How to Be a Social Justice Legislator

Massive resistance has become a hallmark of American life under the Trump administration. Millions of people have clogged airports to protest Trump’s travel and refugee ban, stood with indigenous people at Standing Rock, and taken to the streets in the Women’s Marches, the March for Science, and the recent March for Our Lives.

This resistance extends beyond the nucleus of individuals organizing: Entire cities like Philadelphia are confronting threats to racial and socioeconomic justice, and showing us what bolder movements to end poverty, water insecurity, and mass incarceration look like at the local level.

I spoke with Councilmember At-Large Helen Gym, one of Philadelphia’s vanguard leaders in the city’s social justice movement, to learn more about her work.

Rejane Frederick: What does it mean to be a social justice legislator, especially in a nation that is struggling to find its moral footing?

Councilmember Helen Gym: I come out of immigrant rights work and public education work, and an Asian American movement that tried to center multi-racial coalition building. What we’re seeing right now is a merging of a lot of issues that are bringing a lot of different groups of people together—connecting interwoven systems that bring together housing, schools, criminal justice, immigrant rights, women’s issues.

“Racism is not about just your intent. It’s about the effect that you have on other people.”

For me, what it means in this moment is not that our work has changed or that the issues have changed. They’ve become more heightened. And the failure to unify across many different coalitions will be the progressive movement’s failure to win in a moment when we should unite. But we can’t do it if we are siloed, if we don’t build these multi-racial coalitions.

RF: Regarding unifying across coalitions, in 2016 you said, “Poverty and inequality are the crippling injustices that lie at the heart of the justice struggle.” Can you say more about that?

HG: For me, the indifference to poverty is incredibly profound. It’s deeply rooted in racism. It’s deeply rooted in othering. It’s deeply rooted in judgment and condemnation. And it’s deeply rooted in America’s tendency to be hyper-individualized, to focus on individual people’s problems, and not look at the broader systems that profit from poverty—not just allow poverty to continue, but actually profit from it. When we keep schools down and we fund other schools to excess. When we fail to invest in housing, when we abandon public spaces and we keep our minimum wage at their lowest levels. When we don’t fight to diversify our unions and the few paths that people of color have to living wages, all those kinds of things.

Of course, when you deal with poverty and inequality, you’re dealing with people who are in desperate circumstances. They’re going to lose their school. They’re going to lose their home. They could lose their children. These are not people who have the luxury of saying “I’ll fix this in 10 years.” You’ve got to be there in a moment of crisis and we’ve got to move people through a moment of crisis and then build for broader things.

Since I come out of grassroots movements I feel strongly about people’s development. My hope is that I pass the torch. That is the goal. To build and strengthen a bigger, broader movement. You take and occupy a moment in time, in political office—it is one lever, but not the ultimate lever.

It’s great to see people being excited about elected office, but I need to know what you’re going to do when you get in there. Who are you going to bring in there with you? What are you going to champion, and how will communities be better off when you leave?

I’m interested in how we move systems toward significant change. You’re just one small piece, and the power really lies in the grassroots movement-building that will sustain that work far beyond anyone’s term in office.

RF: You’ve talked about the ways being a community organizer has informed your work on the city council, and you’ve also talked about your theory of change. How does real change happen?

HG: We’re dealing with systems that have massive amounts of dysfunction, large failures, gaps, long-term instability, and people in power who try to patch it up, bandage it, repackage it, and rebrand it, all that kind of stuff. So I’m thoughtful about how the people who live the consequences of the policies that we create are the people who experience the most pain, but they also have a lot of solutions about what this looks like.

The really profound stuff for me comes out of some of the experiences I’ve had around public education, when the state and elected officials and civic actors and many people who had money, titles, and the power to fix something, simply walked away. They abandoned the public schools in Philadelphia, largely in the state of Pennsylvania as well. We closed down 24 schools and laid off thousands of staff. We left kids without nurses and counselors. We shut down their school libraries, abandoned them in classrooms of 60 or more, and then we said, “I wonder how they’ll do? Let’s test the hell out of them.”

I’ve always thought that was a very sick social experiment hoisted upon black, brown, and immigrant kids who live those consequences. And that, to me, is the definition of what racism is. It’s purposeful. I don’t care about intent. Racism is not about just your intent. It’s about the effect that you have on other people. Who picked up the pieces of that? It wasn’t the superintendent, the mayors, the governors, and the school board. The people who pushed hardest for the solutions were the parents, educators, organized student groups, immigrant families who had no other choice but to go to their public schools. And their work was powerful. It was moving; it was rooted outside of the halls of the School Reform Commission (SRC), and maybe outside of city halls.

