Exposure Composure

In the community where I live, there has surprisingly been a huge controversy over students reading Nickel and Dimed in their high school English class. The conservative parents leading this initiative feel that it is teaching students how to cheat on drug tests, that it is anti-Christian, and that it promotes a progressive political agenda.

For my seventh grade Sunday School class, I was given an assignment to write a book report about Mein Kamph. I borrowed the book from my synagogue’s library. While I found the book repulsive and terrifying, it was important for me to have the opportunity to confront and attempt to understand all of history.

I feel very grateful that I was nurtured by adults at my synagogue, many of whom were politically conservative, who believed that I and other children had the capacity to understand complex topics and to distinguish between right and wrong. Being exposed to the full human experience helps us to better understand who we are and our place in the world both individually and as part of a community.

Front Porch Communities

Some of my best childhood memories took place in the front porch of our home on Congress Street– listening to echoes of concerts at the Allentown Fairgrounds, gossiping with friends in our pajamas during sleepover parties, drinking sun spoiled milk on a lazy summer day. When I moved back to the Lehigh Valley in 2004, I noticed a deterioration in our community’s front porch culture. I attended an NAACP dinner downtown soon after relocating back home. When driving home through the summer streets that evening, I noticed vacant porches. Most people had become afraid to be outside at night.

In my current home, I rarely sit on the front porch for two reasons. The first is relatively benign; as an adult juggling multiple responsibilities, it can be difficult to find the time for such leisure. The second is more malignant: my mother and I have been harassed by one of our neighbors and we no longer feel physically or emotionally safe on our porch and in our yard. For the past several years, I too have felt trapped in my home. I no longer enjoy gardening or outside home maintenance as I feel somewhat threatened whenever I am outside my home.  I usually do these chores during dinner time when I am likely to be unbothered. We quickly walk from the car to the house whenever this neighbor is out and about – and he usually is. Perhaps we are too hypersensitive, but we sometimes feel like prisoners in our own homes.

In the past, I have enjoyed walking through my neighborhood – often with Cookie in his cat stroller—when the weather is pleasant. This summer, I did not walk very often due to the crime in my neighborhood and my perhaps somewhat irrational fear of my next door neighbor. The day after Thanksgiving, the weather was just lovely and I decided to take a walk. At quarter to six that afternoon, a man was shot and killed about two blocks from my house. In the middle of that night, more mysterious activity unfolded just in front of my house.

I feel disconnected and detached from my community in many ways. I am not from Easton and have never felt as though I belong here. I feel great animosity from my neighbors. I feel unsafe and insecure. Like those front porches in Allentown during the summer of 2004, I feel vacant. I long for a sense of home and a feeling of community.

Reverse Redlining

I often hear Allentown expats emphatically say that our city has changed. By hearing this repeatedly and carefully examining the context in which those words are uttered, I have found that this is a racist and classist code pointing to the increased number of Spanish speaking people and the increased visibility of people who are economically fragile who now occupy the city in which many ‘decent white middle class people’ have chosen to no longer live. Saying that Allentown has changed is an attempt to preserve white middle class privilege.

When things change, we often feel compelled to selfishly judge the circumstances according to our own values, beliefs, and needs. Why can’t we just observe, learn, absorb, and embrace rather than judge and distance ourselves?

I have many fond memories of center city Allentown. My grandmother owned Zipf’s candy and gift shop on Hamilton Mall. One summer, I stayed over at her house and we rode the bus to work together. It was the first time I felt really grown up. I loved to help out in the store and to be downtown amidst all of the interesting people. My sister had her first apartment in that building and I had fun visiting her and her boyfriend (then husband, now ex-husband) there. When I graduated from high school, I went downtown and opened my first checking and savings accounts at one of the banks at center square. It was the second time that I felt really grown up. Going downtown was always exciting to me, and it still is. While I no longer spend a significant amount of time downtown, I do like to go there often, usually to visit Symphony Hall or the Allentown Art Museum. Each visit leads me to recall many fond childhood memories and creates new ones.

