The Big Top

My internship is way more entrenched in the mud of politics than I ever would have expected. Naively, I assumed that education and children’s issues were pretty much a top priority for everyone, and so finding a viable revenue source must be an easy task.  I was very wrong to say the least.  Hello there, soda tax.  

The soda tax is a revenue producer for funding more subsidized pre-k seats, and for rebuilding parks and libraries that desperately need renovation.  We need to educate our children and provide safe spaces for them, and for that we need more money.  What better way to get that money than to tax an item that is detrimental to health.  Now, who could possibly oppose that concept?

It was June 23rd, and a hearing concerning the Philadelphia soda tax was being held in city hall.  The strange part was that it wasn’t being hosted by the Philadelphia City Council, rather it was being hosted by Pennsylvania state senators.  The issue?  Philadelphia doesn’t have the right to tax itself, and so the soda tax cannot be legally implemented.    

The opposition is laced with former Pepsi executives, and “big soda” campaign donation receivers.  As a political jab, these corporate senators opposed to the tax came down to city hall to tell Philadelphians what they can and cannot do.  To make matters even worse, one of the pro-tax people who was originally supposed to speak, was barred last minute from doing so.    

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the political hot bed I walked into on that Friday morning.  I sat down next to my coworkers and waited patiently for the hearing to begin.  However, it never did.  Instead I watched a brilliant display of democracy unfold before my eyes.  As soon as the state senators walked in, a community leader began to blow a noise-making horn, and slowly one by one every Philadelphian in that room began to create noise in defiance.

The chanting consisted of; “this is our house!” and “this is what democracy looks like!”  I joined in, sort of shyly at first and sitting down.  Then as more and more people joined in, I felt a swell of confidence.  I stood up and joined in next to my coworkers, holding a sign that said “Glad to pay soda tax for Philly kids.”  

This was not my first protest yet, I still found myself welling up with emotions, feeling proud, anguished, and anxious.  My heart was pounding and I watched in awe as pre-k providers marched their 3 and 4 year old students up to the city council seats.  The kids, holding little signs, sat and stared up at the men trying to remove their means to an education.  I thought to myself: how can these people look down at these children with their innocent, wide eyes, some plugging their ears against the booming voices behind them, and argue to take away their chance at success?

I did not and still do not understand completely the argument against the tax.  Some say it’s not a sustainable source of revenue, some say it’s putting local, family owned grocers out of business, some say it affects people disproportionately.  Others would say that the soda industry was already on the decline, they would say that those small stores were already going out of business thanks to large corporate competitors, and that low income people need education more than they need soda.  We are all entitled to our opinions, thanks Uncle Sam.  Don’t like the soda tax? Fine, I respect that.

What I don’t respect is aiming to delete the soda tax, with no other viable plan in its place for generating those crucial revenues.  Until there is a solid alternative source of revenues to fund the success of our future, please keep the soda tax.  It means the difference between thousands of kids succeeding and thousands of kids spending their futures incarcerated.  

Don’t just oppose something because your party doesn’t like it.  Where’s your honor as an individual? Don’t just disagree to disagree, be rational. No perfect policy exists or will ever exist, so recognize when something has a net positive effect for your constituency. For the sake of practicality, wake up! Stop wasting time trying to figure out a revenue source that doesn’t upset your campaign donors, that doesn’t hurt your precious share, and that wifey agrees to.  Quit trying to align yourself with the beliefs of a party for the sake of marketability. Separate your personal business endeavors from people’s lives.  Stop focusing on how you are perceived and start doing what makes sense.  

The people will thank you for it, and you can go to bed at night not feeling like an ass.

I think I speak for alot of people when I say I am fed up with the circus.  Now to loudly bang on my keyboard, and angrily punch numbers into an Excel spreadsheet.

Bye for now.

Kind and Fierce

Nonprofit.  A seemingly sweet, kind, and soft word.  People who go into nonprofit work are passive, non-competitive, and idealistic.  They are mostly women, they are sweet, and they are soft.  

After working at PCCY for a while now, that word creates quite a different imagery for me.  I think of strong, diverse people united in a resistance, fueled with refusal of inadequacy, using truths to organize, mobilize, and accomplish.  

The people I work with are nothing but fierce.  They are passionate, articulate, intelligent, and activism pumps through their veins.  The executive director, Donna, is the strongest embodiment of these qualities and despite being slightly intimidated by her, I have extreme respect for her and hope I can one day lead with her confidence and style.   

To keep it PG, Donna is not afraid to really cut into someone; she knows government and she knows policy.  I sit at a desk in the office adjacent to hers, and it’s strange if I don’t hear her talking on the phone to someone, using whatever language she pleases.  Sitting in front of a round table of white, Republican men, Donna commands interest and respect.  Not one of those men would have dared to interrupt her.       