Those get formed in your school yards, your backyard barbeques, when they marry with real policy, data, and information. You start working on organizing, you get groups and foundations to fund organizing. Then you start to see real movement for change. And the reality is that, yeah, it took us 17 years but I can point to so many more parents that can speak so clearly about what’s been happening that when Betsy DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education, they could take things on in that moment. They’re not surprised, they’ve heard this before, and they know to challenge it.

RF: I’m thinking about what you’ve mentioned in Philadelphia, with the charter schools and privatization movement, and the very real questions about authentic investments in public institutions. What do they look like? Why do they matter? Why is it important to continue to invest in our public institutions even when they deliver sometimes disappointing results?

HG: I don’t think people should allow dysfunctional public institutions to operate on autopilot just for the sake of saying that they support it. The reason why public institutions get targeted is because they don’t serve people as well as they should. They create or reinforce systems of inequity, whether by intent or not. So I support all these groups and people who tackle our public institutions with a fervor to hold it accountable, to see change, to diversify that institution, and to help it evolve.

But privatization is a different thing. It’s saying “I give up on the public space and I will go private.” Private is money, capital, and the power to be able to own a previously public thing. That’s an enormous amount of privilege. And the overwhelming majority of those folks are not going to look like the people they serve. There’s no obligation to serve diverse communities, marginalized communities—they’re more expensive, so if you’re running on a profit margin, don’t expect to profit off serving low-income youth, and immigrants, and helping them learn English, or helping special needs students get to a point of full capacity.

“If you’re running on a profit margin, don’t expect to profit off serving low-income youth”

When we closed down 24 public schools in Philadelphia, we probably saw the largest transfer of public land into private hands that we had seen in the city of Philadelphia. It’s a really profound thing for government to say to those that they are charged to serve, especially when they are the most vulnerable—when those communities don’t have a lot of public institutions—to say “Sorry, I simply give up. I’m passing the buck to someone else.” It’s absolutely unacceptable and we should fight against it with every bit of our body because those private institutions take our dollars, they take our children, they purport that they are smarter, more powerful, wealthier, are more efficient to do the job better. And overwhelmingly what we find is that communities become more stratified, more marginalized, less likely to have voice and exercise their voice within those privatized structures.

When public institutions are starved into dysfunction and private capital moves in, that is not helping the situation. It’s exploiting and profiting off public distress. And it overwhelmingly harms the people that are already deeply impacted.

RF: What other safeguards do we have to put into place to protect these targeted communities and ensure that any gains aren’t clawed back?

HG: Our communities are under assault daily. I’d love to say “look at all the great stuff we’re doing.” But the reality is it pales in comparison based on the kinds of assaults that communities endure, and they are really deeply traumatic. They break apart people’s ability to conceive of ways to fight back, or to think about other groups other than yourself, because you’re struggling at the moment with housing, you’re struggling at the moment because you’re terrified that your child may not come home because they’re black. You’re terrified of police monitoring the streets, terrified of a criminal conviction coming up time and time again every time you seek a job.

RF: Or immigrant parents with citizen children afraid to access the resources and programs that they need because they’re afraid that ICE might be there to swoop them up.

HG: Today there was an incredible story about how Philadelphia’s ICE office outranks every single office nationwide in terms of sweeping up people with absolutely no criminal history. In 2013, 33 percent of people swept up by ICE had no criminal record history, and now 70 percent do. And people are seeking political gain by scapegoating immigrants, by trying to pacify people and say “I’m going to send people to jail.” This dictator-like and fascist mentality around incarceration, oppression, repression of mostly black, brown, and immigrant people is really terrifying.

The thing that we have to build out right now is a way to connect these struggles together. If you care about mass incarceration, then take a look at how immigrant communities are being funneled into the for-profit private prison industry that allows rampant physical abuses. Similarly, immigrant communities who are terrified for themselves, scared of the police, scared of judges and the courts, should care about the criminal justice reform movement that has been working on this for a very long time. You can’t divorce these two movements from one another.

RF: You’ve said in the past that the backbone of the progressive movement lies in local organizing. So what is it that national advocacy organizations, think tanks, funders should do to better support the local activism, or the campaigns for justice on the ground?

