Last week I spoke with mother and son authors Betty K. Bynum and Joshua B. Drummond about their recently released title, I’m a Brilliant Little Black Boy! Bynum is also the author of two titles for girls, I’m a Pretty Little Black Girl! and I’m a Lovely Little Latina!
I spent some time over the past few months talking with Quinnipiac University’s professor of drama Crystal Brian, and sitting in on her Theater for Community class. Brian partnered this term with Mary Lou Lauricella, a drama therapist at the West Haven VA. For the past 20 years, Lauricella has worked through VA Connecticut to facilitate a PTSD drama therapy group called the Veterans’ Homefront Theater Group. Over the semester, they guided the students in the class and veteran volunteers got to know one another and created an improvisational performance piece which they presented together on Wednesday night. (more…)
Although I grew up in Connecticut, I am a pretty recently returned resident of Connecticut. Before mid-2014 I had been living in North Carolina for half a dozen years. When I started going back to school one of the first stories I reported on for class was the Forward Together/Moral Monday Movement and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. You can take a look at those stories here and here, and view a slideshow as well.
In my final semester, I became aware of Moral Monday CT. It seemed fitting for one of the last stories I would report on for class to come back to the Moral Monday movement through Rev. Dr. John Selders Jr. Here’s the story that I wrote for JRN 470 …
It’s easy to imagine theater students worrying about costumes and learning lines, rushing to rehearsals, or performing on stage. Students at Quinnipiac University do this all the time. But, as part of their theater program over the past 15 years, they’ve also collaborated with combat veterans, worked with children living in extreme poverty in Nicaragua, explored “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland first-hand, developed plays with at-risk youth in New Haven, and spoken with inmates in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.
“Everybody should have to visit a VA hospital; everybody should have to go into a lethal injection chamber,” Dr. Crystal Brian, Quinnipiac’s professor of theater since 2000, explains. “Once you are there, you can’t deny it. You can pretend to, but the innocence is gone and you can’t ever really be the same again.”
Brian introduced the concepts of theater for social change to her students and makes the case that theater itself is naturally theater for social change. The Greeks used it as a way of discussing the issues that faced them as a society, and today, when you consciously do theater with the idea that you’re changing yourself or changing the world, you are using theater as a way to understand social issues and engage in your communities.
Brian knows that her early students were an amazing group. They really latched onto this vision of what theater could be and how it connects to all aspects of life.
Allison Clark was one of those students from 2001-2005. She recalled what being involved with the theater meant to her, especially following the events of 9/11:
Not only did theater become a way for us to connect to our own catharsis, but we were asking our community to think and feel and respond to bigger questions as well.
In Clark’s freshman year, she was involved with “The Laramie Project,” a play about the reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who had been beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming.
The following year students produced “The Antigone Project.” They considered the motives behind war and its impact on those involved by interacting and interviewing combat veterans, many of whom had fought in Vietnam. Listening to their experiences and hearing about the negative reactions and lack of support that often greeted their return home, was the moment when most of the students involved really personally connected with a marginalized population for the first time.
“It was profound for everyone involved,” Clark said. “I remember writing in a journal back then, “we held each other’s heartstrings.”
Student Kathryn Monigan was a freshman at Quinnipiac in 2003. Although she loved theater, she was not pursuing it as a major when she arrived on campus. After being cast in the production “The Troubles of Romeo and Juliet” in the spring of 2004, things began to change.
“Dr. Crystal Brian and her vision of Theater for Social Change altered my perspective on theater entirely,” Monigan said. “The concept that theater can carry with it a strong social message, and that the message can have the power to help heal a community, or bring about understanding and change, that to me is so impactful.”
The following spring, Monigan and Clark were among a group of students that traveled with Brian to tour “The Troubles of Romeo and Juliet” in peace and reconciliation centers throughout Northern Ireland. Speaking directly with former combatants and victims who experienced that period of conflict between Catholics and Protestants was an experience both feel fortunate to have had.
