When I first began my doctoral journey, and had just moved to Minnesota, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Krista Kennedy, who was, at the time, ABD in the Writing Studies Department at the University of Minnesota (she is now an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University).
I had moved across the country, nearly 2000 miles away from anyone I knew, and had left behind a life that I knew well, one in which I worked full-time and went to school full-time, to embrace a different type of life. It was expected that I would have a full-time academic career, but leave my full-time work career behind, at least for the foreseeable future. It was, to say the least, culture shock. I didn’t know what to do with myself because I didn’t understand how to work successfully without working constantly and, to put it mildly, in a suffering way. What I mean by that is that I had come to understand success as a grueling, difficult path that required me to suffer in order to progress.
Why Krista mattered so much to me at that time (and I still consider her a cherished mentor) is because she suggested that I read Those Winter Sundays, edited by Kathleen A. Welsch. It is a book about female academics who come from working class families. She said it would help me put things in to perspective, to understand that I wasn’t alone, and that this did not have to be a struggle (a lesson I still haven’t learned, by the way – I am, even this semester, teaching 3 classes while working on my dissertation).
Fast forward to this October (2011). I was at a conference in Arizona, where I’m from, and was able to visit with family. During a family outing, we found ourselves in a lower-economic area of Phoenix and were looking for a place to get something to drink. My brother pulled into a 7-11, but some of us were reluctant to get out of the car because there were many people standing around looking like they might ask for money. My brother said to us, “That could be us.” My brother, an assistant professor of education at a university, reminded us that we weren’t far from those very people, and that at a point in our lives, we were homeless.
I came home, thinking about this. Thinking about being poor and destitute and disenfranchised. We were the working class poor at one point in our lives. There were times when we, as a family, and sometimes individually, did not have a home — or the place we called home was the back room of a business, the makeshift cots in a van, a sleeping bag in the back of a station wagon, or a very small motorhome parked outside of a business. I’m not there now, but I often feel as if I’m only a step away from being there again. And as I pondered this for the next few weeks, a friend suggested that I may wear that as a guard against being privileged, against being amongst those who are privileged.
That brought me back to the book that Krista had suggested a few years prior. In the foreword, Janet Zandy writes
Class differences are measured by the absence of the right clothes, the best early medical and dental care, and, perhaps more importantly, the intangible psychological lift of the privileged, of growing up economically secure with space and time for play instead of constant work, where one explores options rather than settles for what is available. Class status and circumstances shape, perhaps determine, choice.
I needed a moment to catch my breath. I had been struggling with trying to understand the Occupy movement. It seemed, to me, to be a lot of privileged people making a stand. I didn’t see my people out there. And why would I? They couldn’t be there. They are at work, struggling to make ends meet. They don’t have the option to go there. They don’t have the choice.
Throughout this occupation of parks and campuses across the country, I’ve tried to connect with this movement. I’ve tried to understand it, to make sense of it. And still, I struggle. Maybe that is because I don’t see the choices available, even to this day. Maybe it’s because I do still feel underprivileged in many ways (although, I know I’m not — I have an education that many people dream about, a roof over my head, and food in my kitchen). What all of this makes me wonder is if I’m the one who is occupied; am I occupied by a past that has become such an integral part of me that I only see a life of few choices? Or has it always been that those who need change the most are the least able to make it happen?