HG: One, they have to recognize the importance of diversifying their own boards and staff to make sure that there are people of color, women in particular, who are listening to groups, and evaluating not just based on a numbers game—like number of people served, bang for your buck, whatever metrics people use—but also take a look at just the quality of the outcome. What is really moving things? Think tanks and policymakers need to be more cognizant of on-the-ground movement, but that doesn’t happen by sitting in Washington, D.C., or in New York City in an executive suite and tower. It really happens by being connected with people; then they can understand how to evaluate this stuff. If you see movement, go into it.

RF: Thank you Councilmember Gym, it has been such an honor having this conversation with you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


First Person

The Only Work the Farm Bill Will Create Is Paperwork

Last week, perhaps in an effort to mentally pull out of Montana’s long winter months, I organized my home office, working my way through a decade’s worth of various files, folders, and scraps of paper I’d saved for whatever reason. Some, like quotes or story ideas, I’d saved because I am a writer and writers do things like keep journals they wrote in when they were 10. Others, like pay stubs, taxes, utility bills, and child support documents, I’d held onto out of an old habit.

For several years, when I worked a scattered schedule of hours cleaning houses while putting myself through college and raising my young daughter on my own, I always carried around three months’ worth of income and expenses in a purple folder. Because of my irregular schedule, and the hand-written personal checks I received instead of pay stubs, it seemed as if I constantly needed to prove to someone that I was, in fact, in need. That I was verifiably poor.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps) was the one program we could rely on back then, even though it was difficult to sign up for it sometimes. It was, by all accounts, predictable, and something I could budget for. Most importantly, by checking the “SNAP” box on other paperwork, like my daughter’s free school lunches, our utility assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and both of my daughters’ Medicaid, I automatically qualified for benefits. No questions, no long phone conversations, no missing work to spend an afternoon waiting to talk to a caseworker. This is called broad-based categorical eligibility, and it faces extinction, joining many other cuts in the House Agriculture Committee’s 2018 Farm Bill.

During almost six hours of recent debates over the bill, dubbed the “Conaway Bill” after Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX), who presented it without much sub-committee discussion beforehand, House Democrats spent the majority of the time angrily raking the proposed repeals and amendments surrounding the nutrition program focused on food insecurity.

“Call it whatever you want, it’s reducing the SNAP rolls.”

“This bill as it is written kicks people off the SNAP program,” the committee’s ranking member, Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota barked in his opening statements. “The chairman calls it self-selection. Call it whatever you want, it’s reducing the SNAP rolls.”

The “self-selection” Peterson is referring to is Conaway’s plan to force people to complete additional paperwork. SNAP would now require recipients to prove they have worked enough hours to qualify for the program by submitting statements at the end of every month. If a person fails to do this, they’d lose benefits for 12 months; the next time for 36. That’s four years of being ineligible for food benefits for not submitting a single piece of paper or failing to meet the work requirements for a single month. Conaway refers to this as self-selecting because he considers any failure to complete paperwork to be the same as a recipient opting out of the program on their own accord. Representative David Scott (D-GA) argued it was “additional duplicate confusing paperwork requirements” put in the bill “designed to confuse folks.”

When I was in need, I had to reapply for a program every few months, whether it was SNAP, WIC coupons for milk and cereal, or child care grants. Since I was self-employed and supplemented my income with student loans, I had to provide proof of the hours I spent in clients’ homes, either by receipt of deposit of monies earned or a statement from the client. It was exhausting, labor-intensive, and often meant many hours on the phone, or at the department’s office, waiting for several hours in line—time that cost me jobs and money.

By repealing the broad-based categorical eligibility, severing the link between SNAP and programs like free school lunches and LIHEAP, many people would be forced to submit applications for several kinds of benefits separately, even having to show actual utility bills to get the amounts deducted from their income. Currently, folks who qualify for LIHEAP get a standard utility allowance, much like the standardized deductions in taxes. “This is a backdoor way to kick people off the program,” said Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY), calling out the unfairness in severing the ties between SNAP and LIHEAP. “You exempted elderly people from producing utility bills but you didn’t exempt disabled people.” In a later round of questioning, Maloney repeatedly asked the chairman and other committee members why this was, paused, and said their silence was the answer he needed.

In my office, I ran my hand over that weathered, purple folder before placing it in a larger one labeled “Single Mom Stuff.” A box full of old paperwork sat next to my feet, including a half-inch thick packet of documents I’d compiled just three years ago in an attempt to receive a grant for child care. In it, I’d tried to explain what I did as a freelance writer, and how I’d managed to work up until that point with a months-old infant and older kid in first grade. When the letter came to tell me I made $100 too much to qualify, I called my caseworker, who said, “Well, you work late at night when your children are sleeping, anyway, so you don’t really need child care.” I almost hissed at her that working until 2am wasn’t exactly by choice.