“Gaining an understanding of ‘The Troubles’ and seeing real life uses for the art of drama therapy had a profound impact on my understanding of conflict resolution between groups and individuals,” Monigan said.
During her senior year she was involved in the production of “Dead Man Walking.” The students traveled to New Orleans to meet with Sister Helen Prejean, who authored the book that went on to be adapted to stage and screen by Tim Robbins. They also toured Angola State Penitentiary, including the death house, and interviewed inmates there.
“I hope that we were able to translate some of the reality and sensitivity we now had to the audiences and community of Quinnipiac with our performances and talk backs,” Monigan said. “As a cast member, I can tell you these experiences will linger with me for the rest of my life.”
Brian, who had become friends with Robbins when they were both students at UCLA, arranged for the actor and director to participate in a workshop with students at Quinnipac. A photograph of Robbins with her students holds pride of place in Brian’s office, and the words he shared about the work being done through the Theater and Community program are framed with it:
I hope you understand how important the work you are doing is.
You are creating angels.
Brian believes the program does change the students who participate.
“Some of them are immediately drawn to it and they just realize they want to find a way to use this to make the world a better place,” she said. “But even those who take a bit longer to warm to the course have grasped the idea by the end and become different people because of it.”
This was the case in 2009, when students joined with youth from the New Haven Family Alliance’s Juvenile Review Board to create the play “Whitewashed: In the (Neighbor) ‘Hood.” At first, it seemed like students on both sides were struggling to enjoy the experience.
“But then they began to learn from each other, talking about their families and getting to know one another,” Brian said. “Then it became something.”
The play was performed at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater.
Theater students began taking annual trips to Nicaragua in 2006, in order to work with youngsters living in extreme poverty. During the year, the university’s students would collaborate with the students in Nicaragua to create a play they would workshop and perform during the spring or summer trip.
In 2013, the students, many of whom had no fathers in their lives, wrote a play to express the love and appreciation they had for their mothers. The Nicaraguan students were excited to travel by bus into the city of León to workshop the play. On the final day, their mothers were brought in to see the performance. The kids even learned to sing a song in English for their mothers.
“To see their moms come in to the city, and for them to see their children say how much they care about them and how glad they are to have them – it was beautiful,” Brian said.
Civil unrest has prevented students from traveling to Nicaragua the past two years, but Brian hopes to resume the trips in 2016.
Another project Brian is working to arrange for the 2016 spring semester involves the Lifers Group Youth Initiative at Cheshire Correctional Institute. Working within the prison is an idea she’s had brewing for some time, and she has made contact to arrange a meeting to discuss the project. If it gets the go-ahead, Brian hopes that students and inmates will be able to write and perform a play together.
Amber Hopwood is a criminal justice/psychology double major at Quinnipiac. She is one of several students eager to take part in the Cheshire project in the spring. The idea of rehabilitation was what really hooked her.
Theater can help people in ways that we may not think of or recognize at first, and as an undergraduate, to be able to do something to that extent, even getting to go into the prison and interact, is a big deal.
Hopwood is interested because it is really a way of doing something different. Theater will give inmates something fun and creative to do, an outlet that they can have input into and where it can become whatever they want it to be rather than a solution that is forced on them.
“I hope to come up with a program that sticks,” Hopwood continued. “Something that can open doors into the prison for other classes and programs that can also be effective. That’s the biggest thing – to help the prisoners.”
This kind of long lasting impact has happened for both Clark and Monigan.
Clark has become a Drama Therapist. Over the past 15 years she has worked with people in acute inpatient psychiatric settings, homeless populations, terminally ill children, women who have been physically and sexually abused, and victims of rape and incest.
“I aid in the coping and emotional support of those who believe their voices are not worth hearing, and I help them to understand their voices still need to be heard,” Clark said.. “It’s everything my work with Crystal [Brian] taught me.”
Monigan also uses the ideals and lessons she learned at Quinnipiac in her daily life. She acquired her teaching certification in Theater Arts and works as a high school teacher and director today. She uses a repertoire of shows that challenge social norms and address the larger issues of culture and society.
