So if you get something for free that I had to work for, then you’re somehow benefitting off of me. And there’s not this idea that we’re a community, and we have to help each other. We’re interdependent. It’s not just people with disabilities that depend on people without disabilities. We are an interdependent community and country. That’s just the way the world works. Beyond that, what is your other choice? If you don’t help people with disabilities get insurance, you’re saying that in the wealthiest country in the world, we’re gonna let people die rather than help them get insurance that could help them live? Like, that doesn’t make sense to me that we’re the wealthiest nation, and we care so much about value of life and quality of life, but when it comes to health care, every man for himself.
SARAH: What’s behind that cultural idea, do you think? What’s driving that mindset?
STEPHANIE: I think that there’s a misconception with this idea of the American dream and that all you have to do is pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and suddenly, you can get things done. I come from a family with strong Republican ideals, and I think my dad learned really quick after having a disabled daughter that no amount of pulling on his bootstraps in 1988 was gonna get his disabled daughter health insurance. And so I was a Medicaid recipient, and I still heard him say things like, “Well, those people are just scamming the system.” And yet, for some reason I wasn’t. And it’s very hard for me to–and still is hard for me to–figure out how he…reconciled that. That it was OK for me to benefit, but it wasn’t OK for others, because they were scamming the system. The disabled people who I’m fighting with and fighting for will die without health insurance, and I hear so many people say, “Well, that’s not fair to take money from someone else to pay for their health insurance.” So the other option is to just let them die? I’m confused. What are you saying here? Because no one will ever say, “We should just let them die.” But if you look at how the argument goes, there’s only one conclusion to what you’re saying to me, is that you don’t wanna pay for someone else to live. So therefore, you want them to die. There’s no other conclusion to draw.
[mellow musical break]
SARAH: One of the most tragic trends of the late capitalist era that we live in is crowd-funding for health care. I’ve seen campaigns running on sites like GoFundMe to raise money for cancer treatments, for organ transplants, for dental care. Have you seen these campaigns? And when you see them, what does it make you think about the way that our country functions?
STEPHANIE: It breaks my heart to see that we’re such a wealthy country, and there are people who can’t pay for cancer treatment. It baffles me that we would let that happen to our fellow Americans. We always talk about America being the greatest and America being so strong and my fellow American. But when it comes to your fellow American needing something basic to live, settling, “Well, they should’ve worked harder for it,” why? If everybody works hard together, but they fall on different circumstances than you, they should deserve less health care because…they had bad luck, and you didn’t? I guess I say this as a question a lot of the times because it doesn’t compute in my head. It doesn’t compute that if you get in a car accident and break your neck when you’re 30 years old, we should just not let you have health care ‘cause you’re not working hard for it.
[low-key musical break]
SARAH: One more question: I wanna know about these cats [laughs]!
STEPHANIE: Oh my god! My cats are the greatest cats in the world! So I have a gray collection. I call it the gray collection. My cats are all gray in some way or another. So I have Kit Kat who is the queen, Granite who is afraid of everything, and Sophia and Rose who were accidents. And by accidents, I mean my mom showed up at my house with two kittens one day, and I was like, “What the hell? You can’t return things that breathe.” So I accidentally got four cats, and I named the last two after Golden Girls because who doesn’t love Sophia and Rose from The Golden Girls?
[Golden Girls theme plays]
Rosie? Rose? Where are you? Where is she? Hi. Oh, yeah. [cat purrs then screeches a meow]
SARAH: That’s so great. Thank you for sharing your cats and also your time [chuckles].
STEPHANIE: Well, thanks for asking about my cats. That makes everything worth it to me. Every time I see someone talk about cats, I’m like, well, this was worth my time!
SARAH: That was Stephanie Woodward of the Center for Disability Rights. Even when Obamacare isn’t on the chopping block, and they’re fighting for their lives, the Center for Disability Rights works round-the-clock on issues of accessibility and civil rights. Look them up to support their crucial work.
Next up, we meet a poverty scholar.
SARAH: Let’s just start out. Can you just introduce yourself and tell you who you are and what you do?
TINY GRAY GARCIA: I am a poverty scholar, that houseless mom, that houseless daughter. I’m all the people you don’t wanna see, never wanna be, look away from me. Whatcha gonna do, arrest me? I’m in your city. I am a poverty scholar, and I rock my jailhouse attire, ‘cause me and my poor mama did jail time just trying to stay alive and housed in this holler. I am a poverty scholar, melanin-challenged daughter of a strong Afro-Boricua mama, without whom there’d be no me. A mama soltera and a welfare queen.
