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A year of changed minds

Four writers reshape their beliefs on work, activism, and race.

Opinion
COVID-19 has changed life as we know it. The pandemic has been defined by loss; it is also pushing us to remake systems, environments, and habits that aren’t working. The Inquirer turned to four writers to hear about beliefs they traded in recent years for new ones — and that they hope to see others reconsider through this pandemic.

We want to hear your stories too. If you’d like to write about a change of mind or heart, email opinion@inquirer.com.

I changed my mind on the National Guard’s presence in Philly

By Jasmine Schley

Last summer, following the murder of George Floyd and resulting protests, I seethed with anger and shot my coldest stare at the national guards marching past my house. In my mind I’d instantly labeled them unwanted occupiers.

They represented a backwards government that responds with lightning speed to keep Black people in line, but has to be pushed to provide equitable access to resources and opportunities.

I remembered the 2013 “doomsday” budget for the School District of Philadelphia that closed schools, laid off teachers, and altered the educational trajectory of thousands of students. I thought about the U.S. unemployment trends I’d just seen that show Black unemployment has historically been nearly twice as high as that of white unemployment. I thought about the many unmet needs of my community. I bristled with rage at the men who dared to show up so quickly to subdue communities that still lack institutional support. I was disgusted.

But after a few days of frustrated texts with friends, conversations with neighbors, and a lot of time sitting quietly with my emotions, I realized my anger was misdirected. I’d made a lazy assessment of a complex situation. My visceral response was driven by my inability to separate individuals from the broader institutions they represent. The guards I’d seen hadn’t necessarily done anything wrong, and were ostensibly sent in response to looting and vandalism in the area. And for some neighbors and business owners, the armed men were a welcome sight, giving them confidence that the businesses they’d spent years building and the neighborhoods they’ve lived in for decades were protected.

I needed to atone for my assumptions, and I wanted to fully let go of my anger by humanizing the objects of my previous frustration. So, I decided to invite the group of eight guards plus a handful of neighbors for a socially distanced cookout in my yard. The all-white guards with their camouflage uniforms and assault rifles, casually standing amongst lawn chairs and shrubbery, made for unusual guests in my mostly Black Mount Airy neighborhood. But as we ate, we found some common ground. One of my neighbors, a veteran, chatted with the guards about his service. The leader of the guard group and I discussed trips we’d taken to Vegas. A couple of uninvited neighbors even pulled over just to stop and talk.

We didn’t solve any of the complex issues facing society, including the ones driving the protests that brought the guards into the city. But we shared a meal, exchanged stories, and got to see each other as individuals.

Then, while we ate our ribs and talked, someone drove slowly by, shaking his head before shouting “Black lives matter!” Apparently to him, my neighborhood cookout demanded some resistance. Perhaps in his oversimplified reality, a Black woman hosting a group of all white, uniformed National Guards, fit into a neat little box labeled “traitor” or “Uncle Tom.” My dedication and passion for creating opportunity and serving my community felt stripped away.

I was disappointed, but I understood. As I had done with the guards, he replaced my humanity with a label. He’d made a lazy assessment of a complex situation, and responded with his first emotions. Although his perspective was likely informed by negative personal experiences and history, he nonetheless reduced complicated individuals into simple categories: “us” and “them.”

I responded by doubling down on what my experience with the guards taught me we can all do: Dare to see each other not just as first impressions or convenient caricatures, but as complex human beings, with whom we might even have a few things in common. Briefly acknowledge our anger, but don’t be consumed by it, whether it’s interpersonal conflict or battling for systemic change. And above all, always remember that our power lies not in disdain for an enemy, but in our passion and commitment for our cause.