“I strive to teach my students that the arts can have a profound impact,” Monigan said. “I am forever thankful to Dr. Brian and the opportunities I was provided while at Quinnipiac University.”
Brian is proud that these opportunities help students to grow and develop by engaging with the local, national and global community. They are invaluable in helping to foster the understanding of the role “citizen artists” can play in our complex and sometimes troubled world.
To hear about the creation of Quinnipiac’s Theater and Community program from Crystal Brian and some of the students watch this clip edited from Kelly Shamburg’s student film, “Theater for Community.”
Over the past several weeks I have been working to produce a show that has now recently aired on The Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR 90.5 Connecticut Public Radio. The idea originated with one of the station’s producers, Betsy Kaplan. I thought it was really interesting and she was kind enough to let me run with it.
When I started out, I didn’t really know much about bed bugs other than they can be really hard to get rid of and no one wants to have them! I know a lot more about them now …
Our paths probably crossed in an ancient cave when a bed bug decided to skip the usual bat blood and try a taste of a sheltering human’s blood instead. Apparently we were quite to their liking so the bed bug has stayed with us ever since, traveling with us all over the world and adapting to our habits and habitats.
I wondered why I had never heard of anyone having bed bugs when I was growing up since they seem to be everywhere now. Maybe it should have been obvious, but it wasn’t until I researched the show and read Brooke Borel’s book Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World that the obvious became clear to me – DDT. It had virtually wiped out bed bugs, except those that were immune to its effect. When we stopped spraying DDT and the residual effects wore off, the bed bug made a comeback with one slight difference – much of the population had developed a resistance to the chemicals we use to kill them.
From weird bed bug sex known as traumatic insemination to how the selfie may be behind increased head lice among teens, you’ll learn a few things you never knew you wanted to know if you Listen to the podcast of the show here!
Quinnipiac University students in QU 301 sat wherever they could find an empty seat on the first day of fall classes. The room at the back of the Albert Schweitzer Institute is not exactly a classroom, but it is where “Combating the Causes of Poverty” will be meeting for the semester. Professor David T. Ives teaches the class. His long white hair is receding at the front and caught in the back in a loose ponytail. Tall and broad with a warm, easy manner he resembles a big teddy bear.
Ives goes through the roll and promises to work on remembering names before asking everyone to introduce themselves and share why they are taking his class.
“It’s okay to say because it’s a requirement,” he adds with a chuckle. “I know that’s why some of you are here.”
As the students take turns speaking some admit to it, although they all say the class sounded interesting as well. But many of them say they signed up for this class because of Ives. Different versions of ‘someone I know had you for a class and said you were great’ tell the story of why maybe a dozen of the nearly 30 students in the class are there.
Ives is okay with that. He knows the goal of the institute is to promote the values of Albert Schweitzer on a worldwide basis with an emphasis on peace, humanitarian values and health. He also knows that to do that, he needs students in the classroom. If they were all there for heartfelt reasons that would be ideal, but required service learning and classes may mean getting to reach students who otherwise wouldn’t be there at all.
If Ives could have his way then young people would spend a gap year living in poorer countries. He knows that getting them outside of their own experiences and into the world can be life-changing, not just because about 91 percent of the students that go on a Quinnipiac service trip abroad come back feeling the experience has changed them. No, Ives knows from his own life how experiences can change us.
Changes, even difficult ones, sometimes result in benefits unimagined. Albert Schweitzer once said that each person can do a little to help end misery for others. A physician and humanitarian, Schweitzer believed passionately that by practicing reverence for life we would help others, but we would also help ourselves to become good, deep and alive.
The institute named after him was founded in 1984 and became affiliated with Quinnipiac University in 2001. Ives was brought on as executive director in January 2002. Since then he has sought to cultivate a desire to help those in need in the hearts of Quinnipiac’s student body in a number of ways including arranging and leading service trips to developing countries. It was on one of those trips that Ives found a way to benefit others from a difficult personal experience.