I, too, am an Allentown expat. I left involuntarily while a high school student in 1991 and, while I did attend Allentown Business School and worked in several locations throughout the city, I have not lived there since. I am planning to move back as soon as I am financially able to.

Many people who would like to live in Allentown are warned not to buy a home there particularly because of the high rate of crime and the perception of the public school system. This is exactly why I need to move back home. Rather than excluding myself from the blessed pain of life, I plan to become an active citizen and to find ways to share what I hope to become a contagious sense of pride in our community. I could never wish for my child to have something relatively better than another mother’s child. I would rather intentionally bring people together so that we can work for the future of our community than further exclude and divide people based on arbitrary demographics.

Yes, Allentown has changed, and thank goodness so have I.

(Not) Dressed to Impressed

I served our local League of Women Voters as the Voters Guide editor for two years. It was a volunteer position for which I was ill suited, but I did my best.

My volunteer service in this capacity had a tumultuous ending. With a bundle of at least 100 Voters Guides in my arms, I could not see the stairs below (not to mention I was probably a bit high on a newly prescribed cocktail of Elavil + Lamictal + Lexapro + Neurontin) . Down I went, and a nine month recovery followed.

Toward the end of my recovery, I was able to drive and walk with a brace on my leg. In order to accommodate the brace, I wore long skirts or stretchy pants with sneakers. This also helped to accommodate the forty fresh pounds on my frame which resulted from a deadly combination of daily ice cream and the inability to walk.

This did not stop me from participating in a lobbying day at our state capital.  When I arrived at the PA Bar Association office for the pre-meeting meeting, I saw the convener stop mid-sentence as I walked into the room and look me up and down as if to say, ‘didn’t you read my email which specifically stated that you should be professionally dressed.’ I felt humiliated. Of course, it may have just been a projection of my insecurity.

There were many times during my recovery that I felt as though my appearance was scrutinized. Especially during those months that I was not able to walk, I developed a strong compassion for people who have permanent disabilities.

At the time of the lobbying day, I was an experienced advocate who could find my way around the capitol building with my eyes closed. I am certain that my fantabulous state representative and others (who, by the way, were elected in no small part because of the great work of the League of Women Voters and my Voters Guide – thank you, very much) were more interested in what I had to say than in my appearance.

I’ll talk a bit more about the staging of legislative visits and other forms of activism in one of December’s workshops, Theatre of Change.

Political Ambidexterity

When I was a little girl, I was ambidextrous. My mother advised to me choose a hand. Not knowing which to pick, I asked her what her preference was. She told me that everyone in my family was right handed. My choice to conform to this only confirms that I made the right choice for my life at that time.

I often wonder how my life would be different if I had chosen my left hand instead, or if I were not presented with the mandate of choosing and was able to remain ambidextrous. I actually think it served me well, as using my left brain has prevented me from being too ‘out there’ as to relate to other people and the ‘real’ world entirely. I love that I am at once rational and insanely creative.

So often, we are put in a position of having to choose sides. Election time is once such instance when we are presented with this opportunity to align with something greater than ourselves by veering to the left or to the right.

While we may need to choose in the polling booth, we do not need to pick a side in our daily lives. We can be politically and socially ambidextrous. Being ambidextrous doesn’t mean choosing our left or our right hand; it means consistently using everything that we’ve got. We can still take a stand, but it is one that is in a position to see and appreciate the entire landscape. Political ambidexterity gives us the freedom to explore ideas and re-create the world together.

Obamacare Omits

When I left my full time job to focus on The Fruition Coalition full time, I was shocked to be denied health insurance by several providers. I was denied due to three pre-existing conditions: a mental health diagnosis, a high BMI, and a vascular malformation in my brain.

I think this situation is an unintended consequence of the recent federal health care reform law. A few years ago, I shopped my health insurance plan (as an individual) and was not denied coverage at that time. I believe this is a reaction to the new regulations facing health insurance companies.

I was eligible to purchase a Guaranteed Issue plan, but that would have cost me over $700 per month. My other option was to remain uninsured for six months and then apply for PA Fair Care, which costs just under $300 per month. I chose the latter out of financial necessity.