SARAH: That’s Lisa Gray Garcia, who goes by the name Tiny. As a kid, Tiny was often homeless; she and her mom lived out of their car in Los Angeles and Oakland.
TINY: So I always star introducing myself by verse because, as a poverty scholar, which means my knowledge is lived knowledge, I graduated from the school of hard knocks with a PhD in poverty. Really, which is just struggle. Had to drop out of institutional schools in the 6th grade and enroll full-time in the university of life. And for that, in this context that meant figuring out ways to a navigate racist and classist system that evicts you if you don’t have money to pay for Mother Earth for rent. That criminalizes you if you sleep on the so-called, not-really public stolen streets. And in the end, really makes it impossible for poor, single parents–specifically single women–to survive, much less thrive.
SARAH: As an adult, Tiny’s written a memoir about being homeless in the United States and helps run the POOR news network. It’s a non-profit media outlet that publishes a digital magazine, YouTube videos, books written by low- and no-income people, and a poverty-focused radio show in the Bay Area.
TINY: We got a FCC license, which is crazy. Like us ghetto scholars get an FCC license. I don’t even know how! But anyway, we’re about to lose POOR News Network, KEXU 96.1, KSU, the crossroads in the Ifá tradition
SARAH: When I talked to Tiny, she was in at Homefulness, a space in Oakland that runs classes on topics like decolonization and media making. As we were talking, students came in and out. But there were also more unexpected noises at Homefullness.
TINY: This was the media and journalism classroom and also the location of our elephant circles, which are our matriarchal-led, Indigenous circle where we make decisions. So a lot happens in a very small amount of space. The short version of that.
SARAH: Is that a rooster I just heard in the background?
TINY: Yeah, there’s a rooster, there’s a goat, two of them. This rooster’s Hella G. He yells at people and goes up on his talons and tries to kill you. Yeah, it’s pretty much the kinda rooster we would get.
The POOR News Network runs so many different creative projects around class and inequality. Right now, for example, one project they’re organizing is a tour called the Stolen Lands Hoarded Resources Tour. There’s a video of the most recent tour on YouTube. In it, members of POOR magazine’s news network walk around the ritzy Bay Area suburb of Belvedere and talk to whoever they meet about wealth redistribution. Some neighbors who they meet on the wide suburban streets are hostile, some are awkward, one person calls the police. But some are polite, at least.
PERSON: We help them a lot.
TINY: Oh, nice! Well, OK. So you’d be interested in Homefulness, which is actually a homeless people’s solution to homelessness.
PERSON: OK, well, I’ll read this.
TINY: Thank you so much.
PERSON: Thank you very much. All right. Good luck to you all.
TINY: You too!
[multiple people start singing about loving life]
SARAH: In her memoir, Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America, Tiny talks about how being poor is criminalized in many ways. I asked her to explain what that looks like on a day-to-day basis.
TINY: As poor mother, poor father, your lives are watched, surveilled, and criminalized if you’re unhoused. And you can be considered an unfit parent for the sole act of being without a roof. And not just that, but just for the acting of parenting within a culturally deep structure of a community of color that maybe isn’t considered acceptable within a Euro-centric, Western, hetero-patriarchal, psychologically-defined system of normalcy. Like my mother and myself were many times threatened by CPS. Because I had to stay home and take care of my mom, I couldn’t go to school. She was disabled.
SARAH: Just jumping in here to say that CPS stands for Child Protective Services, the government agency that’s in charge of preventing child abuse and neglect.
TINY: That was considered, I was considered truant. And I was also considered, in some level, being abused by the fact of taking care of my mom. And the fact that we were working: She wasn’t using drugs, we weren’t lazy and stupid and crazy and all of these titles they give to poor people. We were working all the time to survive, selling art on the street. But it was never enough. So the act of being on an underground economy, which in our case was selling art without a license, which a lot of poor people do not have the money to purchases these licenses it takes to have a business. They don’t have the money to pay ground rent to have a business. So they’re criminalized for the act of doing a business. People have gotten their minds wrapped around corporate solutions for everything. So if an independent contractor, which is how I look at it, picks up recycling out of a trash can owned by Waste Management, they’re considered, that’s considered a crime. And the owner or the apartment dweller can call the cops on that person, and they oftentimes do. Not for doing anything except for recycling bottles! Which has now been called a commodity by an industry built around that, right? How do we get our eyes wrapped around and our minds wrapped around this idea that corporations owns our trash?