In January 2012, Ives was traveling with a small group of occupational and physical therapy students in Guatemala. They set up a small clinic in a classroom of the local school in the village of Joya de las Flores. Two people came to the clinic that day. One of them was 14-year-old Pablo Enrique.
(You can click here to watch the documentary “Esperanza Lograble (Hope Within Reach): Uniting a Community Through Occupational Therapy.” It records the earlier experiences of a group from the Albert Schweitzer Institute and the Occupational Therapy Department at Quinnipiac University who traveled to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala in July 2009.)
Pablo suffered from a physical disability and initially the Quinnipiac group believed it was to do with a fall he had three years earlier. The family had sought treatment for him then, but quickly exhausted their meager finances. It had now been many months since Pablo had seen a doctor. As they learned more of Pablo’s history; however, something started to click with Ives. When the family said that doctors years ago had mentioned Pablo might have Guillian-Barré syndrome, Ives became very emotional.
Guillian-Barré is rare. In fact, only about 1 person in 100,000 is afflicted with it. Amazingly, it was a disease Ives had personal experience with. At 41, Ives had been diagnosed with Guillian-Barré syndrome and rushed to the hospital for treatment. He spent the next several months in hospital. “One night,” Ives recounts, “I almost did die.”
Because of this, Ives knew what Pablo needed to do. He was able to send a walker, crutches and canes when the group returned to the United States. He also sent exercise manuals so that local staff could assist Pablo with his therapy.
Just two years later, the same group was overjoyed to witness Pablo walk out to greet them completely under his own power.
“We gave him the gift of walking again and for me, it doesn’t get any better than that in terms of what I do.”
Ives shares personal experiences like this very openly. It is something about him that creates a lasting impression. A former student, political science major Danielle Tomlinson, 20, recalls first listening to Ives speak. “He had a wealth of life experiences,” she said. “He had seen much more than any normal person had seen.”
How much more becomes apparent the more Ives opens up. Although his life begins in the usual way, his telling is certainly unique. “I was born rather young,” Ives begins. “I was in the same room as my mother at the time.”
The room was a hospital room in Lake Placid, New York. The year was 1951. The first two babies born at the brand new hospital received welcome gifts. Ives was born third. Within a few years his father Leland, a landscape designer, decided to become a minister. He moved his family and enrolled in the Gordon Divinity School, a few hours north of Boston.
“That’s probably where one of the more seminal incidents happened, although I didn’t realize how seminal it would be,” Ives recalls about being diagnosed with polio. He was 4 years old at the time and the doctors said he would never walk again. His mother, Dorothy, did not accept that.
“It took about nine months from the time I collapsed in front of the toilet and was diagnosed with polio until I took my first step unaided.” Not surprisingly, Ives said, “That was a big day in our household.”
When Leland Ives got a pastorate, the family packed up and moved to Pierpont, Ohio. “It was a growing metropolis of about 250 people and about 3,000 cows,” Ives explains, only half in jest. “It was kind of a Norman Rockwell existence.”
Surviving polio didn’t afford him any special treatment at home, at least not from his mother. Ives was given typical chores including mowing and cleaning. “My mother,” Ives explains laughing, “was also an initial feminist. When I told her I didn’t want to clean the bathroom because that was ‘women’s work,’ guess what I did for the next six months? I still hated doing it, but I wasn’t dumb enough to say it again!”
Growing up in a small town taught Ives a lot about community and helping others. He remembers how every farmer in town chipped in some of their own store to replace the hay of one farmer that was destroyed by a fire. And he credits seeing the gratitude of families receiving a Thanksgiving turkey through his father’s pastoral work as cementing the idea that he wanted to grow up and help people like that.
Another thing that made a real impression on a 10-year-old Ives was John F. Kennedy.
“I admired him as a young person. He seemed so full of life, of vim and vigor,” Ives said. “I knew I wanted to join the Peace Corps since I was about 10-years-old when John F. Kennedy recommended it, started it in 1961, I think it was.”
