On Thursday, April 18, Macalester students and faculty gathered in the Harmon Room of the DeWitt Wallace Library for a discussion about the new iteration of the Income Inequality Committee (IIC), led by Mandy Ortiz ’21. The event was held as a forum to both address the thoughts of the speakers and allow for attendees to explore ways they can help tackle the issue of income inequality at Macalester.
The commission was originally formed in 2015 as an organization committed to wage justice at Macalester. However, the group rarely met and eventually disbanded. This past year, Ortiz revived the IIC with the goal of bringing to light the issues of income disparities on Macalester’s campus.
“I feel like there is a disconnect between the student body amongst low-income students and students who come from wealthy backgrounds,” Ortiz said. “I feel like there’s an idea that a Macalester student comes from a privileged background. We’re all privileged in different ways, but when it comes to income, we don’t understand the long-lasting impacts and effects of that identity.”
Ortiz stressed the need for students from a diverse array of socio-economic backgrounds to participate on the IIC. She hopes that enough people who aren’t necessarily affected by this issue are inspired to work with her on it.
“I am looking for students who are passionate and inspired and students who genuinely care about this issue on campus and have ideas about how to better this issue,” Ortiz said. “Not every member needs to identify as a low-income student, because that’s just not the reality of this campus.”
“We need people who don’t necessarily have a close relationship to the cause to help lead the cause,” she added. “That’s one of the biggest issues why the committee has died so many times, because not enough people feel like it hits close to home and so they don’t need to do anything about it.”
The faculty advisor supporting this project is Russian studies department chair Jim von Geldern, who spoke to the attendees about difficulties that inhibit faculty and student communication with regards to income inequality.
“Income inequality is the unseen issue,” von Geldern said. “We’re not seeing it [as faculty], and it can be very difficult to spot. The way it usually comes into my office is the student comes in and apologizes and says ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to get the paper in on time.’
“Then you sit them down and ask them what’s going on and the stories you hear are staggering,” he added. “How people can continue to go through college and flourish academically with these loads always astonishes me.”
To get this committee started, Ortiz has collaborated extensively with MCSG President Malik Mays and Dean of the Kofi Annan Institute for Global Citizenship Donna Maeda.
In recent weeks, MCSG President-elect Blair Cha has joined the discussion. As Student Services and Relations Committee (SSRC) chair, Cha has supported various initiatives in the past year to deal with income discrepancies on campus like Open Pantry and the menstrual hygiene initiative.
“From the two years I’ve been on MCSG, I’ve gotten a behind-the-scenes look of how equity programs are launched,” Cha said. “It usually takes several years.
“My role this year is to establish the foundation for these initiatives because they have no meaning if you can’t continue them in future years,” she added.
After brief introductions by Ortiz, Cha, von Geldern and Katie Brown ’22, Ortiz opened the floor to group discussions. She asked the attendees what income inequality means to them and if they feel Macalester does enough to adequately address the issue on campus. In addition, groups discussed how the college can better address income inequality and what they would like to see emerge from the IIC in the future.
Emergent in these discussions were: the need to lower the cost of renting textbooks, the need for more accessible services during move-in, move-out, spring break and winter break and ensuring more students are put in jobs in which they can fully earn their work study award.
In addition, students discussed how to talk about income disparities in the classroom. Low-income students in attendance pointed out how people with class privilege often theorize about the experiences of low-income people using inaccessible language. This forces them either to out themselves to participate in class discussions or accept the dialogue at face value.
This past week, MCSG sent a form for students to fill out to express interest in participating on the IIC. The deadline was this past Sunday and the application review process is still ongoing. Ortiz hopes to finalize early committee membership by the end of the year.
“This committee is supposed to be the middle point between the student body, MCSG, the SSRC and other equity organizations,” Ortiz said. “I wanted to turn this into a committee that helps and supports low income students and starts this conversation.”
“[Income inequality is] one of the things we don’t really talk about on campus,” she continued. “We say we’re super progressive and we like to have harsh conversations, but when it comes down to it, nobody shows up.”
As the only member of the IIC right now, Ortiz doesn’t know who she’ll be working with this summer and next fall. She hopes that students who apply are willing to listen, learn and try to better understand issues they don’t have to deal with on a daily basis.
There isn’t much time left in the school year to enact concrete change, but Ortiz hopes that by starting important conversations, she can gather support and engagement from the campus community and an understanding of the issues the committee hopes to address in the future.
“A lot of the issues that we’re going to be working with and tackling impact students on a daily basis,” Ortiz said. “Getting this conversation started with the administration and faculty members is important so that when we do propose new laws, we will have people supporting what we want to get done.
“We need to have a way for students to succeed in all aspects of their life without pushing them to feel like they’re not enough, they’re not sufficient or that if they can’t afford things that they need on a daily basis then they can’t be here,” she added.
The panel ended with some final remarks from Ortiz, who hopes to host bi-weekly meetings with von Geldern and the other members of the committee as she gets it up and running in the coming weeks.