There’s so many ways. Another one I tell is the story of my own, which is me and my mom were sleeping in our car. Our car. Not even somebody else’s. It wasn’t grand theft auto, whatever, revisited. But we were in a neighborhood where people didn’t wanna see houseless people sleeping in their car. Called the police on us all the time, from LA to Oakland to Frisco. And those citations piled up enough–we didn’t have the money to pay for them–so that’s why I got incarcerated at 18.
SARAH: You’ve been thinking about these issues your whole life, Tiny, in the last 40 years. I’m wondering, how do you think the way people see class and talk about class in the United States has changed in your lifetime? Do you think that the way people think about and talk about capitalism is changing?
TINY: That’s a really fascinating question. You know, I feel charged and inspired that there are more woke people, young people who are kind of more clear-headed thanks to some of the movements that have come up, that have rose up, like Black Lives Matter, Occupy, some other things. There were problems with all those movements, and continue to be, in the sense that revolutionaries and freedom fighters were there a long time before these movements came up. But what they did is they woke some more folks up so that there’s more, I feel, there’s a larger group of people who are more clear-headed about the very real issues of white supremacy, racism, settler colonialism, land theft, classism, and poverty. I do feel that. I also feel like we’re still caught in the non-profit industrial complex, the non-profiteers as the answer. These kind of large solutions, and the “I got mine’s” mentality, meaning that I got my little thing, and it’s enough for me and my family. Then I’m cool, and I can turn out the rest of the world.
So in some ways, I feel like the apathy has risen.
SARAH: That was Tiny Garcia-Gray…and the Homefulness rooster. You can learn about the work of the POOR News Network, see what classes are offered at their Decolonize Academy, and check out the upcoming Stolen Lands Hoarded Resources tour at RacePovertyMediaJustice.org.
[relaxed musical break]
What does it mean to be successful anyway? Does it mean making a lot of money? Does it mean being able to support your family? Does it mean trying to make your community better? There’s never any final point where you can say, “I’m successful, now! Thank you. I’ll take home that award and call it a day.” But our evolving definitions of success are undoubtedly shaped by capitalism, by how much money we can make and the level of comfort in our lives. Our ideas of success are also shaped by our families and where we come from. These are some of the big issues. That Backtalk podcast co-host Amy Lam talked over with community organizer Jessica Lee. Jessica works as a youth mentor with teens and undergraduate students in her job as the Program Director with Washington D.C.-based group the D.C. Schools Project. They talked about a Facebook post that Jessica had recently written that digs into family, culture, money, and social justice. Here’s Jessica reading the post. Then you’ll hear Amy Lam’s reaction and their conversation. Listen in.
JESSICA LEE: “So I recently got some really heavy, hurtful criticism for not making more money with a master’s degree and seven years of experience to take care of my parents. I refuse, resist, and reject the notion that my value lies in how much money I can make, based on the value of my supposed productivity. I refuse to believe that I can only live a good life and fulfill my familial duties if I uphold and participate and am complicit in all the ways that capitalism dehumanizes and harms. I refuse to believe that there is only one definition of success. I refuse to believe that there’s just one way to live. And I refuse to believe that my engagement in social justice work doesn’t somehow serve my parents, who are immigrants, limited-English proficient, and low-income. And there is no way that working within the very systems that do them harm, can do them good. #SelfReminders #ImAPersonNotAMoneyMakingMachine.”
AMY LAM: OK, first of all, thank you so much for writing that.
AMY: It really [chuckles], it really hit me in my feelings when I read this because I related to so much of this. And the reason I related to so much of this is because my parents are refugees, and there’s this idea that they came to this country for a better life for their children, for myself and my two brothers. And what that better life means is to earn a lot of money.
AMY: OK, I was wondering if you can talk a little bit more about your background and how it related to this post.
JESSICA: So gosh. I try not to be super wordy [chuckles]. So my parents are both Korean. They’re immigrants. My dad immigrated first a long time ago, like around the ’70s, early ’70s, and he joined the military to get naturalized and then went back to Korea to meet my mom. Or not in order to meet my mom, but basically to get match-made. And then they got matched, they got married, and then they immigrated together to Los Angeles, where I was born. So I have a younger brother who is about a year-and-a-half younger than me, and he was also born in LA. We moved up to Portland because my dad thought there was a better business opportunity there. And then I went off to get my master’s degree when I was, god, like 25, 24, back in California. And then he joined the military. So he makes significantly more money than I do, basically.