When Ives was 16, his mother was instrumental in arranging a family trip to South America. It was there that Ives saw real abject poverty. He remembers a family home they went to that contained a single soggy mattress shared by everyone, the walls made out of laboriously unrolled tin cans.
“Seeing that really changed my life,” Ives shared. “But it didn’t do it right away.”
He enrolled at Ohio State University after high school, but Ives says he really settled on a degree in social work because he didn’t need to take a language. During his freshman year, tragedy struck. Dorothy Ives was killed by a drunk driver and Ives admits his 19-year-old self did not handle her death well. He drank too much and his grades suffered, but he did find a path he enjoyed, planning programs and doing counseling as a resident assistant. When he was accepted into a master’s program, Ives finally began to deal with his anger.
“The master’s program had a counseling aspect to it and part of the deal was that you had to get therapy yourself,” Ives said. “So that’s when I talked about my mother for the first time in-depth.”
Once he had his master’s, Ives worked for five years before finally realizing his dream of joining the Peace Corps at 29. He was assigned to Costa Rica and taught agriculture to the locals, helping them to plant gardens and improve their health through better nutrition. As he worked in the different communities Ives began to realize he wanted to look at issues on a more macro level. It is good to work on the micro level of the Peace Corps, building a pond or planting a garden. When a child eats the produce from the garden then yes, Ives said, their health is helped. But what, he began to wonder, about the tens of thousands of children under the age of 5 who die every day?
This thinking was influenced by another seminal moment in Ives’ life. In a remote area accessible only by boat, a young girl was having trouble breathing. She was severely malnourished and it was clear she desperately needed medical attention. Ives went ahead to hold the boat as the family made their way more slowly behind. The captain did not want to wait and Ives had to resort to threatening to throw the man overboard to get him to hold the boat, but finally they were all on board. Ives held the little girl during the ride, but sadly she did not survive the trip. Her death has stayed with him and often motivates his efforts to help.
Ives met many people through the Peace Corps. One of them was his future wife Barbara, who also served as a volunteer in Costa Rica. When her service period ended, Ives arranged to leave his posting about a month early so that he could go home and chase her. He confesses it took him a little while to catch her though.
“When we were in the Peace Corps,” Ives reveals, “she had a boyfriend. She was the only one in the whole Peace Corps that did not know I was interested in her. To everybody else it was pretty obvious.”
The two were married on May 7, 1983. Within a few years they expanded their family when they adopted their son, Taylor, from the Philippines in 1986. Two years later they adopted daughter Kelsey from the Philippines as well.
In 1989, Ives took a job as executive director of The Louis August Jonas Foundation and settled his family in Rhinebeck, New York, not far from where he ran Camp Rising Sun, a national leadership and training program focused on bringing together young people from countries that have a history of conflict and try to show them how to relate to each other as individuals without violence.
Despite his experience traveling the world and dealing with people of many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Ives still worried about being culturally sensitive to his children. At 4, son Taylor asked a question about the difference between their skin colors.
“He asked me, ‘When I grow up, will I be white too?’”
Unsure how to answer, Ives said he rambled on for at least 10 minutes discussing heritage and the varying shades of skin color. He spoke about diversity and even mentioned that white people often tan to try and darken their skin to look like Taylor’s.
“Can you believe I used the word diversity to a 4-year-old?” Ives asks, shaking his head at the memory. Taylor went off to play but returned a little later with a question that made it clear the nuanced cultural conversation had gone over the boy’s head.
“This time he asked me, ‘Dad, did you leave me out in the sun too long?’” Ives laughs delightedly at one of his favorite personal stories.
He also shares some of the more deep and meaningful exchanges he had with his own father, albeit when he was much older. During his time in the Peace Corps, Ives began to question some of the political ideals he had shared with his father. Ideals he had even once held sacrosanct. His growing disillusionment with the role of the United States in Latin America was sometimes a bone of contention in correspondence with his father at the time.
