A response to “Thoughts after the Student Assembly on Income Inequality”

When the income inequality coalition began developing the student assembly and resolution, I was afraid that the campus would lash out against it and me as radical, as hostile, as the many insults which are thrown at organizers, student and otherwise, who want to create positive change. Like Hannah Mira Friedland, I had anxieties in sharing my voice on campus. Ultimately, I continued to be one of the more extreme people in the group, asking for the highest minimum wage ($15 rather than $14.17) and the lowest pay ratio (15:1 rather than 18:1). With the amazing, perseverant, motivated members of my group to provide a balancing act of political moderation, we strove to create legislation that could diminish income inequality on campus while trying to reinforce and support each other in our sense of being a positive presence on campus.

Hannah Mira Friedland shared her thoughts in an op-ed titled “Thoughts after the Student Assembly on Income Inequality” last week. I’m particularly impressed at her courage in sharing dissenting thoughts at the student assembly. In Friedland’s words, “Part of me was concerned about appearing like a jerk for being, I predicted, one of the few people present who disagreed with the … proposal … But the larger part of me felt that it was important to attend the assembly if I wanted my voice to be heard.” It is so important in any democratic process that every viewpoint is able to be heard and understood. While the income inequality coalition tried to stress in every advertisement that all were welcome at the student assembly, overtly political environments — and any honest conversation — can be very intimidating and difficult to navigate. I’m grateful to you, Hannah Mira, for examining this issue so closely, and for being so considerate to all of the voices which were shared in and out of the assembly.

In her article “Thoughts after the Student Assembly on Income Inequality,” one of the first points Friedland raises is that the price of attending an elite school is that the president “makes a ton of money” and “the lowest paid Bon Appetit and Highlander workers do not (in comparison to an elite college’s president),” and that this trend exists in other places as well. There seems to be an assumption in this idea that being an elite school is a justification for this inequality between workers. I agree that this manifestation of income inequality exists in other places, but I would like to add that the nebulous qualifier of “elite” is irrelevant. McDonald’s is not considered an select or high-end corporation, but the executives of this company continue to consume billions of dollars while millions of workers world-wide struggle in poverty. This inequality exists in community colleges, state colleges — it is nearly ubiquitous. That does not make it an acceptable precedent.

Furthermore, being an “elite school” does not justify the working conditions of Macalester employees. I was attracted to Macalester not because it is an elite school, but because it is a school which claims to uphold values of community, both global and local. That value is betrayed by the exploitation of labor that is done predominantly against women, people of color and differently-abled workers on this campus. Macalester has both the means and the responsibility to be an ethical participant in the local and global community. Inequality is not excusable anywhere for any reason.

The next point elucidated made by Friedland reads, “As one of many students benefitting from financial aid brought in by President Rosenberg, who are we to tell him to do his job?” I myself am grateful for the financial aid I’ve received and acknowledge that I would have been unable to attend college otherwise. This is something I have told President Rosenberg personally. However, I have difficulty agreeing that accommodations for my socio-economic status constitute an obligation to never address issues on campus that affect me and the people around me. The income inequality that drags my family down is the same income inequality that subcontracted workers and adjunct faculty are experiencing right here on our campus. Being granted financial aid, while it has saved my life in more ways than one, does not mean that I forfeit my right to advocate for workers on this campus who receive poverty wages. This is an aspect of President Rosenberg’s job that we have the right and obligation to question. The income inequality coalition is not simply telling President Rosenberg how to do his job — we are asking him to use his power and his privilege to improve the lives of people on campus who are being exploited under his watch. That should not be a taboo activity.

Friedland also brought up the idea that those who are on financial aid and disagree with income inequality and other facets of campus life should “allow these expenses [financial aid] to be allocated elsewhere, and transfer to a different college that better exhibits the values the bill-writers are looking for in an elite institution.” To suggest that someone should evacuate any environment in which a problem exists, instead of attempting to change that space so that it is more just, seems like it would be very difficult to do in a society in which inequality and oppression are so omnipresent. I cannot simply depart the planet instead of asking politicians to take measures against global warming. I cannot avoid any and all rooms containing men instead of asking for better sexual assault policies. I cannot expunge myself from the earth instead of challenging myself and people who share my white identity to take responsibility for racism and civil rights. And I will not leave this institution instead of fighting for the rights of its workers.

Macalester can do better. There is no reason why this is not possible. It is also very unfair to suggest that someone who cannot afford tuition should reject any possibility for socio-economic mobility based on the perceived necessity of their silence on issues of social justice. It’s particularly ironic when that silence would hinder the expansion of socio-economic mobility for other members of the Macalester community.

To address Friedland’s final point, this campaign did not begin because we do not have school pride or because we do not support President Rosenberg. This campaign began with the observation that workers on campus do not receive a living wage, with the developing context of the nationwide Fight for 15 movement and with the personal experiences of students who come from backgrounds of income inequality. However, I think Friedland has stumbled onto something critical with the concluding paragraph of her op-ed. The campus needs “something to rally around itself.” Macalester is a place with a waning sense of community. Part of that weakness is its failure to acknowledge every member of its campus, and when that acknowledgment occurs, its integrity needs to be demonstrated. Subcontracted and adjunct workers deserve a living wage immediately if we are to reinforce what it means to be a group of people who love each other and support each other, workers and students. The student assembly and its resolution are an attempt to restore that unity. We are a community. No exceptions.