Donna also knows management.  Some days, our modest office in the United Way building sounds more like a Wall Street trading floor than anything else.  As soon as news goes off that City Council may not pass a bill that needs to be, Donna lights up the office; “phone calls, phone calls, phone calls!”  And she has everyone, from interns to policy coordinators, calling Philly pre-k providers to rally grassroots support.

My immediate supervisor, Shawn, is respectable in her own right.  She is very intelligent and experienced, and I feel lucky to have been placed under her wing.  It is obvious how passionate Shawn is.  She becomes visibly upset when we receive bad news, and overjoyed when we experience a win.

When I think of activism I think of Shawn.  She has worked for nonprofits in a diverse group of spaces, including health care, domestic violence, children’s issues, abortion rights, and probably more areas that she has yet to tell me about.  She protested the Vietnam War, apartheid, and has fought for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights.  Shawn embraces democracy, fighting for what she believes is true, and is living her life to the fullest, most American extent.  For this, I also have extreme respect for Shawn and believe she is one of the most courageous people I have encountered.

In addition to the admirable people I work with, nonprofit work contains a larger amount of strategy and even manipulation than I ever thought it would.  There is a lot of work that goes behind every move, and I see Donna implement strategy that I studied in some of my Wharton classes.  It’s all about knowing who your audience is; parents, schools, politicians, businesses, etc.  Identifying what their specific wants are is next.  Do they want to be perceived in a certain light? Do they want their children recognized? Do they want their school bragged about? Feeding into those wants in order to accomplish one of our own goals is a strategy I have witnessed time and time again.  What language are we going to use to communicate with the specific party?  How are we going to act around them when we meet with them in person?  

I was really taken aback at the level of business strategy and skill that this type of work demands. And I found myself realizing the assumptions I made, rejecting them, and replacing them with the truth.  

Nonprofit work is strenuous, it takes the most intelligent, emotionally and intellectually, to be able to accomplish goals and affect change.  Contrary to a popular belief held by those not involved in the field, children’s advocacy is not for the light of heart; I witness the fierceness of those around me every day and I feel myself growing into tougher skin.

Finding my motivation

Character, personality, and career are conglomerates of experience and the people we meet.

So thanks to the people whom I’ve encountered in my 20 years of living; my family, friends, mentors, teachers, and strangers, plus a great deal of luck, I have ended up with a powerful and humbling internship.  Powerful because I get to complete work that directly impacts how someone lives, and by extension, fights the larger societal structures that continue to pulse through our country.  Humbling because I, an Ivy-league student, a white person, a member of the upper middle class who has basically been handed everything in her life, has just been thrown into the world of government subsidies, state and city level politics, and an office who has dedicated their careers to an advocacy organization.  

So how can I possibly relate and find motivation?  I don’t understand the struggle of having to trust a sketchy, out of home day care center with my child. I don’t understand the anxiety of having to rely on our tumultuous government to create a means for my family’s upward mobility.  I don’t understand the frustration of a 14,000 long waiting list for a quality public pre-k education.

Yet, why did I feel the pull to work here? Why did I feel so moved when a mother called our office the other day, asking for subsidy money when we are merely an advocacy organization?

I believe my motivations may come from simply being human.  To the cynics who have been battered down by focusing on the troubling aspects of their lives and have allowed themselves to succumb to all of the hardship highlighted by the media, have at it.  Don’t believe that people do things for each other simply because they are both human-beings and please, chose to believe that people are solely motivated by their own extrinsic gains.  This is your life, and it’s your choice to view humanity through that type of lens.  And I’m not just saying that this isn’t just my liberally college educated mind talking, I’m saying I think it is valid. Because despite all of the differences between myself and these people, I feel a human motivation and I think everyone else who works for a non-profit feels it too.  

It isn’t just the startling numbers that make my heart beat faster and my mind swirl in bewilderment.  Like how 125,807 children in Philadelphia were living in poverty, plus another 60,686 living in deep poverty in 2014 and how those numbers have only gone up.  How the cost of childcare is now greater than an in state college tuition, and how we pay the people who pick up our garbage more than we pay the people we entrust our children with for 180 days a year.

It’s hearing the voice of a mother over the phone, just trying to get her 7 year old disabled daughter into a summer day care, so that she can go to work to provide for her. Frustration’s purest manifestation was in the sound of that voice.  Its seeing the smiling faces of children who are now going down the right path because they were able to enroll in a high quality pre-k program.  Its flipping through stacks and stacks of signed cards from people all over the state, pledging their support for universal pre-k.  

It is these purely human experiences; frustration, happiness, and unity, that I feel the most motivated. These experiences tug at my capacity and will power, and plead me to exert every ounce of myself.  It is the undeniable sense of shared basic human experiences that are the most compelling, and I think will continue to motivate my work and activism throughout the summer.