Ives felt that not every American working in Costa Rica was there for altruistic motives. Many made no attempt to understand the root causes of why people viewed communism as a good alternative. He saw companies “raping the land” and insecticides leaching into the groundwater. He saw workers in the fields, once including Barbara, being sprayed with DDT. And America held itself forward as “a beacon on the hill” even while some of their covert actions were “a moral abomination.”
Returning to the United States, Ives found it disturbing that many Americans were ignorant about what was happening outside of their own country. He wanted to work at the macro level, but discovered he needed to start at the micro level because of people’s limited knowledge of the wider world.
“I found when I would talk about my experience in Costa Rica, the first thing I had to do usually, if they were really interested, is explain where it was and why I went there.”
Typically Ives’ students have to learn some world geography early in the semester. He believes they need to be able to find a place on the globe and have some basic knowledge of a country in order to understand the problems it faces.
“I could shoot the person that took geography out of the high school curriculum,” Ives states. But once students begin to gain that basic understanding, he feels they become capable of profound thinking on the world’s problems. He works in the classroom to challenge students thinking. He wants to hear their opinions and gives each person his attention to ensure they get the most from the experience. Ives also makes a point of hearing from everyone, every class. He genuinely believes they all have something unique to offer. It’s a big part of why students love his classes.
Elaine Martinez, 20, is a health science studies major and former student of Ives.
“In class he is very intuitive. He’s very open to a lot of different opinions,” she said. “Instead of shutting your ideas down like some professors do, he builds on them.”
Tomlinson agrees. “He sincerely cares about each and every person, each and every student, regardless of their situation, or their attitude, or their views. He truly wants to inspire students and give them the best opportunity possible to achieve the things they want to in their lives.”
His colleagues recognize these same attributes in Ives. Professor Renée Tursi is an associate professor of English. She met Ives shortly after she started at Quinnipiac in 2004. She found him to be very warm and open-hearted, admiring his sense of a personal mission in the world.
“David is one of the people at Quinnipiac who has, single-handedly, changed more students’ lives than anyone else. Faculty, we all love to think that students are never the same after taking one of our courses. But David connects with these students.”
Tursi has traveled to Nicaragua with Ives for several service trips. The trips, she says, are so moving that had she gone on such a trip as a young student, “I might have chosen a different path.”
For Crystal Brian, professor of theater at Quinnipiac since 2001, the impact of Ives was twofold.
“I met him early on and it made a big difference to why I wanted to keep working here,” Brian said. “When he started talking about what he’s done throughout his life to try and take care of people it was so interesting to me.”
Their conversations were one of the motivators for Brian to change her whole idea about the theater program and led to the development of a changed B.A. at Quinnipiac – Theater and Community; something she believes no other college or university in the country has.
But Ives’ impact in Brian’s life goes beyond the professional. In 2013, she suffered a stroke and was in the hospital for more than a year. Ives came to see her on numerous occasions, talking to her when she couldn’t even hear him and sharing his experiences with rehabilitation.
This caring beyond the classroom and the workplace was repeated by Tomlinson. When she was sick last year, Ives went out of his way to make sure she had access to the medical care that she needed, which helped her to stay in school. He also went a step further, taking the time to reassure her parents in Kingston, Jamaica, that she was getting taken care of and contacting Tomlinson and her family over the summer to be sure that everything was going well.
Ives definitely understands what it takes to overcome health issues. Besides his bout with polio as a boy and Guillian-Barré in his forties, Ives, now in his sixties, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It affects his speech at times and he has some tremors as well.
“I can cover up my disability for most people and that’s sometimes why I tell jokes to kind of distract from that,” Ives confesses. “But my hand still shakes a bit and we can’t tell if that’s from the polio, post-polio syndrome, Guillian-Barré syndrome which turned me into a quadriplegic for a time, or like right now with my Parkinson’s.”
And when he is working with people of different cultures, humor serves another purpose for Ives. “I break down barriers with that,” he adds. “It makes me more human.”
It may be a device at times, but Brian gives another reason for the jokes.
“He’s very funny.”
