Why We Run: Supporting IRIS and their Run For Refugees

I published this piece on the blog of one of my clients, One6Three the Pizza Joint. They donate pizzas to this race each year and are very involved in the East Rock Community. I create pieces for their blog that highlight their connection to the community, the personality of the employees and owners, and fun pieces about their menu items and restaurant events. 

The Race

On Super Bowl Sunday, February 4th, IRIS will be holding their annual Run For Refugees. They are hoping to exceed their number of participants from last year’s race and host over 3,000 runners for a fun, fast, 5k through East Rock’s beautiful neighborhood. One6Three has joined many of New Haven’s local businesses, like Archie Moore’s, Koffee, and mActivity to support this cause by donating goods and services for the race. The money raised will allow IRIS to help refugees “establish new lives, regain hope, and contribute to the vitality of the Connecticut community.” To do this, IRIS will provide housing, food, education, healthcare, and legal services as well as emotional and social support to the refuges that they work with.

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The Reason

In recent years, refugee resettlement in the United States has been a hotly debated issue. Opponents of refugee resettlement point to fears surrounding national security and the perceived cost as reasons to reduce the number of refugees who enter the country. Although extensive measures have been taken to ensure that refugees do not pose a security threat, and that, in fact, welcoming refugees into our country will only strengthen the economy, a fear-based mentality has cast a xenophobic shadow across this issue.  It does not help that Mr. Trump has reinforced these fears, aggressively altering laws surrounding the welcoming and support of refugees into America. During his administration, he has capped the number of refugees entering the country to 50,000, the lowest number since 1980. Additionally, Trump has furthered his “America First” agenda by pulling out of the United Nations Global Compact on Migration. He has also repealed a “follow to join” path to citizenship that aimed to reunite refugees with their families who are still in their countries of origin.

In 2016, over 900 refuges came to Connecticut, and out of that number 475 were welcomed by IRIS. These refuges came from a variety of places including The Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. With very little help from the federal government, organizations like IRIS must rely on donors and fundraising to raise the majority of the funds that they use to serve America’s newest citizens. Aside from the humanitarian cause of helping displaced people, there is an economic benefit to supporting refuges when they enter the country. While it has been proven that “the macroeconomic effect from the refuge serge is likely to be a modest increase in GDP growth” in order for countries like America to reap the long term financial gains that refugees can offer, investing in initial supports and resettlement programs are essential. Job training and placement, language lessons, and social and emotional support can all speed up the integration process.  Although some would argue that resettlement supports place an unfair burden on the American tax payer, studies have shown that “over their first 20 years in the United States, refugees who arrived as adults aged 18-45 contributed more in taxes than they received in relocation benefits and other public assistance.”

Ideally, America wouldn’t need financial reasoning to continue one of their oldest and proudest cultural traditions of welcoming people fleeing persecution. In the perfect world, coming to terms with humanitarian facts and figures such as the 12 million Syrians who have been displaced since the start of the war,  or that violence in The Democratic Republic of Congo has forced more than 10,000 citizens to flee into neighboring Uganda, or that an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in the South Sudan since their civil war began in 2013, would be reason enough to open our arms to those in need. IRIS believes strongly in supporting refuges and helping them create a new life in America. Their Run for Refuges allows their talented team to support refugees as they become happy, safe, active, members of our communities.

There is still time to sign up for the run or make a donation to IRIS before race day on February 4th.  I’ll be there representing One6Three, will I see you there?

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Is the Creation of Art a Privilege of the Rich?

The creation of art generally doesn’t equate to the creation of money. Since it can take years to see any sort of profit, if a profit ever comes at all, poor kids don’t pursue art. I’m sorry, let me rephrase that, poor kids can’t pursue art because they don’t have a backer to pay their bills for them while they do so. They have no safety net. They have no parent’s health insurance they can jump on. They don’t have the time or resources to pursue something that many in the lower and middle classes would classify as a hobby.

And if poor kids do pursue art? There is an immense guilt that they feel and an immense imposter syndrome. Working class people don’t paint pictures. We don’t write poems. We don’t spend hours writing and rewriting the same pages for the pursuit of beauty because well, that is a frivolous endeavor.