For 2 million people who would lose SNAP benefits under the new Farm Bill, and the millions of others who would eventually “self-select” to no longer receive them, either by not getting a utility bill or proof of work hours submitted on time, it undoubtedly won’t be by choice, either.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the latest version of the proposed House Farm Bill. 




Why Young People Are Joining Unions Again

At the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., rays of sunlight break through an unseasonably cold March, through the ordered, brutalist buildings that line Pennsylvania Avenue. Hundreds of thousands of people crowd the avenue, just as they have been crowding legislators’ phone lines and email inboxes in recent weeks. On a stage strategically positioned in line with the Capitol building, 17-year-old Cameron Kasky, a Parkland shooting survivor, delivers this proclamation:

To the leaders, skeptics, and cynics who told us to sit down and stay silent, wait your turn: Welcome to the revolution. It is a powerful and peaceful one because it is of, by, and for the young people of this country. Since this movement began some people have asked me, do you think any change is going to come from this? Look around, we are the change. Our voices are powerful, and our votes matter. We hereby promise to fix the broken system we’ve been forced into and to create a better world for the generations to come. Don’t worry, we’ve got this.

Kasky’s statement was, of course, about guns. Seventeen of his classmates and teachers had been taken from him, and from their families, friends, and their own futures, five weeks earlier by a gunman who used an automatic weapon to kill 17 people in 6 minutes and 20 seconds. But they were also taken by a system—a political system wherein a vast majority of Americans, and particularly young Americans, support policies to clamp down on gun deaths but politicians, bought off by the NRA, do not listen.

Young people are at a tipping point. They are frustrated by a system whose cracks were etched into place by preceding generations, but have only fully metastasized for theirs. They experience suffocating levels of student debt alongside declining wages and income equality while watching companies monopolize entire industries, and sometimes even nationwide elections. Representation—actual representation—feels more like theory than reality.

People are, finally, beginning to take notice of young people’s activism to fix that system. However, many are mistaking the new wave of media coverage dedicated to young people’s political activism for young people’s newfound political activism. It’s not that young people were ever politically dormant; it’s just that their activism has existed in places where older generations aren’t used to looking: on college campuses, like the Know Your IX movement and tuition equity campaigns for undocumented students, and inside activist movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #ByeAnita and #Occupy.

Young people’s activism has existed in places where older generations aren’t used to looking

And now, increasingly, unions.

For the first time in decades, union membership is on the rise among young people. Historically, younger people have not been unionized, and their rates of union membership trail older adults by wide margins. But, just like the gun laws that are already being amended, that too is beginning to change.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in 2017, there were 262,000 new union members in the United States. Seventy-five percent of this increase came from young people (which EPI considers those aged 34 and under, but for the purposes of this article, broadly refers to the older subset of Generation Z and most Millennials, ages 16 to 35). Young people also hold the most favorable attitudes towards labor of any generation, and their support for political parties skews heavily towards those that support pro-worker policies (like standing against “right-to-work” laws), including the Democrats and, increasingly, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

But for some reason, unlike previous generations, young people’s workplace organizing isn’t seen as an integral part of their organizing, writ large. While plenty of people are documenting the rise of young people’s union membership and plenty more describing young people’s leadership in activist spaces, what’s missing is the idea that these two phenomena are actually one: Young people are turning to outside outlets that allow them to exercise their politics in the wake of a political system that, by and large, does not.


In a piece for Jacobin Magazine, Micah Uetricht sketches out the ebbing relationship between democracy inside and outside the workplace, and, relatedly, the relationship between economic and political democracy. To Uetricht—a sociology graduate student who focuses on labor, member of the DSA, and associate editor at Jacobin—activism is activism, whether it takes place at the workplace or outside of it. “It’s a relatively recent development that we think of what happens at work as some kind of separate sphere of our lives in general,” he says. He adds: “Young people understand that and don’t like living in a dictatorship in the place where they spend 8 or 10 hours of their day.”

Uetricht experienced something similar at his first job out of college, when he worked as a cashier at an airport making minimum wage. He says he and his co-workers were treated as less than human on a daily basis, and they eventually decided to unionize, granting him a newfound sense of agency: “I had never felt as powerless as I did when I was a cashier making minimum wage. Conversely, I had never felt as powerful as I did when I joined with my co-workers, confronted my boss, and won.”