Jasmine Schley works as an actuary and is pursuing a master’s of urban strategy at Drexel University. (Pictured above outside her Mt. Airy home. Photo by Jessica Griffin, Staff Photographer)

I changed my mind on the way we work

By Claire Lutz

Like many American office workers, I left my cubicle March 13 unsure when I’d return. But I haven’t thought of my office much in the past nine months. I don’t miss the fluorescent lighting or repetitive walks to the restroom and water cooler. Instead, I’ve felt both guilt and gratitude. Guilt for my relatively stable position in the nonprofit world amid the social and economic upheaval of COVID-19, and gratitude for the accommodations extended by my employer. I have a new appreciation for the many kinds of security that my job offers — the assurance of not just a paycheck, but of flexibility and basic protections for employee safety.

As a young, childless person with a salaried job, working from home brought with it greater work-life balance. The collapse between working and living space is a stressor for many, but I appreciate being able to take breaks to water plants and pet my cat, or make lunch rather than eating microwaved food at a desk. And suddenly, there was a genuine shift in my employer’s stance on working from home. Allowances were made for flexible work hours to accommodate child care. All staff were encouraged to rest, take screen breaks, try mindfulness meditation. As much as Zoom meetings and conference calls can feel impersonal, I actually got the sense (for perhaps the first time in my working life) that my life outside work mattered to my employer. I appreciated my job more than ever.

This appreciation, however, has been spoiled by unease. It strikes me as both arbitrary and unfair that I should be given not just the accommodation but the luxury of working from home — that I should be given extra protections precisely because my job is not essential. I work in administration for a large nonprofit; my department can continue our work mostly off-site. As whole sectors of the economy saw mass layoffs, the watchword of “essential workers” revealed a rift between two types of jobs.

Service workers, who provide food, medicine, education, child care, and other necessities, faced the most risk, while white-collar office jobs like mine smoothly transitioned to remote work. This trend spotlights the racial and gender disparities in our economy as well.

It’s no coincidence that the service sectors tend to have higher proportions of Black and Latino workers. In 2018, Black workers held 36% of nursing and health aide jobs, while Latino workers accounted for 53% of agricultural workers and 49% of housekeeping and cleaning jobs. While it has always been essential, this kind of work has taken on renewed importance amid the long grocery lines and crowded hospitals of the pandemic. It’s also impossible to do remotely, instead demanding hazard pay, PPE, and benefits like paid time off and health insurance to be feasible.

It’s impossible not to ask why the same security I’ve enjoyed the past year hasn’t been extended to the workers in those lifesaving and life-giving essential jobs. COVID-19 has devastated both lives and livelihoods, and shown the precarity inherent in our system of work, where every necessity is tied to employment.

In the U.S. a job is not just a job. It’s a tether to the hope for security, like paying off debt or finally making a dentist appointment now that you have health care. But now, even these hard-won benefits have been gutted as employers cut costs by moving to contract work. The gig economy — jobs that typically come without health insurance, pensions, or basic employee protections — already added six million workers to its ranks in the past decade.

Even before the pandemic, our system was one where people frequently worked two or three jobs and still struggled. In a wealthy country like ours, it should be easy to make sure everyone’s needs are met. Instead, the burden of caring for the most vulnerable is shouldered by workers who are already underpaid and undervalued. We have teachers struggling to balance their own safety with the needs of their students, and exhausted nurses going viral on Facebook and Twitter while they’re forced to work without proper PPE or even made to come to work sick.

This moment is a crisis — but also an opportunity. Not the opportunity to wring every available resource out of workers without providing benefits, but to fight for living wages for all, housing for all, and health care for all, whether or not you have a job. For years, employers protested against work-from-home provisions under the assumption that productivity would decrease. We’re disproving that already. Now, we also have the chance to show that, across the board trust and flexibility make for better working conditions, not worse. To that end, remote work is a start, not a solution. This is obvious to working parents juggling jobs, child care, and education simultaneously.