AMY: And I think it’s interesting because in your post, and like you mentioned now, you had gone to go on to get your master’s degree. And I think especially within first-generation immigrant parents and the community, it’s like, if you’re going on to earn a master’s degree, there’s this assumption that then you will earn more money.
JESSICA: Oh, yeah.
AMY: You told me the background story to your post.
AMY: So I was wondering if you could share what kind of, what was the catalyst to post something.
JESSICA: Sure! Yeah! So I had had an emergency with my phone, and it was on a work trip, actually. So my phone got completely destroyed, and I had no phone. And for my mom, it’s important to her, for her to be able to know how I’m doing, right? ‘Cause she lives on the other side of the country. And I think a lot of immigrant mothers are like this, especially with their daughters, where you don’t hear from your children for like two days, or even a day without a text, and they’re like, “Where are you? What happened to you? Did somebody kidnap my child?” And my mom’s especially, I think, she always talked about how growing up with me, it was more so that way because I’m a girl, right? So I called [chuckles].
I called home, and I was like, “So this is the situation. I need to wait for it. I need to go send it it. I need to go call in the insurance. And I’m not gonna have a phone.” And my mom was like, “Well, how much is it gonna cost you?” And so I was like, “It’s gonna cost me $199.” And for most people, I think it’s not–I think for some people–it’s not a whole lot of money, but to me, that’s a lot of money. My parents are interesting. They have a stash of money, so I know I can borrow. But I also feel bad about it at the same time. But if I don’t have a phone, and then they can’t contact me, then I can’t do things for them if they need me to do something immediately. And then so thinking through those things, I was like, well, I could not have a phone for a week. So I talk to my dad, and my dad’s like, “OK, well, OK, $199. Let’s see if we can do this.” My brother hears him in the background. My brother is like, “Just say no! Just say no!” Like, to hang up on her. And I could hear him.
AMY: Wow [laughs]!!
JESSICA: I could hear him in the background. He’s like, “Hang up on her!” And he was like, “She is 33 years old. She has a master’s degree, and she can’t cover that on her own? That is a problem.” And then he was like, “Hang up on her. Don’t listen to her,” right? And the thing is–
JESSICA: –my brother makes six figures. He gets his housing covered. When he travels, his bag is covered ‘cause he can count military. He’s made it up in the ranks because he entered as an officer because he was a college grad. So…for him– And also, he’s always been very frugal with money. And for him, as a product of poverty, he went for the route that was gonna make him money, and then I went the route where I saw if these structures and systems weren’t in place to begin with, my parents would not be where they are, right? My parents would not struggle. We would not have struggled in the way that we did if the systems were equitable and just. But I’d also been banking on public service loan forgiveness ‘cause I’m almost at the 10-year mark for loan forgiveness. So it also didn’t make sense for me to quit my job to make more money where I would have to pay more in loans, than to stay here and then get it forgiven in three years for working in public service for 10 years and to get the loans forgiven.
So it was interesting to me that my brother had gotten so frustrated at some point that I wasn’t engaging in those standard definitions of what success meant. And so he basically was like, “If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of other people? Why can’t you be smart enough to save more money to do something like that?” But the more I think about it too, it’s like a lot of first gens who come from poverty, unless they get into a really high-paying job right out of college, it’s actually really hard. You’re either also trying to just stay in, to break even constantly, and saving is really difficult to do. Unless you know how to navigate these systems and norms and how to make connections that are going to really support you in your being able to be in the green and save some money. And I really didn’t learn how to navigate those things and figure that kinda stuff out until I was much older.
AMY: Yeah, I think that one of the lines that I really loved about your post is when you said, “I refuse to believe that my engagement in social justice work doesn’t somehow serve my parents–”
AMY: “–who are immigrant, limited-English proficient, and low-income.” Because I think that in many of our communities–like refugee and immigrant communities–where they raise children here, there’s this expectation that in order to support and to be invested or to give back to your community is to do that financially–
JESSICA: Yep, yep.
AMY: –and not so much as like as in your work, as a community organizer. And like I said before, one of the reasons why this hit me so close is ‘cause I identified so much with it. I’m also the oldest, with two younger brothers who earn significantly more than me.