That fact—that unionization campaigns often center around not simply better wages or benefits, but a sense that your voice will be heard—often goes misunderstood by those who are not connected to the labor movement. But for Uetricht, who went on to become a union organizer, the idea of worker voice, even if it’s to voice complaints about stagnant pay or subpar health benefits, is not simply one benefit of unions; it is the benefit. “The thing that you learn immediately as an organizer,” he tells me, “is that even in low-wage workplaces, the number one issue people have with their workplaces is not their low wages but a lack of respect.”

A lack of respect is also primarily driving young people’s frustration with the political system. When Kasky, the 17-year-old Parkland survivor, spoke at the March for Our Lives, he said “our voices are powerful, and our votes matter.” He said that in contrast to the status quo, in which young people’s voices are not seen as powerful, nor their votes. And, looking at recent history, it’s not hard to understand why that might be Kasky’s understanding of the status quo. Young people’s votes were spurned by an electoral college that favors rural, sparse areas, disproportionately discounting the large numbers of young people who lived in cities in 2016. Their ideas of stronger restrictions on guns, reigning in big banks, and support for the rights of LGBTQ people, immigrants, people of color, and people of varying religious views have been continually overpowered by older generations and special interests.

Seen through that lens, it’s no wonder young people have found working inside the U.S. political system ineffective, and, quite frankly, not worth their time. Instead, young people have redirected their activism toward different kinds of outlets, where their efforts may actually bring about tangible results. Outlets like unions.

What does this mean for the labor movement? A workplace is, at the most fundamental level, a microcosm of the political system. There are those who hold power, the bosses, and those who don’t, the workers. Over time, the balance of power ebbs and flows; when unions are strong, the balance shifts more heavily to the workers, and when unions are weak, the balance favors the bosses. When unions are powerful, workers have something akin to a voice in the direction of their workplace. And when unions are at their most powerful, workers have something akin to a voice in the direction of their country, a counterbalance to special interest groups like ALEC or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.


Julia Ackerly is working to build unions up to that level. Now 27, she’s worked on Democratic campaigns for most of her adult life: She worked as a field organizer and regional field director for the Bernie Sanders campaign in the 2016 primary elections, and then for Larry Krasner’s bid to be Philadelphia’s District Attorney (DA), a race that drew national attention for how Krasner sought to use the DA position to enact a progressive vision for the criminal justice system. Ackerly has always worked on campaigns that worked closely with organized labor. But she had never been in a union herself.

That changed when the Campaign Workers’ Guild (CWG) formed. The idea behind the CWG is pretty simple: It hopes to unionize campaign staffers, who experience harsh working conditions where poor pay and benefits and long hours run rampant, justified by managers as sacrifices for an important cause. CWG is currently organizing campaigns one-by-one: Its first successful organizing campaign was that of Randy Bryce, the candidate hoping to win House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congressional seat, and it’s organized 10 more campaigns since, for a total of 11 as of March 2018. But it ultimately hopes to organize entire parties’ campaign staffs at once in the future.

“Everyone needs an outlet for activism.”

Ackerly, who helps organize campaign staffs and is now a dues-paying member of CWG herself, says that having a collective ability to be heard and respected in the workplace is a “very motivating factor towards unionization campaigns.” She singles out creating protocol and reporting structures for sexual harassment and discrimination as one of the biggest motivations staff members have for organizing. Which, tellingly, is also the one of the biggest activist movements dominating living room and water cooler conversations across the country as the #MeToo movement continues.

Young people dominate the junior staffs on campaigns and have also made up a significant portion of the driving force behind recently organized campaign staffs, according to Ackerly. Jake Johnston, the Vice President of Organizing for the Non-Profit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) (which includes some members of the TalkPoverty staff), has similarly seen young people take the lead at the organizations that have recently organized under NPEU, and at NPEU itself.

For Johnston, collective action has implicit ties to activism, writ large. “The reality is that our political system really has cut out a significant part of this country. I think there’s clearly a rejection of the status quo, and yet there are so few avenues to try and change that,” he says. “Whether it’s joining the DSA, joining a union, joining an advocacy campaign, or joining an electoral campaign, people are trying to change that. Everyone needs an outlet for activism.”

That’s true for young people in particular. For far too long, they’ve been on the receiving end of an economic and political system that does not work for them, while being denied the opportunity to change that system.