We need to think bigger. There are many possible solutions, including universal basic income (UBI) and strengthened labor union participation. While union membership hit an all-time low of 10.3% in 2019, there has been a recent uptick in workers organizing for higher wages and better benefits both with and without union support. Programs like UBI have a lot to recommend them; the city of Stockton, Calif., conducted a UBI pilot test in 2019, and Spain recently announced a UBI program specifically to respond to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In Alaska and North Carolina, revenue distribution programs have led to measurable increases in quality of life. And increasing income needs to be coupled with strong social supports — truly universal health care, rent stabilization, and labor protections — or else cash benefits like UBI will ultimately erode from the high costs of housing, education, and health care.

As I wrote this, I realized that I’ve gone from celebrating changes in my work life to wanting a world where a job like mine wouldn’t exist. The nonprofit world assumes that wealth must flow through philanthropy before being filtered out piecemeal to meet basic needs. In a better system, we wouldn’t need to ask for donations from millionaires to fund clinics for the uninsured or build preschools.

That’s OK with me. If building a world where we have a better quality of life for everyone means that my job might disappear, I’m still willing to work for it.

Claire Lutz lives and works in Philadelphia.

I changed my mind on my own racial identity

By Raj Tawney

As a multiethnic and multiracial American of Indian, Puerto Rican, and Italian descent, I’m often placed into a convenient category, whether by a potential employer or a government stat sheet. Although I was raised in a suburb outside of New York City, around children who consumed the same American culture, I never knew I was a categorical outsider until it was pointed out to me.

“So, what are you?” was and still is a frequent question I receive. I wasn’t a “full” anything, considered “incomplete” by other children and adults alike. My olive skin tone, curly hair, thick eyebrows, and “foreign” name confused other Americans who tried desperately to squeeze me into a single category. I questioned what an American actually looked and sounded like, turning to TV for answers. I looked nothing like Ashton Kutcher nor Will Smith. Not even the Indian guy on The Big Bang Theory who had an accent and was also named Raj.

I went through many confusing years of identifying as either Hispanic American, Indian American, or even white (although many people I encountered, from new acquaintances to employers, pushed back on that one). Some days, I’d wish I was born into a classic American household, given a standard name like Nick or Steve, and had straight, flowing hair. Blending into the crowd was never an option and the constant need to explain myself to others became a daily job.

But eventually I learned to take pride in the multi-categorical complexity from which I was running away — in part because I’m sharing this category with a growing number of Americans. In the 2010 U.S. census, nine million individuals, or 2.9% of the population, self-identified as multiracial.

As the U.S. census hit mailboxes across the country last year — a crucial government service that largely got lost in election mayhem — Americans’ answers shed insight to how we identify ourselves and how we view each other. If recent demographic trends hold, more Americans than ever before will have identified as multiracial in the census. In the United States, categorizing individuals is vital to many processes in our society, including in politics, big business, real estate, and law enforcement. Who we are and what we represent on paper are crucial for how our government understands, funds, and protects us. Historically, it’s helped determine how government discriminates against us.

Simply put, the boxes we check overlap with how we live inside in others’ minds — from our neighbors to police officers to local town officials to our president. But those of us checking multiple boxes often confound conversations. Just see last November’s hand-wringing about the meaning of the “Latino vote.”

As an adult, I’m still wondering where I fit in. On job applications, when I’m asked to voluntarily circle a box next to “race” or “ethnicity,” I technically can choose four categories, including “Two or More Races.” However, the “(Not Hispanic)” stipulation accompanying most choices eliminates my own decision to be multiracial. Once again, I’m forced to squeeze myself inside one box.

America is still figuring out when categorization is useful — helping us determine, for example, which groups are most impacted by a certain problem — vs. when it violates our choice to self-identify. The census may never truly capture each American’s personal construct, but our society has a responsibility to accept our own limitless diversity. Over the past few years, explaining my identity has evolved from a burden to a badge I wear proudly. And my own comfort has allowed for new dialogue and discussion with others around a once-uncomfortable topic.