AMY: And they have, much of my adult life, you know? I never did not hear about it.
AMY: The second they were able to earn more than me, it was just something that I always knew. And it was more pressure, I think, on us because we’re the oldest.
JESSICA: Yeah, absolutely.
AMY: There’s something about birth order that’s an issue.
JESSICA: And daughters. Yep.
AMY: Yes! But the thing about daughter is it’s also complicated because as girls and as women, there’s this notion of yes, you should also kind of support your parents. But maybe you don’t need to ‘cause you’ll marry a husband who will take care of you, you know?
JESSICA: Yeah [laughs].
AMY: So it’s like this weird double standard of, OK, I guess if you earn a lotta money, that’d be great! But how much will your future husband earn? That’s actually more interesting, you know?
AMY: And actually, I don’t fault my parents for believing in capitalism.
AMY: I mean, that’s what it comes down to, right/
JESSICA: Yeah, absolutely.
AMY: Because of where they came from, I mean, they’re refugees from a war. They literally came here with nothing. And they’ve worked so hard just to survive. So when they sort of measure success and measure, to an extent, conditional love, right?
AMY: I mean [laughs], I’m not saying that my parents only love me conditionally, but–
JESSICA: No, but that’s how it feels.
AMY: –that’s a part of it. It’s like, yes! Yes! It matters that’s how it feels.
AMY: And yes, it hurts my feelings. But I also can’t fault them because I have no idea what they came from, and economic security means something to them.
AMY: And I think what you said was really interesting in that it isn’t just about whether or not I have an ability to take care of them through my economic means. But it speaks to whether or not I can take care of myself.
AMY: OK, my parents don’t listen to any of the podcasts that I do. So I can say this without them knowing.
AMY: But [laughs]…but a few years ago– Also, my brothers don’t listen either! But a few years ago, my brother–the oldest of the two younger ones–he decided that we should have a parents’ savings fund, which is so Asian, right?
JESSICA: Yeah, that is very Asian.
AMY: I think it’s so Asian to be like–[laughs] you know, especially Asian immigrants, to be like–“We should save some money for our parents.”
AMY: So at that time, I was literally making a third of what he was making and maybe a half of what the other brother was making. So I wasn’t able to contribute as much, and I said, “Can I please only contribute a third of what you guys are ‘cause that’s what my income level is?”
JESSICA: Mmhmm, right.
AMY: And my brother said, “Yeah, sure.” But he was also like, this is messed up. Why are we doing it this way? I also felt that feeling, you know?
AMY: So there’s a feeling of him being annoyed by it, of course, like your brother was annoyed at you for needing the 200 bucks to cover your phone.
AMY: But I think that underlying that, like you’re saying, there’s also the feeling of, well, fuck! If you can’t take care of this 200 bucks, then does that mean Mom and Dad will have to take care of you down the line? Or you’re not doing your responsibility as being a good Asian child.
JESSICA: Right, yep.
AMY: So it isn’t just that you’re taking money from Mom and Dad but that Mom and Dad may have to use their money to take care of you. Which they were doing in the moment for you. And I think it’s both him being annoyed and my brother being annoyed, but also being like, I’m worried about you, but in this really fucked up way of saying it, you know?
JESSICA: Yeah, no, it really is.
AMY: Yeah. And the framing is that you’re not succeeding in this capitalist society, and that is how we measure success period, full stop.
JESSICA: Yeah. So to also be basically kind of blamed or judged as failing in life, right, for not being financially secure in the way that he felt like I should be, given where I am in terms of age and being the older sister, that was I mean…that was probably, that one hit really hard. That one hit really hard.
AMY: Mmhmm. And I think that it’s also a combination of–your mother recognized your work, but that’s also a combination of–your brother not recognizing your work. Your work impacts our communities in a really specific way, and I think that especially–and of course, this isn’t true of all immigrant communities and all refugee communities, but I think that–when you come from a low-income immigrant or refugee community, and you arrive here, and you work so hard to raise your children, there’s a lot of dog eat dog feeling–
AMY: –of like, we don’t have time to take care of anybody else but us.
AMY: So when you are doing you’re work, and you’re investing your own money into your work, that isn’t being seen as you investing your money into your family even though you’re investing your money to a community that does support families like yours.
JESSICA: Mmhmm, yeah.