Whether it’s students like Cameron Kasky shouting about the NRA into a microphone that reverberates from the Capitol to the White House, young people like Julia Ackerly organizing an industry that has never been unionized before, or activists like Micah Uetricht organizing his own workplace, young people are refusing to take part in a political system that has consistently and methodically drowned out their voice. Instead, they’ve taken their voices elsewhere, to outlets like unions and activist movements where—finally—their voices are being heard.



Prison Drug Treatment Programs Are Failing People of Color

I met Karen, a 46-year-old Black mother, while I was studying the re-entry journeys of drug-involved men and women who were formerly incarcerated.* I recruited her to participate in a 60-minute interview, but even after having worked all day, she sat beside me in my office and spent several hours generously sharing her life story.

Karen had cycled in and out of prisons for crimes committed in the Greater Philadelphia area, ranging from identity theft and fraud to prostitution and strong-armed robbery. In her early 20s, a Delaware judge handed down a drug trafficking conviction that came with her first of several prison sentences. That’s when she was invited to enroll in a collective-oriented recovery program—a method that was relatively new to that prison in the early 1990s, and Karen’s first exposure to drug treatment. The program was designed to be a “total treatment environment,” where participants were separated from the distractions of normal prison life with other inmates, and instead lived and worked in a space focused on recovery, mutual support, and accountability for self-change.

Karen didn’t make it through even 5 weeks of the 12-month program before getting kicked out for insubordination to a counselor. When I asked her to reflect on her thoughts about leaving the counseling program to return to work assignments and the general prison population, her response startled me. “I loved [leaving]” she said. “It was just time for me to leave … I ended up losing weight in there. I had lost 19 pounds and ain’t nobody know who I was.”

What Karen encountered—and happily left—was a type of treatment program on which a lot of U.S. prisons rely: the therapeutic community (TC). Based on her story, and the stories of those like her, its success seems to depend on the race of the participants.


More than 1 million adults with serious mental illnesses are currently under criminal justice supervision, and the criminal legal system has emerged as one of the largest dedicated providers of substance abuse treatment for American citizens. Treatment for inmates with substance use disorder ranges from cognitive behavioral therapies, which teach patients to identify how thoughts and beliefs affect behavior, to medication, such as methadone, and even to mindfulness, which teaches students how to acknowledge and accept their present-moment struggles and design healthy ways to cope with those feelings and triggers.

Currently, more than 25 percent of state inmates and 1 in 5 federal inmates receive group-based drug treatment, typically offered in the form of a therapeutic community. The guiding approach of the TC is to provide drug-addicted inmates with a substance-free environment and group-based counseling. What sets this prison-based model apart is its focus. Unlike other programs that treat addiction, with TC, it’s understood that the person is sick, and that addiction is only a symptom of that sickness.

For White graduates, the certificate served as a badge

For example, during half-day “group shares,” participants are supposed to publicly examine their personal choices. If someone’s behavior doesn’t support the stated values of the TC, they are confronted by the community to help them “get back on track.” This recalibration takes shape first in the form of a verbal “pull-up,” where one community member makes the transgression of another known to the rest of the community. This exposure usually takes place during “encounter groups,” or “EGs,” as Karen referred to them— mandatory group-based meetings marked by harsh public shaming.

My research team interviewed 300 men and women who participated in these encounter groups while incarcerated in Delaware, and several described the experience as being situated in the middle of a pinball machine, where when in the “hot seat” (literally in the center of the group of other TC residents circled around you), you are emotionally hurled from one peer’s criticism to the next. Karen described why she was glad to not have to deal with it anymore:

EG is when everybody is sittin’ around in a circle, and you sit right in the middle of that circle, and when they call your name you would turn around to ‘em and they just blow you right out. Anything that they wanted to say—cuss at you—all you do is sit up in there and you don’t do nothing.

The rationale for this element of “treatment” is to require participants to publicly admit that their choices and negative behaviors got them to where they are now. This is a critical part of TC programming, and newer residents are socialized into these norms by older residents and TC staff, many of whom are in recovery themselves.

Respondents I spoke with shared that the initiation practice breeds bitterness and despair.

Leaving the TC, however, is no simple feat. Participants aren’t assessed as making progress unless they accept that they are “sick” and that they are personally responsible for their current imprisonment and the circumstances that brought them there. But in an age of massive cuts to public benefits and derogatory myths about “welfare queens,” female drug treatment clients are already often characterized as pathologically inferior and dependent. Those without jobs, or children they care for, must tread this territory with a very light step. And for formerly incarcerated non-Whites who must also carry the disproportionate burden of discrimination in post-prison housing and labor markets, the “addict” label is even more dangerous.


