Leila Osman, one of our volunteer Equalities Ambassadors, recently returned from a year studying abroad in Missouri, USA. In this blog she reflects on her experience on the other side of the Atlantic.
After spending the last year in Missouri, I have returned to begin my work as an Equalities Ambassador for EaRN. Weather aside, bonnie Scotland was sorely missed as I journeyed across the pond for a year of study and adventure at Washington University in St. Louis.
My first exposure to ‘St. Louis’ was the scene that faced me as I jumped out of my taxi on campus. As I surveyed the gloriously grand, modern-castle like buildings towering over me, I could not help being incredibly impressed and immediately aware of the sheer amount of resources being pumped into this prestigious institution. It was clear, however, that first impressions, and the Wash U campus, were miles away from the realities of St. Louis as a whole.
Although ‘ghost town’ might be a little unfair as a description for St. Louis today, there is certainly a feeling of lost potential and, as I journeyed further out of the campus towards down town St. Louis and along the border of North City, there was a strong impression of St. Louis’s booming, thriving, industrial past no longer being present today. It has followed the pattern that is all too familiar in some of the most troubled cities in the US. Since the end of the second world war, economic decline has devastated employment rates, ‘white flight’ (an exodus of the white population to new municipalities in St. Louis county), combined with discriminatory practices in many of its society’s foundational institutions, and the systematic exclusion of African American and minority populations in the labour market, has polarised African American and white people across the city. St. Louis today is among the most segregated and deprived cities in the US.
This deep divide became suddenly strikingly obvious to me one night, when we wondered back home, along the North city border, from a trendy restaurant area in central west end. Within one block, everything immediately changed: On my left were some of St. Louis’s most beautiful mansions with expansive gardens, magnificent towers and shiny cars parked behind high and imposing gates. On my right were dilapidated, abandoned buildings and badly lit streets. At one moment we heard gunshots only a few blocks to our right, with no sirens to follow. I was eventually told that we were actually walking along what’s known as the ‘Delmar Divide’; an invisible line separating North City –now predominantly African American and living below the poverty line – with a largely white, and richer, area.
So, where does Washington University sit in this world of polar opposites? In 2014, when Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, one of St. Louis’s municipalities, which was followed by an explosion of riots and protests, Washington University was unwilling to fully admit that its place in St. Louis is not just happenstance – it can not be so close to such devastating poverty and inequality without acknowledging that it may be a very relevant part of the picture. It had to reconcile with itself and do more to integrate itself with the backdrop in which it stands. There have certainly been some efforts to do this, with maybe some action left to be desired. As an exchange student I wanted to be part of any attempt to be a more active and self-conscious part in the St. Louis story. I looked to the most obvious manifestation of the inequality on campus – the overwhelming presence of African Americans in low skilled positions – The university campus employs thousands of workers in its day to day business. The majority of housekeepers, food staff, and grounds men/women are African American and from St. Louis, which is not surprising, considering the makeup of the St. Louis city community. However, it is undeniably a product of the diminished educational, economic, and political opportunity for African Americans, left by past and present discrimination. I joined Student Workers Alliance because it seemed like an effective, grassroots effort to positively impact the lives of workers on campus. It has at times been radical, and effective, in its efforts to transform the working conditions and livelihood of workers on campus. It has used various tactics to achieve its aims, from paralysing the university with radical action such as sit ins and protests in 2005, in order to pressure the university into taking immediate action to increase the minimum wage for work on campus, to acting as a mediator between workers who had felt their voices had not been properly heard. It aims to adjust its strategy and tone to the conditions and circumstances in which it is based. This year, our main aims were two fold; first, to make sure that the dining staff’s vote to unionise/not unionise was not interrupted by a non neutral administration, and second, to prepare for another push towards attaining a living wage on campus, which will continue next year. We want to follow the precedent set by other universities in the US that have increased their minimum wage to a sustainable living wage rather than a competitive wage for the St. Louis region – as an incredibly privileged institution they should be setting the standard for the area rather than paying their workers badly through contractors…
As for lessons learnt and things to bring back to Edinburgh and EaRN- Being involved in SWA, as well as the work I was doing for Shawnee Hills and Hollers, who were attempting to gain state recognition of their native American settlement in Southern Illinois, I have come away from St. Louis with a strong faith in the power of grassroots organising. Making people’s voices heard, information sharing by creating strong networks within an organisation or community, and trying to solve issues from the bottom up, really is a great way to get things done. Creating networks in any institution or area is key to promoting equality and opportunity by creating transparency and making actors accountable for various actions. It may be a bit of a simple cliché, but when people have the necessary resources, information, and access to the decision making processes that govern their lives, they are certainly more likely to achieve meaningful change.