AMY: And I think that’s where there’s a intellectual or some kind of weird disconnect between how we understand who our communities are and what does it mean to impact them meaningfully within this capitalist structure? And I think that’s the hard part of how we think about how we earn our money and our relationships to capitalism and how it influences our relationships with our family.
AMY: So I think of the work that you do as being radical, you know?
AMY: So how do you sort of navigate that weird space between doing radical work that has tinges of anti-capitalist feelings, you know? Or anti-capitalist aspects while at the same time, sort of understanding where your parents are coming from and knowing that for them, succeeding in a capitalist society–
JESSICA: Yeah, success.
AMY: –is what matters?
AMY: Yeah, so how do you navigate those two worlds?
JESSICA: Gosh. I mean…well, I’m trying to think through that question. ‘Cause the work that I’m doing predominantly is about raising consciousness for my students. I once was asked a question by a graduating senior who a, actually, a really terrible experience at Georgetown, which is actually not unheard of for students of color, who was just ready to go. And she asked me this really difficult question about how do you dismantle white supremacy in a white supremacist space? Because Georgetown, believe it or not, is a white institution, right? It’s a predominantly white institution.
JESSICA: And I think as much as folks within it may not call it that, it exists. It’s going to have a function of institutional racism. But when a student asked me that, one of the things that I think about in terms of how I do kind of an anti-capitalist dismantling racism, white supremacy spaces, first of all, I mean, I have to do the work for myself, right? So I mean, you mentioned a little bit that you appreciated that it sounded really unapologetic, that post sounded really unapologetic.
JESSICA: But I’m actually, that was actually me trying to be unapologetic but still feeling some kinda way about it, right? Because what my brother said was really hurtful, and I also recognize I do wanna help my parents. But I don’t see myself being helpful in that way. For me, it may be more my emotional labor, and it may be more of my physical or manual labor that I provide that my brother can’t, right? He may provide the monetary component. I mean, it’s kind of like how we navigate being Asian and child of immigrants and being bicultural is for a really long time, they were just parallel to each other. And in some ways, I’m still trying to figure out how to make them intersect, if that makes sense. I don’t know if that answered your question.
AMY: Mmhmm. No, I think you did. I think that you answered it right off the bat when you said that within this capitalist system where we prioritize one’s earning potential or earnings, and then we kind of conflate that with their value as a person, you don’t wanna play that game. And you said–I’m gonna quote yourself back to you, but you said–something about that you find other ways to support your family, if not through money, right?
JESSICA: Mmhmm, yeah.
AMY: You said you offer emotional support, that kind of labor. And I think that’s so important. And actually, that’s something that we have to name because– And I keep saying our communities are not monolithic, but I think that within some of our communities, we take emotional labor for granted.
AMY: It’s just something that you’re supposed to perform, you know?
AMY: You’re just supposed to perform it for your family–
JESSICA: Especially if you’re a girl.
AMY: –without thinking about how much work it is.
AMY: Especially if you’re a girl!
JESSICA: Especially, yep.
AMY: Especially if you’re a mother, and especially if you’re a daughter.
JESSICA: Yep, yep.
AMY: Yeah. I really love that you’re saying that we have to reframe how we think about that. Of course, I know that I’m performing a very specific type of labor, but we have to reframe how we think about it and also communicate that to our family, that we have changed the way we’ve thought about it.
AMY: That me listening to you, me offering you advice, me supporting you in an emotional and mental capacity is something that you can’t get elsewhere. And it’s valuable.
AMY: Even if you can’t put money to it, it’s valuable.
AMY: I think that– You know what? I think your family’s really lucky to have you, somebody like you.
JESSICA: Aw, thank you! Aw!
AMY: [laughs] Yeah!
JESSICA: Amy, you’re gonna make me cry [laughs].
AMY: [laughs] ‘Cause I think you speak very cogently about this. So here, you say that about how you’re able to communicate that with your family is really heartening, and I think that it gives me a lot of hope that within our communities, we can help each other in ways that maybe now, we don’t find as valuable. But down the line, hopefully in future generations, they can see the value in the work that we’re doing, even if it’s not being shown on our paystubs.
SARAH: That was Backtalk podcast co-host Amy Lam talking with Jessica Lee of the D.C. Schools Project.
One of the traps with capitalism is that it makes us think that money is all that matters. We need money to live and to get by, but there are many, many essential and wonderful and necessary things in life that don’t have any monetary value at all. One question I keep thinking about is what are those things we value? And how can we hold them even closer as our country seems to spiral out of control?
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