My interviews with current and former White TC participants suggest that, even though they also find pull-ups horrific, they are more comfortable adopting the label of “addict.” They shared that adopting a sick role allows them to enjoy a collection of rights and pardons, including protection from having to assume full responsibility for their life circumstances, and access to more inclusive, less blame-laden care. We’ve seen the same thing with the emerging conversation about the opioid crisis and how much collective empathy has been extended to White opioid users, despite being denied to Black heroin users for decades. Justine, a 51-year old White women from the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, shared that she knew that her addict status would have hurt her recovery and post-prison reintegration prospects much more if she were not White:

When I got out of state [prison], it was like people forgave me in ways I never expected.  They thought that because they saw me doing the work, going to meetings, walking the steps—they thought that I deserved a second chance … I learned that nobody wants a pretty White girl to go to waste like that. Strangers will fight for me even if I won’t.  That’s a truth that still gets me out of trouble today.

Experiences like Justine’s underscore the benefits of White privilege and class privilege. Studies show that White job candidates, regardless of their backgrounds, are given the benefit of the doubt in the labor market in ways that are denied to Black applicants. On the other hand, Black jobseekers are more hesitant to disclose anything that confirms the drug-using or criminal stereotype that they believe employers are already harboring.

Melanie, a Black woman who had served over 10 years for a cocaine possession conviction, shared that the illness language was synonymous with “junkie” and would never help her once released from prison. Instead, she believed that those labels would only lock her out from viable job opportunities and housing options, which are already limited for poor racial minority women with criminal records. Melanie was one of many who either “faked it,” relying on a script that she believed TC counselors wanted to hear, or dropped out of the TC altogether and forfeited the opportunity to claim a formal rehabilitation status.

Other Black respondents left the program because of their desire to get out from under the state’s gaze as soon as possible. The appeal to White TC graduates of prolonging treatment for the sake of earning a certificate of rehabilitation that could be displayed to prospective employers and landlords didn’t have the same luster for Black graduates. For White graduates, the certificate served as a badge. For Black graduates, the certificate lingered as a foul stain, proof of their diseased persona that could resurface at any time.

We already live in a society where Black people simply don’t get to be pardoned, sick, redeemed, or fully human. Incarcerated people who are Black and assessed as drug-addicted are self-selecting out of the corrections-based recovery process because it simply costs them too much and nets them too little.

Damon, a Black man who had worked in construction since his teens but couldn’t find work upon returning home from prison, had this to say about flaunting the TC graduation credentials: “I can tell you this much … I don’t know what the silver bullet is, but I know that that ain’t it.”

* All first names are pseudonyms and used to protect research subjects’ privacy.

**“Black” and “White” are capitalized throughout to illustrate that they represent political categories, just as you would see when identifying an “Irish,” “American,” or “Chicano” individual.



The Founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism Explains Why Journalists Should Take Sides

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King gave his life fighting for racial and economic justice, yet 50 years later the living wage he called for is still out of reach for tens of millions of Americans. Forty percent of American workers earn less than $15 an hour today. For black and Latinx workers, the statistics are even worse: More than half of African American workers and nearly 60 percent of Latinx workers make less than $15 an hour.

That’s what’s behind the MLK50 Justice Through Journalism project, a year-long reporting project on economic justice in Memphis, which takes a hard look at the institutions that are keeping so many of the city’s residents in poverty.

I spoke with the project’s founder, editor, and publisher, Wendi Thomas.

Rebecca Vallas: Just to kick things off, tell me a little bit about the project and the story behind its founding.

Wendi Thomas: I guess its initial origins were out of a writing project I was doing at The Commercial Appeal when I was a Metro columnist there. I was covering the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, and I was thinking even then what we would do to mark the 50th anniversary. And so I’ve been ruminating on this for about ten years—what would it look like to honor the dreamer in Memphis? If you know anything about King’s legacy you know that that means you better reckon with jobs and wages, because that’s why King was in Memphis. It was for underpaid public employees who wanted higher wages and the right to a union. So many of those issues are so relevant still today that my team has had no shortage of stories to write and things to cover.

RV: Why commemorate Dr. King’s legacy and the anniversary of his passing through journalism? And what does journalism have to do with justice?