I am now uninsured and will be through the end of this calendar year. Every time I get a cut, bump into something, get behind the wheel of my car, or walk across the street I hold my breath and hope that I am not injured to the extent that medical attention is required.

Unlike those who criticize this new law, I think it is a step in the right direction. I don’t think additional regulations are the answer to our insurance and healthcare crisis; we need total and complete reform. A single payer system would improve the quality of our healthcare system and equalize access to it, saving costs – and lives – over time. Healthcare policy should also be aligned with other federal policy. We should subsidize sustainable agriculture instead of factory farming, and renewable energy instead of fracking and oil. In fact, if companies are not prevented from destroying our planet – and the health of people thereof — through policy, they should be taxed for doing so as both a reparation and as a disincentive.

In the meantime, I pray for our good health.

Pro-Life and Pro-Planned Parenthood

I often hesitate to share with other progressives that I am pro-life. As you know, the debate over abortion is extremely divided and the diversity within both sides is often overshadowed by the prevailing political agendas. I would like to think that I can be an ally to progressives in this area in some way and, as such, I am sharing this story. I am risking scorn for my views on abortion with the hope that I can help to expand the far right’s understanding of this complex and deeply emotional topic.

Many years ago, when I was inexperienced and vulnerable to deception, I simultaneously contracted two venereal diseases. I held strong views on abortion, but feeling desperate, I went to Planned Parenthood for assistance. At the time, I did not know if I might also be pregnant or HIV+. Like many of the other ladies in the waiting room, I was young, unemployed, uninsured, and alone. It never occurred to me to judge or condemn the others; that is for G-d and I think that G-d prefers to be loving, forgiving, and compassionate. Instead, I wondered what had happened in their lives to bring them there. I wondered what I could do, what we all could do, to reduce the need for such terrifying emergency services.

I strongly believe in protecting the human rights of all people – including unborn children. I believe that women should have the choice to abstain from sex, use birth control, or use the morning after pill in emergencies. But by the time a woman arrives at Planned Parenthood or a clinic for an abortion, it is simply too late for activism. Aggravating a woman at a time when her life is in upheaval is terribly unkind and inhumane. Doing so creates more anger, shame, and fear in the world. We need more love.

We also need public policies and programs that both prevent unplanned pregnancies and make saving children a realistic choice. This includes: complete sex education; unfettered access to birth control; comprehensive healthcare; access to nutrition, child care, and other community services; living wages, paid maternity leave, and flexible work schedules for parents; etc.

Planned Parenthood actually helps to prevent unplanned pregnancies. A very small percentage of their services (3%) are abortions. When I went there, I was given a brown paper bag of condoms. I was so grateful for their support, which also included a medical exam and medication, that I wrote the staff a thank you note – even though I was and am deeply troubled by the fact that they also provide abortions.

Although I don’t support everything that they do, I have personally benefitted from Planned Parenthood and am grateful that they are available to help women (and men, too). They are not generating demand for their services; our public policies and corporate practices can and should be changed to protect families so that all women have better choices.

Bifurcated Bipartisanship

I love being part of bipartisan organizations, such as the League of Women Voters. It fills my heart with joy to experience Americans crossing political lines to achieve common goals. Such was the intended spirit of the Pennsylvania Ballot Access Coalition. Many years ago, I attended a fundraising dinner for this organization at the Shady Maple. At the time, I was a member of the state executive committee of Socialist Party-USA. I felt it was important to support candidates in my party, and others who were marginalized by the petitioning process in our commonwealth, to promote political participation. I put aside my personal political beliefs so that we could all focus on our common belief that all citizens, regardless of political party, should have access to the ballot in Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, others in attendance did not pay attention when the introductory speaker reminded us of the need to put aside our political beliefs for the evening. I sat at the table with a few members of the Constitution Party and one woman went on and on about her feelings on various political issues – some of which I found to be offensive as a Jew and a Native American (not to mention as an American). I was given literature by another political party; I can’t remember which one because I recycled it upon returning home. While these experiences did provide some amusing conversation on the ride home, I was deeply saddened that it was so difficult for people to resist the urge to promote their party at a nonpartisan event.