What is the real problem with this reality? Is the real problem that only rich kids have the option to take the time to pursue the arts? Or is it that as a society, we don’t value the arts in the ways that we should?  Artists don’t brandish the same ohs and ahs as doctors or lawyers. We are such a product-driven society, a society that is fixated on goods and tangible services, and working at the production of a product that doesn’t fit inside of previously formatted parameters is difficult for other people to understand.

At the risk of sounding like a ridiculous hippie, why is making money the most important pursuit?giphy6This is where the poor kid in me starts to roll my eyes at myself. I start to yell at my computer screen “So you don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck! So you can afford an apartment in a safe neighborhood! So you can eat something other than mac and cheese for dinner every night! (I mean, mac and cheese is delicious and everything but….). There are very few hippies I’ve met in my life who come from poverty. It is a wonderful choice to make the conscious decision to move away from materialism and move closer to nature, but many times this involves a start in life that included materialism.  It is a wonderful choice to choose to pursue happiness instead of financial success, but what is often overlooked is that it is a very privileged choice that someone gets to make to shirk financial stability. The poor know that you can’t shirk something that you never had. You can’t turn away from something that was never yours.  In wealthy households, children are taught that their possibilities are endless. They are raised believing they can, and should be and do anything they want. They have the security to dream and explore.

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So what is the consequence? As our society moves into this dangerous realm where everyone goes to college and there is a formal training for every job, what does that mean for the arts? There are nearly 300 MFA programs across the country today (three decades ago, there were barely 50).  The creative writing majors and the fine arts majors are overflowing with all the kids from the right side of the tracks, all the trust funds, and all of the offspring who don’t know what an overdraft fee is. And the poor kids who love to write, love to draw, love to create, but can’t justify spending 40 grand a year on an education that won’t guarantee them a steady position are siphoned out. I know very few poor kids who made it to college just to study art. The studios and creative writing majors are filled with rich kids who have the privilege to pursue their passion with a financial safety net to protect them. What does that mean for the art that finds its way to our bookshelves, gallery walls, Spotify stations, and stages? When I read a new book, I can’t help but wonder who I’m not reading. I wonder whose voice has been left out of our societal narrative because they couldn’t finish their book because they were just trying to pay their rent. What can be done to counteract this dangerous trend and what happens when art becomes a privilege of the upper class?

For now, I’m going to argue for the good old-fashioned patron, because I’m not sure what else to do. So if there is a king somewhere or a member of the nobility or some aristocrat who is willing to fund my life while I make art, I’m taking applications.

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How I Quit My Career to be a Writer

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This is my actual 2016/2017 school picture. This is in the yearbook, friends.

For nearly 12 years, I worked in inner-city education. The cities I worked in were some of the most impoverished in the state. The students and families I served were some of the most deserving, hardworking people, and I was honored to work for them.

But after 12 years of working as a high school English teacher and non-profit teacher organizer, I was pretty much burnt out to a laughable degree. I would drive to work and think to myself, I wish I would just get rear-ended. Nothing serious, I don’t have enough money for a new car or anything, but just enough to get me to the hospital for the day with some minor neck pain and a doctor’s note. I was to the point where a day in the hospital, wearing an open-in-the-back-smock, sleeping in a hospital bed, surrounded by the stank of death and disinfectant sounded better to me than going to work. And this seemed normal to me. Crying in the shower before work was normal to me. Trudging through the day just to get back into bed seemed normal.

The last 2 and half years of my career, I worked in a high stakes charter network that claimed to care about teacher professionalism (they didn’t) and claimed to care about student achievement (they really didn’t) and working inside of what I perceived to be a militant, racist system was slowly crushing my soul.

But I’m a realist. I’m a lower, middle-class girl from a broken home and my family is not the type of family that says ridiculous things like, “Follow your dreams!” They are more of the, “Who’s going to pay your bills?” kinda group. My parents didn’t have careers. They had jobs (sometimes). They went to work, and they expected me to do the same, and get a paycheck, and shut up about it. I had a few degrees under my belt, and a “good”, “secure” job, and by all definitions, I was lucky and I had tremendous guilt and fear about leaving a good job because I was unhappy. It was such a millennial mindset. It was a mindset for spoiled brats, or so I told myself.