It seems to be an assessment everyone agrees with. “He has the most amazing sense of humor and buries us in puns,” Tursi notes. “He just must stay up late thinking these things up.”
But it is his genuine sincerity that makes the biggest impression.
“He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, and he doesn’t lie,” Tursi reflected. “He never falters from his sense of purpose. He’s just completely committed and he wants to make the world a better place. It sounds trite, but it’s never come in a more sincere package.”
This warmth and genuine ease may best be reflected in a story from another student, Andrew Chestney, 19, who has traveled with Ives to Guatemala twice. When asked to share something that he felt summed up Ives as a person, Chestney related how during last year’s trip to work on a school for the disabled in the country, Ives and the students visited the homes of some of the students with disabilities in order to meet the people they had been working to try and help.
At one home, a young disabled girl was very excited by their visit. The girl’s family has recently had another child who was still a newborn. Chestney shared the image of Ives, sitting in this humble home, holding the infant in his arms while its sister was standing beside him, hanging off every word. Ives spoke jokingly with the family trying in jest to convince them to name their new child David.
“That,” Chestney said, “is David. He cares about everyone and he doesn’t treat them different. He’s not making them feel like he’s sorry for them, he’s just doing what he can to help.”
The need to help others is the most important thing to Ives. “I would hope that you would do things for altruistic reasons,” he explains. “But if not, do it because helping others is good for you personally and also for your own country.”
As for Ives, he takes his motivation from the small successes and believes they outnumber the frustrations of his job.
“I haven’t been able to bring peace to the world yet, but I’ve got little pockets of positive energy that we helped place around the world,” he said. “I’m probably going to have to be satisfied with that.”
It’s Labor Day and while many of us are too busy bidding a last adieu to summer, maybe we should be thinking about the labor movement and American workers. The fight for better wages, equal pay, reasonable working hours, safer working conditions, an end to child labor, and benefits like health coverage, workers compensation and retirement pensions has had a long history. Labor unions definitely had some great success in their heyday, although membership in unions has, and continues to decline. While there are arguments for and against the continued relevance and effectiveness of unions, many of the same issues that brought about their rise have never gone away.
Take for example the issue of equal pay for equal work. In an article about the history of equal pay, Charlotte Alter quotes an 1869 letter to the editor of the New York Times which cited the fact that women in the U.S. Treasury department were paid half the pay of men for the same grade of work. And even though John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, more than four decades later the U.S. Department of Labor is using this campaign to highlight the fact that women still earn an average of 78 cents on the dollar in comparison to men.
The fight over the minimum wage continues to be fought state by state. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. For a full-time worker earning the minimum wage, that works out to just $15,080 a year, not much above the 2015 Poverty Guidelines. Even though the National Conference of State Legislatures lists 29 states and the District of Columbia with higher state minimum wages, none meet the standard of a “living wage,” and there are several states whose minimum wage is set below the current federal level, and five who have no state minimum wage: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. This means that some workers who are not covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act may legally be paid less than the federal minimum wage.
A non-profit think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, identified a need for higher wages. They reported in August that:
Regardless of where they lived, minimum wage workers were earning too little to make ends meet.
Fast-food workers began the push to raise their wages to $15 an hour last year. At least two Democrats seeking the 2016 presidential nomination have both endorsed a $15 minimum wage, with Senator Bernie Sanders introducing legislation for it in Congress. Currently few Republican presidential candidates support any increase in the minimum wage, and none at the level that Sanders and Martin O’Malley are advocating. In fact, some like Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio have spoken about eliminating the federal minimum wage completely.
That is only two labor issues that are still at the forefront. Others, like workers’ compensation are hot-button topics as well. So where does that leave our labor unions today? Struggling, but receiving some definite support from the current administration.
In speeches this Labor Day, Vice President Joe Biden told a Pittsburgh audience there was a simple correlation between strong unions and a strong middle class. In Boston, President Obama made his point by referring to the NFL Players Association’s successful fight to overturn Tom Brady’s suspension “You know if Brady needs a union,” Obama said, “we definitely need unions.”