Is America Fundamentally Broken?

I wasn’t supposed to go to Chicago.

My flight to get to Netroots Nation was booked from DC to Minneapolis, with 20 minutes to change in Chicago O’Hare International airport. But arriving at the airport, the first leg has been changed to go to Texas, leaving half an hour earlier. After negotiating with three American Airline representatives, obtaining a boarding pass, running through security, and arriving at the gate, I was told there was no seat for me on the flight. So I wasn’t going to Texas after all. There was a flight one hour later that went to Chicago, but the next connecting flight to Minneapolis wasn’t until 8.30pm that night. So I ended up in Chicago.

After a few emails and phone calls to people who knew people who lived there, I had arranged to meet a young woman involved in youth climate justice organizing called Marisol Becerra. We met for lunch at a diner on the north side of Chicago, where she works. But it’s the other side of the city, the south side, where Marisol grew up and where she still lives. And over lunch, Marisol told me a story about the state of America.

Marisol grew up in a Mexican American community called Little Village, on the south side of Chicago. She lives five blocks from a coal plant, one of over 60,000 young people living within a 2-mile radius of 2 polluting power plants. Every year in Little Village, pollution and toxins cause 41 premature deaths and 550 emergency room visits. She has been campaigning for clean air for her community for a very long time, involving young people and almost passing legislation at the local council level last year. But so far the influence of the power companies on local and state politics has been too strong, and Marisol’s community continues to be affected by extreme pollution levels. It reminded me of the asthma and cancer clusters caused by coal mining in the upper Hunter Valley (exposed by 4 Corners in December last year) – except that this is the middle of a major city and affects tens of thousands of residents who don’t have the economic means to move anywhere to protect their health.

But it’s not just the pollution from coal-fired power stations that affects Marisol’s community. There’s very little public transport. The bus route was cut, and so her community is coming together to try to organize their own bus system. There’s no recycling. The schools are bad, because in American school funding comes from property taxes. This means that if you live in an area with low property values, the schools are drastically under-funded, locking in cycles of poverty and lack of education. I fail to see any logical rationale for funding schools this way.

And then there’s the fact that even if you do manage to finish high school, a large proportion of young people in Marisol’s community can’t go on to college because they’re so-called “undocumented”. This means they came to the United States as children without going through an official migration process, and although they grew up in the USA, went to school in the USA, and all their friends live here, they can’t get a drivers licence; can’t go to college; and risk being deported back to a country they never knew, at any time. In essence, they grew up American, but they can’t have a future in America.

This situation almost ended when the DREAM act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) was voted on after an inspiring campaign led by immigrant youth, which I’m hearing a lot about here at Netroots Nation today. The House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act on December 8, 2010,and it went to the Senate, getting a majority but failing to reach the 60-vote threshold by only 5 votes. In the end there were 55 supporting the bill, and 41 against.

So an entire generation of young Mexican-Americans are excluded from higher education and can’t even get their driver’s licences! How is this in the interests of anyone in America?

Oh, and did I mention that Marisol doesn’t have health insurance, and neither do a huge proportion of Americans? There are people in America who have needlessly died because they can’t afford to get treated at a doctor or hospital. It seems hard to believe, coming from a country like Australia with universal public healthcare.

How did it get to be this bad? Things that just fundamentally don’t make sense, like excluding a large percentage of the population from meaningful involvement, are common. Issues that shouldn’t be partisan and are basic common sense have been used by Republicans to divide the country. People who just want the chance to live healthy, fulfilled lives can’t do so. The richest, most powerful country in the world has a large chunk of its people living in extreme poverty and thinks it can’t afford to pass legislation to reduce pollution, tackle climate change and save the future of humanity and the natural world. There are power stations down the road from schools, and people dying from pollution. And then there’s the Tea Party…

I know Australia’s not perfect. There are people suffering from inequality, people who are homeless, people experiencing racism and homophobia and sexism. The river system that supports 40% of our food system is in the process of dying, farmers are leaving the land, people in loving relationships who still can’t marry if they’re the same gender, women in Queensland who face being 10 years prison time if they have an abortion; and an entire generation of youth who face an extremely bleak future because of how badly Australia is being impacted by climate change.