Raj Tawney is a writer covering race and culture. Recent contributions include to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. rajtawney.com

I changed my mind on the American dream

By Queen Muse

Three years ago I did the thing that everyone tells you not to do. I walked away from a well-paying corporate job in public relations to pursue my two passions: teaching and writing.

Quitting is not rare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey data, more than 4.4 million people quit their jobs in August 2019, the highest number of people to quit in one month since the BLS began recording such data in 2000.

I imagine many of those who quit, like me, walked away from corporate structures burdened by fear and uncertainty because they’d been told their best chance at building a stable career and adult life was to rise through the ranks of a job in corporate America.

Now, writing from the vantage point of an independent worker with her own business outside that structure, I see that I was sold yet another myth about the “correct” path to adulthood: that corporate employment is the means to success and stability.

Corporate jobs have always been promoted as an enticing part of the American Dream, reflecting its basic assumption that upward mobility is in reach if you work hard enough and pick the stable path. In my parents’ time, corporate jobs were encouraged as a means for baby boomers to get all the things they professionally craved: perks, titles, prestige, long-term employment. For my generation, they’ve represented a path to stability, employer-sponsored health care we otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, a matched retirement plan, and a steady paycheck.

But there’s a price you pay in corporate structures that people don’t always talk about — situations that have at times made me, a Black woman, question my own worth, and that would make even the most dedicated 9-to-5 run for the hills.

If working in corporate America on and off for more than a decade has taught me anything, it’s that the higher you rise in the ranks, the fewer faces of color you’ll see.

The biggest problem wasn’t even the microaggressions, tokenism, and racism — those were things I’d unfortunately grown accustomed to battling in any work environment. What frustrated me most about corporate America was how often my creativity and work ethic were stunted in favor of mediocrity or superiors preferring to “do things the way they’d always been done.” It was almost as if there were an unspoken rule that you were supposed to do just the bare minimum, enough to show your boss you’d earned your paycheck that week, but not so much you’d draw attention to yourself, or prompt someone to entrust you with greater responsibility.

The corporate structure in many of these places was laden with nepotism and cronyism that ensured often underqualified candidates were promoted up the ladder to positions beyond their expertise. Superiors would often micromanage, communicating a complete lack of trust in your capabilities, and then take credit for the work that you’d done simply because they’d supervised it.

I never found that freedom in a corporate job. Nor did I find the promised stability. In the last recession, I was among nearly 100 employees of a local company that were laid off — a week before Christmas, when I was nine months pregnant with my first child. The loss of income, not to mention the sudden loss of health insurance, was life-altering, to say the least. The pandemic is showing us yet again just how quickly companies will sever ties with employees before sacrificing their own pay, proving there is no real stability when hard times hit the corporate arena. When corporate entities find themselves in a bind, they will always choose the company over you. Always.

For the price we pay — the sacrifice of passion, ambition, and sometimes our identity — the shaky hope of security simply isn’t worth it. The dream of the perfect corporate job leading to a reliable adult life has proven to be a mirage bolstered by executives who desperately need your commitment to them, even though they aren’t always willing to commit to you.

In 2019, I launched my LLC and decided to piece together my stable adult life one client and one freelance assignment at a time. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

I’ve had to unlearn the restrictions that corporate America placed on me. I had to abandon the notion that I was somehow working too hard, aiming too high, thinking too far out of the box. Now, I set my own ambitious goals and work hard to achieve them. I give myself as many titles, challenges, breaks, or vacations as I see fit. I choose whom I want to work with and for. I’ve learned how to save for retirement and health care on my own. I may not always know whom my checks are coming from, but I earn fair pay for what I do. And I’m much more productive without the burden of corporate workplace drama and microaggressions.

Sometimes, that dream job is the one you create for yourself.

Queen Muse is a freelance writer with an M.A. in strategic communication from La Salle University, where she is a visiting assistant professor of communication. thequeenmuse.com

» Read additional essays from the Inquirer’s Changed Minds series