Friday, July 24, 2009

State Capitol Visit

I took my ESL class to the Minnesota state capitol yesterday. We toured the building, learned a little bit of history, and also visited state Senator John Marty. For over a half an hour, my class asked him questions they had practiced asking in class for the past few weeks. Not fluffy questions mind you, but important questions about the state welfare system, health care, immigration laws, and other issues directly impacting their lives. even though I have a lot of "gripes" with our government, both at the state and federal levels, taking learners who came from countries where they had no rights and no opportunities to do anything about the laws that controlled their lives, I always feel a little better about our own situation here in the U.S.

Here is an e-mail I just sent to Senator Marty, focused on the current health care crisis and how it impacts me personally. I consider it part of my spiritual life to speak honestly about my life, my opinions about the state of world, and to do what I can to make the world a better place. At the same time, part of this process is to remember that I will never know for sure all the fruits of my actions. Another part of this process is to remain open to other opinions as much as possible. So, it's really an attempt to have a different kind of being politically active in the world - one that isn't grounded in fixed, certain answers, and angry actions. I'm still learning how to do this, to live this way, but every step in that direction, is a step away from three poisons (greed, hatred, and delusion) that seem to infiltrate most political movements these days.

Dear Senator Marty,

I’m writing to thank you again for meeting with our students; they were very energized by the visit, and talked about it the rest of the school day.

I also wanted to share with you a bit of my own personal story, hoping it may be of some value when you are in debates about health care legislation, or when you are on the trail running for Governor in the coming months.

I have either volunteered or worked teaching English to immigrants and refugees for over eleven years now. Since 2002, I have been without health insurance because none of my employers have offered it, and I cannot afford to purchase a private plan of my own. My current employer, MORE School, has talked for several years about offering insurance, but has yet to be able to afford to do so. We are a small non-profit, with fewer than 15 employees, and we’ve been hard like many non-profits during the recession. As a result, not only am I continuing to be without insurance, but I am now taking a 9% pay cut on a salary that was, before the pay cut, less than $25 thousand a year.

Many people have told me to just move on when I have spoken of my lack of insurance. And now, with this pay cut, moving on is a very real reality.

But I have to say there is something very wrong when people are forced to leave work they are really passionate about because of issues like lack of health insurance. There is something unjust about a system that prices out not only individuals, but also most small non-profits and businesses as well. And this is what our for-profit health insurance industry is doing on a regular basis – forcing people to choose between what they love and what they need. It’s foul, and it has to change.

My school is a part of the Minnesota Adult Basic Education system. We serve over 30,000 students across the state, doing a variety of work from ESL and GED teaching, to citizenship studies, job preparation, and other social services. Of the teachers in the system, over 70% of us are employed part time, and many of those without benefits. There simply isn’t enough investment in us, either from government or from the charitable foundation and private sectors, for our system to actually function in a way that support both the learners and its employees. Good teachers quit everyday to find better paying jobs with benefits; many of these teacher quit solely because of financial reasons.

In my opinion, health care is a lynch-pin issue. You tug at it and everything else comes with. One of my favorite philosophers, Joanna Macy, who has combined her Buddhist meditation practice with studies of systems theory, always talks about “solving for pattern.” In other words, you find that which cuts across a variety of issues, and you take aim right there. So, I really think you are correct to place a strong focus on health care, and precisely to suggest that we need a single system that covers everyone.

But I think there needs to be a different approach to those who are against such things. There needs to be a stronger emphasis not on health care as a right for everyone (which I agree with), but on the patterns playing out by the system as it, and how changing it might change much larger patterns.

Republicans and conservative Democrats are often talking about the “flood” of people coming into the U.S. that “don’t speak English well.” Now, there are plenty of ways to address these kinds of comments, but I really think it’s important for people in Minnesota to realize that the very system set up to support English language learning is poorly funded, and has poor teacher retention precisely because of lack of health insurance or opportunities for full-time or close to full-time employment. And because of this, those studying English struggle more because they do not gain the consistency that children do, for example, from having the same teacher or set of teachers over a long period of time. Now, my argument is that if these teachers didn’t have to worry about health insurance, more of them would opt for less pay in order to do what they love. Probably not all, but more than currently do.

Pushing this point further, because English language learners receive inconsistent classroom instruction, fewer of them ever master the language, and thus struggle to achieve financial and social independence. Now, obviously some lawmakers and leaders will never be persuaded by anything when it comes to these kinds of issues. But it strikes me that some might, eventually, if things get presented differently.
I guess the questions I would like to ask you and your fellow lawmakers are these: “How many tens of thousands of people will have to, like me, be forced to choose between what they love to do and what will provide health insurance? How many more dedicated, passionate teachers will have to leave the ABE system before you stand up and collectively do something? How many more people will have to end up in emergency rooms due to lack of preventative treatment, in poverty due to medical bills, or simply dead before you collectively realize that we have to have a completely different model of health care?

I know you support these issues, but I ask you: How are you going to shift the debate in favor of better system? A single payer system? I think it can be done, but it needs to be done differently. There is no better time than now to change the way we care for each others’ health.

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