Of course, we have a long way to go. But compared to the United States, we have good healthcare, education, a low unemployment rate, and a social safety net. We’re about to pass a price on carbon pollution and I’m sure that someday soon we’ll start investing more in renewable energy.

I want to make sure the youth movement in Australia does everything we can to stop our country sliding down the same slope as the USA has. Australian Conservatives look towards what’s happened in the US – privatization of almost everything; a narrative against government services; and the demonization of acting on climate change as a threat to jobs; concerted attempts to disenfranchise the parts of the population (youth, people of colour) more likely to vote against them; and full-scale assaults on workers through attacking Unions. We can’t let things get this bad in Australia and we need to support young leaders like Marisol standing up for environmental justice – and justice in general – in their communities and on the national stage.

We all know that what happens in America influences the rest of the world, even countries as far away as Australia. I was definitely supposed to go to Chicago.

About annastarrrose

Author & environmentalist
This entry was posted in Churchill fellowship, climate change, progressive movement, women, youth. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Is America Fundamentally Broken?

  1. Ramya says:

    This breaks my heart, but thank you so much for sharing Marisol’s story. I had no idea that was how America’s public school funding works. It is counter-intuitive and morally wrong.

    • I know, isn’t it crazy Ramya! Makes no sense at all… especially for a country that is supposed to be about all people being created equal; no equality of opportunity at all.

  2. Meredith Palmer says:

    Last fall, I was in Philadelphia visiting the Philadelphia Student Union – they are a group of high school and some middle school students who are organized to improve the condition of public schools in the city. We talked to some of the students about what their experiences were in the schools there. One girl said that they didn’t even get real textbooks in any of their classes – they only received the practice booklets for the standardized tests they will have to take at the end of the year. Education is slipping into an abyss of bureaucratized & inequality-sustaining distractions for young people to spend time in while there parents may or may not work. I was really inspired by the work that the students were doing – working with the Media Mobilizing Project to get their stories out, learn about legislation and changes that affect them, and make demands on the local school districts.
    It is these and other untold stories, like you mentioned above, that need to become common knowledge in the US. I think what we are seriously lacking here are the means and motivation to talk with one another about the ways in which these oppressive systems affect our future, our parents, our children, and the earth, air and land around us. There is a disconnect that keeps people from sharing those stories, and organizing around common issues. But that abyss does not exist everywhere, and people are breaking it down everywhere. The 1960’s in the US generated a whole generation of powerful consumers expecting high material comfort, and faithful in market systems. The ones who were privileged enough to experience that lifestyle are largely in “power” right now. But that won’t last forever. Things are changing rapidly. I believe that it is possible for people to start telling their untold stories, to understand how our lives intersect, and the injustices in our health, education, and food systems.
    I once heard from Willie Baptist, a formerly-homeless social organizer in NYC, that 140 years ago, black chattel slavery was considered ‘normal’ and now it is unthinkable in the United States. Today, homelessness and poverty (and a whole slew of injustices) are considered ‘normal’ occurrences – but it does not have to stay that way.
    Thanks for your article Anna!

    • Thanks Meredith for your awesome comments. That’s so right – things that are considered “normal” in the USA are seen as so abhorrent in lots of parts of the rest of the world (the extreme levels of inequality, broken education & health systems) and more and more Americans – especially youth – are realising it doesn’t make sense, too.

  3. Julie says:

    Julie says

    The Australian education has followed the broken testing model prevalent in America, and public/ private school funding models are a joke. Assuming Australian public schools are in universal good shape is unjustified.

    • M says:

      @Julie I think its justified when you compare it to the states though.

      I don’t know enough about how the Australian education system operates, but having finished at a public school less than ten years ago, I feel as if the education I received was reasonably comprehensive and definitely allowed me to pursue further opportunities.
      Something probably has to be done with regards to the public/private funding issue (again, don’t know enough to provide any definitive comment), but when reading about the nightmare that is the United States education system, Australia seems streets ahead…. Maybe thats naive of me?

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