I am grateful that I have never had such an experience as a board member or volunteer with my local League of Women Voters. I have had some other interesting experiences, but that will be another story for another day.

Blue Glitter

In the Allentown School District, there were very few Jewish students. When I was in 4th grade, I was very fortunate to have a Jewish teacher. She knew that at Christmastime, I would prefer blue glitter to red and green.

When she gave me that blue glitter, it made me feel really special. I felt as though she understood and appreciated my difference.

I don’t always think to give people their metaphorical blue glitter. It can sometimes be difficult to sincerely express love of a person and her or his difference, especially when that difference is not shared. Blue glitter can make people feel singled out, objectified, and patronized. But, carefully applied, blue glitter can be very beautiful.

 

Progressive Activism and Cute Shoes: Mutually Exclusive?

I was once a proud member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). While a student at Allentown Business School, I worked in two factories at night, along with other jobs, while also working two full days at a nursing home over the weekend.

The first factory was a union shop. My job was to press collars for ladies’ suits. When that work ran out, my job was to use a seam ripper to undo bad work. After that, I was laid off. It was a fairly nice work environment. There was good lighting and even a snack machine. My supervisor was a little scary, but she rarely stayed as late as I did. It was usually just me and the custodian when it was time to lock up the building.

But factory work is seasonal, and after just a few months I was laid off. I then got another factory job; this was not a union shop. My job was to cut apart knitted ski masks using a table saw. The lighting was terrible, it was extremely hot, there was no ventilation, and I felt lightheaded most of the time I was at work – not a good thing when a saw is so close to your fingers! I quit after just a few days. I felt guilty about doing this, but also knew that I was not strong enough to do such difficult physical work.

Both factories paid the same. It was a piece rate, which I was never able to make (which means I was paid minimum wage). But the difference in working conditions was amazingly different. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with the union, but I am sure that helped. At the union shop, I would have worked for as long as I was able, or at least until I finished school. The pay was not good, but I was given flexible hours to accommodate my school schedule and the environment was pleasant. The other place was just awful. I really felt like I was going to pass out most of the time that I was there.

Yet, I am sure that these working conditions were much better than those in offshore locations where workers, many of them children, are paid very little. It makes me feel sick to think that millions of people in the world have so few options for their life. It makes me even more sick to think that the reason these people are trapped in this economic system is a result of American demand for cheap clothing – and lots of it.

While it is no longer possible to find clothing bearing an ILGWU label, I do try to appreciate the hard work that people put into the clothing that I purchase. I am not at all against offshoring; in fact, I think as a privileged nation we have a responsibility to help other countries develop their economies so that they can be self-sufficient and sustainable.  But this is not what we usually do. We take advantage of less fortunate countries and their citizens in order to strengthen our own economy.

Resisting gluttony is hard, especially when everyone else seems to be doing it without question. But do I really need another pair of shoes?

Shoes are particularly problematic for me. I love them. I often say to myself that I am going to reduce my consumption of shoes and limit those that I do purchase to vegan varieties. I did good this summer. I didn’t purchase the new Dansko shoes that I really, really, really, really wanted. But I know that one day I will purchase a pair of shoes, or some other item of clothing, that I don’t really need – and one that might have been created in a factory with deplorable conditions.

As a consumer, I have a certain amount of power. I can vote with my pocketbook by only supporting companies that align with my values. But I am only one person, and my consumer power is quite limited. It would be far more effective for us to channel our energy – that which might otherwise be spent perusing the new fall collection online – into collectively influencing corporate practices and public policy. Wouldn’t it be great if we could walk into a department store and know that everything offered for sale is made by a company that values its employees and the environment?

I have actually thought about the possibility of starting such a store. I think it would be fun, but with other projects lined up I just don’t have the energy to make it happen right now. In the meantime, I am taking a lot of notes to capture my most innovative ideas for this project. Perhaps one day you will join me at the grand opening of this store!