Why Economic Diversity Matters

Some once derided the place I teach at, Pacific Lutheran University, or “PLU”, as “People Like Us”. I’m happy to report PLU is doing a much better job recruiting diverse students who look a lot more like their Pierce County peers. Which makes teaching about writing and multiculturalism a whole lot more fun because the students regularly enlighten one another with their very different life experiences.

Case in point. The other day we were discussing the concept of “social infrastructure” or the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact. Specifically, public libraries. The question was where would we be without them. To which Lizveth said, “I have four siblings and we have one computer and no printer. Whenever I had to print something in high school, I headed straight to the library.”

Lizveth, the first in her family to attend college, is one of my top students. Her future is bright. The beauty of her story was how she told it. Wonderfully matter-of-factly. The subtext, “There’s way more to me than my family’s economic struggles.”

It’s hard to understate the importance of Lizveth’s abbreviated story. Especially for middle and upper middle class students who have few frames of reference for thinking about their relative privilege.

In 23 words she taught everyone more about economic privilege than I have all semester. If they were truly listening.

Wednesday Required Reading and Listening

  1. The public library is open and freely available to all. Imagine a world in which the Billionaire Boys’ Club invested in public libraries instead of space travel.
  2. Does Ethiopia have a future? Things are looking more and more dire by the day.
  3. Being kind to yourself
  4. A 100 year-old priest was nudged from his parish. He has no plans to retire.
  5. ‘Dormzilla’ at University California, Santa Barbara. A good problem to have. 

Palaces For The People

I’m two-thirds through Eric Klinenberg’s excellent book Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, And The Decline Of Civic Life. The book jacket explains what Klinenberg means by “social infrastructure” and why it matters:

“Klinenberg believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks in which crucial sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. These are places where people gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community. Klinenberg calls this the ‘social infrastructure.’ When it is strong, neighborhoods flourish; when it is neglected, as it has been in recent years, families and individuals must fend for themselves.”

Klinenberg makes a particularly strong case for public libraries. If I was Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Jeff Bezos, that’s where I’d focus a significant portion of my philanthropy.

Where I’m at currently in the book, Klinenberg is drawing on Jeff Wiltse’s social history of municipal swimming pools in the United States which I may have to read next. Wiltse offers searing reminders of our longstanding struggles with racism. For example, he recounts the story of a Little League Baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, that celebrated its city championship in 1951 at a beautiful municipal pool in South Side Park.

The team had one African American player, Al Bright, and lifeguards refused to let him past the perimeter fence while the other players swam. When several parents protested, the supervisor agreed to let Al ‘enter’ the pool for a few minutes, but only if everyone else got out and Al agreed to sit inside a rubber raft. While everyone watched, a lifeguard pushed Al around the pool shouting, ‘whatever you do, don’t touch the water!”

Wiltse adds:

“This was not an isolated incident, nor was it restricted to certain parts of the United States. Two years later, in 1953, the great African American film star Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toes in the swimming pool at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, which welcomed her as a performer but banned her, and all other blacks, from the water. The hotel responded by draining the entire pool.”

These mind-numbing historical anecdotes aside, Palaces For The People is a hopeful work.

In the United States, there are two fundamental problems with implementing the convincing road maps that Klinenberg and other social scientists outline for safer, healthier, more vibrant communities. Everyone’s ingrained individualism coupled with many people’s refusal to acknowledge that publicly funded government programs often make significant contributions to the common good.