According to a recent Harris Poll, only 33% of Americans are happy. And if we analyze some of this data a little closer, we can lean on the Easterlin Paradox that suggests that “there is no link between the level of economic development of a society and the overall happiness of the citizens.” But I was on a path, that I felt I had little control to alter. At the end of the 2017 school year, I was coming close to 35 and trying to wrap my head around embracing my unhappiness. To make myself feel better, I told myself that everyone feels like this. All the people I worked with hated their jobs. All my friends more or less hated their jobs. So what? Just suck it up and keep working, keep your head down, and trudge along and one day, in about 30 years you can retire, and then you can die, and then you can stop whining.

I started applying for other teaching jobs, but nothing was panning out. I thought about switching careers and getting back into the non-profit sector that I spent almost two years in, but the pay was so much less for what I imagined would be, lots of extra stress, and I didn’t really want to do that work anyway. The last thing I wanted was to jump from one miserable job to another. I started writing list after list looking for a good reason to stay at my current job. My lists looked like this:

Reasons to stay at your job: Good pay. Summers off. Health benefits are good (free birth control). You like the kids. Sometimes there are cupcakes in the breakroom. Your coworkers are cool. You like telling people you are a teacher. Only babies quit. Don’t be a baby. Suck it up. Remember: the cupcakes.  You’re too scared to quit. You’d fail at another job. You’ll fail. You’re scared. You’re too scared. You’re way too scared. You can’t just start over. You’re thirty-freaking-five. You don’t start over at 35.

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Reasons to leave your job: No growth opportunities. Charter school work is sucking the life out of you. Racist establishment. The kids call the principal and deans white supremacists behind their backs. 60+ hour work weeks. You cry in the shower in the morning. You hate it. You want to be a writer. You hate it. You want to be a writer. You hate it.

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In the end, I decided that being scared was the only real reason I had to stay, and being scared to leave is not a good enough reason to stay anywhere. So I left. I told my principal in a meeting. I was one semester away from finishing my MFA and I told him I wanted to focus on writing. He said to me, “What are you even getting a degree in? What are you going to be, A Writer? He then offered me a part-time position so I could spend time on my “stories” which would include half the pay, no benefits, and if I were lucky, 15 hours less a week of work. No thank you. I left that office floating.

But there are lots of practical challenges to leaving your profession, the career you’ve been cultivating for years, the position you thought you’d retire in, to jump into the virtual unknown. Here are some practical steps to leave your job for a new job that is unstable and terrifyingly exciting.

  1. You’re going to want to drink a lot with your friends and get to the point where you are all saying things like, “Yes, totally! You can totally do this!” Thanks Pam.
  2. You need to save up some money. I saved up a month’s worth of all my bills. I knew that freelance writing would take a while to get up and running and I needed something to keep me floating while I could build a base.
  3. Acknowledge your privilege. I am lucky to have most possibly the best husband in all of human history and I was able to get on his health insurance. I’m 35. I need a few monthly pills and yearly checks. I also have three higher education degrees. A B.S. in Secondary Education and English Literature, an M.A. in English Literature and an MFA in writing. I realize that these degrees make me more marketable and more likely to receive certain jobs. I could leave my job with a decent amount of confidence that I would be ok.
  4. Get brave. I tend to be mostly insecure about most things, so leaving a career and a profession that I had worked at and become good at over the course of 12 years was terrifying. Suddenly I was a newbie. Suddenly I had to learn how to do everything all over again. I had to develop new routines and new plans and then when those plans didn’t work, I had to try again. I had to tell that voice in the back of my head that was jumping up and down and laughing and pointing at me and screaming, You suck! You can’t do this! Why would you think you can do this? to shut up.
  5. Get humble. I still needed to pay my bills. My husband and I had a long talk about finances and in the end, we realized that his job and the dynamic of our relationship would require me to still be a 50/50 partner in our financial life. It was beyond important for me to still maintain my equal contribution to your finances. I needed a way to pay bills. All through college I worked at Applebee’s. (Please never eat their Riblets. Ever.) I had to go back to basics and get a waitressing job. Luckily my brother was just opening a pizza place and I went to work for him.

It’s been almost 5 months since I started writing (and waitressing) full time. I have a handful of clients, a handful of online publications I write for, and I’ve even gotten one of my creative pieces published.

I usually don’t cry in the shower anymore.

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