by Peter Jon Shuler
What was once just a class project has taken on a life of its own, with business and labor lining up against each other in campaigns run by seasoned professionals.
As we reported Tuesday, San Jose voters will decide in November on a minimum wage measure that started as a student class project at San Jose State University. Measure D would raise wages from $8.00 an hour to $10.00 and is gaining support from a growing coalition that includes labor unions and non-profit organizations like Catholic Charities and United Way. Business groups, on the other hand, have said they plan to spend more than a million dollars in opposition.
Last January, San Jose State students taking a class on social action kicked off the petition drive for the measure, after being the first to sign. They had just spent nearly a year fundraising, conducting public opinion polls and going out into the community to gather support. And within just five weeks, they collected more than enough valid signatures to qualify the measure for San Jose’s November ballot.
Sociology professor Scott-Myers Lipton designed the class to help students make the leap from merely thinking and talking about issues to engaging in the political process.
“Our culture doesn’t do a great job in asking our students much more than this idea of voting,” he says. “And so how do we impact social policy? That’s not a question they’re familiar with or I think that the students feel they can actually have a say in.”
Myers-Lipton says instead of feeling helpless or railing against social problems, his students identify the issues that concern them then learn concrete ways to take action. This class developed the minimum wage measure based on their own struggles to get by on $8.00 an hour. Now Measure D has taken on a life of its own, with business and labor lining up against each other in campaigns run by seasoned professionals. Supporters say the state minimum is too low for San Jose’s high cost of living; opponents say a wage hike would be a job killer in a precarious economy.
A number of students from last year’s social action class have already graduated, but they’re still hard at work on the campaign. At a campus coffee shop, three former classmates reflect on their transformation into political organizers. Twenty-three-year old Albert Perez says even students who are motivated to get involved in politics can find it difficult to navigate the system. He says working on a campaign in the context of a class gives young people the tools and support they would otherwise lack.
“From the first moment we started this campaign, we knew that we wanted to [participate] in the democratic process,” he says. “We wanted to make sure it was done the right way, that it was done in the American way and that the people in San Jose had a voice.”
And it wasn’t easy, says student Diana Crumedy.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. And I think a lot of people think that ‘well, I signed a petition.’ Or I’m mad! Like being mad meant something. It means something if you’re willing to put action…behind it and commit to staying…through the long haul and reaching out to other members of the community and forming allies. Being mad alone doesn’t solve much.”
Crumedy and her classmates are now in full campaign mode, walking precincts, working phone banks and making speeches — all the while holding down jobs and managing their personal lives. Crumedy is a single mom with an 11-year-old son. She says she understands how many of her peers feel alienated from politics.
“The process is more complicated than it needs to be,” she says. “And it gives people the feeling that they’re not supposed to be involved. That they don’t, honestly, want you to be involved.”
Saul Gonzales came to the class with a fervor for social change. But he found sitting through hours of city council meetings agonizingly slow and bureaucratic. Working on the minimum wage campaign made him see the value of working within the system.
“Once you become a community activist, you realize politics is the way to make changes,” he says. “Because that’s the only avenue that society has chosen to have a democratic process. And so, whether you like politics or not, (if) you want to make a change, you have to be involved.”
Perez say after this campaign, he can see himself taking on other community issues.
“It’s a big first step, but it’s a first step. There is so much more that I feel as an organization and for myself that I want to accomplish within the next couple of years that are along the same lines. Things like reducing poverty, helping the youth and helping the communities in San Jose.”
Professor Myers-Lipton says he hopes all of his students learn that democracy is not a spectator sport and that they really can make a difference.
“It’s good for our democracy to have this type of engagement, whether we win or lose. Of course we want to win, but I think, you know, it’s been a great learning experience, and as a professor I care deeply about that, too.”
So as San Jose voters debate the merits of the measure, the students know they’ve unleashed something bigger than themselves. And they hope their efforts will inspire others to engage.