- Why are you here? What was most formative for you that’s part of why you are here?
- What’s a time in your life you’ll always remember when you confronted a challenge, and learned something important about yourself?
- How do these experiences intersect with your decision to join the CPA Incubator?
I grew up poor. My father was always suspicious of people with money. My mother often lamented that we did not have enough of it. Because my father was a service worker in the lumber industry for most of my childhood, he did not have the benefit of collective bargaining (nor the sense of pride that one can find in a strong union), so he was subjected to the boom and bust economy. Early on his working life, my father actually made more at the lumber yard than as a teacher, so he left teaching for the lumber business at a young age, not understanding what was to come: the Walmart effect (also know as HomeDepot). Leading up to this transition, whenever the economy would sputter, he would lose his job, only to be rehired after months of temporary work (and lots of decades of the rosary at night).
My mother was a school teacher (and later a school librarian) who went back to work full-time when I was in middle school. She had dreamed of staying home full-time to raise her four children but quickly learned that they could not live on one income. But it would be nearly a decade before she and my father both had stable incomes. Once I was out of the house and in college, after a stint at the serf-wages local Catholic school teaching English, my father joined my mother at the local middle school as an English teacher. (They live in New Hampshire, where the average teacher earns $56,000 (the 14th lowest pay by state in the U.S.) and only 31% of teachers qualify for pensions (the 10th lowest ranking by state in the U.S.).)
As the oldest child, when it was time for me to attend college, I was academically competitive but clueless. Although my parents needed to claim me on their taxes, they were not able to contribute anything to the cost of attending school. I was expected to take out loans and otherwise pay for college and all related expenses myself. I did so and ended up at a prestigious Jesuit, Catholic university that preached the gospel of social justice. I went on trips to do service in Appalachia and participated in protests for a variety of social causes. I studied intersecting systems of oppression in my women’s and gender studies classes – sexism, racism, classism, and so on – but it has taken me two decades to critically reflect on my education and to see the gap between what was assumed (because I was White with an Irish name, I must be a part of the “lace curtain Irish” middle or upper middle class) and the reality (I was a White kid from a poor family with no way to close the gap of cognitive dissonance between my personal economic circumstances and the expectations of how to engage with the class stratifications (ignore it) that quietly framed every interaction on the picturesque campus where I was a student.).
After college, I did the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). There, we each were expected to take a vow of poverty, simplicity, and community. It took months for me to realize that most of my fellow JV’s were getting by on their parents’ credit cards, so they could still wear brand new clothes and go on vacations during our year of service. Still, I did not learn. I went on from there to Harvard Divinity School with $300 to my name, waiting on loans to arrive so that I could pay my rent and buy a computer. There, I had classmates who went skiing in Switzerland on long weekends, others had John Kerry’s personal cell phone number, and one drove a brand new Mercedes. In the face of this unabashed wealth, I doubled down on my commitment to justice work, accompanying at-risk youth, organizing faith-based anti-war efforts and a statewide anti-poverty initiative in California, helping low-income moms get dental care for their kids in New Hampshire.
Eventually, I went back to work in higher ed, as an administrator. I soon found that while I routinely worked upwards of 60 hours a week and did things like accompany students to the hospital for rape kits, my student affairs colleagues (who took long lunches and did things like decide on the color of the balloon arch for homecoming) made, on average, $25,000 a year more than I did. Why? Because I directed the University women’s center and (gasp!) did “unpleasant” tasks like going to the hospital in the middle of the night to attend to students who were raped in our residence halls.
I have always been a good advocate for others. For example, when I learned about the scope of the problem of sexual violence, I worked tooth and nail until the university, under the threat of pending lawsuits and bad publicity, agreed to fund a sexual violence prevention education program. But when it comes to advocating for myself, I am uncomfortable. Asking for better pay was excruciating. Even as I was outraged by the pay gap, I felt embarrassed that I had not realized this problem at the outset. I had believed what the HR staff person told me, that a higher salary simply wasn’t possible. It was. I got part of the way there through my own advocacy and help from a supportive supervisor.
As I have moved on from that job to another graduate degree and back in to the workforce as an academic (professor), I am again seeing familiar issues of wage stagnation, under pay, lack of retirement and other benefits. Being at a Catholic university, founded by women religious, the expectation is that faculty will serve at wages that require one to have a spouse or a second job (even though the university also requires outside employment to be approved by the Provost) to make ends meet in an urban setting with staggering housing costs. My colleagues, especially social work faculty, are often reticent to discuss possible solutions to the low wages and poor benefits. It seems we have all internalized that as social workers, and many of us as women, somehow believe we deserve less. Less economic security, less recognition, less economic preparation for aging, even as we tout the importance of “self-care” to our students.
And it never occurred to me, until I got to see Felipe’s journey unfold, that it is actually possible to do well and to improve the economic circumstances of other people at the same time. I remember admiring the thoughtful coaching he had received from his parents about not doing JVC and instead finding a way to build a professional life that would include justice work. Given his talents, he could have turned tail and run into a corporate job that would have served him and his young family well. Instead, he started the Community Purchasing Alliance. To me, he had made manifest something that has seemed impossible: creating practical economic opportunity for folks who would otherwise be getting slowly crushed by the hypercapitalist machinery that seems to undergird our world today, and doing so while consciously and conscientiously taking on issues of racism, climate change, and the distribution of wealth in this country.
So, I am here to learn from CPA, for my own benefit and in service to my four nieces and to my students, many of whom are linguistically diverse, first generation students from low-income families of color. In all of them, like my nieces, I see the future, and I want it to be prosperous for everyone who lives and works here.