WT: I think King spoke truth to power. A lot of the things he said were controversial, some of the parts we don’t remember: his opposition to the Vietnam war, his critique of capitalism … and I think good journalism also speaks truth to power, at least the kind of journalism that I’m interested in doing. And while there’s a notion that journalism is completely impartial and doesn’t take sides, I think there are some things we can take sides on. I think we can take sides and say that all children should have an education, right? That shouldn’t be a controversial political position.

Similarly, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that all workers should make enough to live on. If you work full time you should make enough to make your ends meet. To the extent that we can help eliminate the systems and structures that keep that from happening, that keep poor people poor, then there is a role for justice in journalism.

RV: Did you launch the project as its own separate entity because you didn’t feel that these stories were being told adequately in mainstream media?

I think we can take sides and say that all children should have an education.

WT: After I left the daily paper here in Memphis I did a fellowship at Harvard at the Nieman Foundation. That’s where I incubated this project and figured out exactly how it’s going to work. And I don’t think that you would find this kind of journalism in most mainstream news publications, because it is very critical of the status quo. Advertisers and readers aren’t used to having their perspectives and practices challenged. That’s all new for them. And I don’t think traditional mainstream news outlets would want to rile up their advertisers like that—they’re trying to keep them happy, which unfortunately has the side effect of reinforcing the status quo, which is to keep poor people poor.

RV: As part of this project, your team conducted a living wage survey of Memphis employers. What did you find in that survey?

WT: Yeah, so we took a look at the 25 largest area employers who collectively represent about 160,000 employees. And what we found was that most companies don’t want to say how much they pay their workers. So I talked to an economist about that—what can you conclude if a company doesn’t want to tell you how much they pay their workers, whether they pay a living wage? And the answer is they’re hiding something. If companies have good news to report, they’re glad to share that.

We were actually surprised to find that the City of Memphis government, Shelby County government, and Shelby County schools all do pay their workers fairly well. I mean we’re not talking $20 an hour—but we’re talking 85 percent more than $15 an hour. And the Shelby County schools have recently made a commitment to pay its workers $15 an hour, so that’s a good thing. But when you get into other employers, say private employers like FedEx, which is headquartered here and employs 30,000 people—FedEx doesn’t want to say. They answered some of our questions, but when pressed for more information about benefits and whether they use temp workers or outsource work, they sent us a statement about how much money they give to charity events. And charity isn’t justice.

RV: A lot of the stories in this project are focused on Memphis in particular, and they really put a face on the fight for a living wage. I’d love if you would tell some of the stories that your reporters have been telling through this project.

WT: Let’s see, gosh, where would I start? We’ve written a series of stories about companies that pay their workers enough to live on—unfortunately it’s not a long list of companies and they tend to be really small, maybe nonprofits or family-owned businesses—to show that it is possible, you can have these discussions within your organization. We ran a story about a woman who works at a company that she started making $15 an hour, and now she’s able to afford a home. And so these wages aren’t just so you can get your hair done or your nails done, it’s so you can have some kind of stability for you and for your family. So those stories are always fun to tell.

Charity isn’t justice.

We did a story about hotel housekeepers, and what it’s like to work as one where you’re having to do more work with less. One of the hotel housekeepers told us that she has to bring her own cleaning supplies because they don’t supply her with those.

We even have some stories on the site in the last couple of days about how this anniversary commemoration is really not for the people who live right around the Civil Rights Museum. So if you just walk a block over from the museum, Lorraine Motel where King was killed, you walk just a block over and it’s just abject poverty, and people who feel like this commemoration is not for them. The signature event tonight is going to be $100-a-plate gala. You’d have to work 14 hours if you make minimum wage to afford a ticket. And so there’s this tension between honoring this man who came here about labor and then also respecting the labor that’s still here today.

RV: How do you think that Dr. King would want us to be commemorating his legacy and the anniversary of his passing 50 years later?

WT: Yeah, I don’t think he would give two whits about, what would be the nice way of saying it. I don’t think he would care about these galas and these celebrations and these big shindigs with lots of people pontificating. I would like to think he’d be out here in the streets with the protestors and the activists. We have about 8 protesters that were outside the jail yesterday that got arrested, dragged on the street by police, cuffed in plastic zip ties. I like to think he would be with them today were he alive. I think he would be disappointed to know that Memphis is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the nation and 52 percent of the black children here live below the poverty line. But that’s what we’ve got. And the question we need to answer is the question posed by King’s last book, which is, where do we go from here?

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on April 5. It was edited for length and clarity.