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It is time to not just listen, but act on behalf of those disadvantaged in society

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OCTOBER 02, 2018

Running for office is a difficult task for anyone. For people who have been traditionally disadvantaged, however, whether female, people of color, people with disabilities, or LGBTQ+, it carries an extra layer of difficulty. However, it also carries an opportunity. Our mere presence in the race highlights the difficulties that others like us face. We have an added responsibility not only to ourselves, but to those who don’t have the same public voice. To me, it matters less who wins the race than the means used to do so and the effect that the public conversations that arise from a political campaign have on how the city makes policy and how we set an example to build a more just and equitable society.

Let us consider the importance of female representation. We’re witnessing it in the news daily, as an increasing number of women follow the example of Anita Hill and courageously speak out against abuses that many men still don’t acknowledge as a problem. All these years after Hill’s testimony, we still have not learned how best to address sexual harassment, abuse, and rape.

There is progress, however, as these last months have shown, part of which is because of more women having the courage to come forward. When one person speaks out, it sets the stage for others to come forward. This also applies to women running for office, as we can shift the conversation to issues that are not being adequately considered and can add much-needed perspective and action on issues specific to us. It also opens up space for frank discussions not only about the particulars of sexual abuse but the larger issues that arise when half of our population is marginalized, impairing society’s ability to provide the best outcomes for all.

Sexual harassment and abuse are issues currently on almost every woman’s mind in the U.S. There are several other issues, however, that aren’t being addressed with the same urgency by women as a collective group, even though a large subset of women are facing these issues. The principle of intersectionality explains how “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender … apply to a given individual or group, [and are] regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Furthermore, “through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us.”  Remembering that there are many women around the globe facing a variety of problems ranging in severity but all deserving the full support of fellow women and men around them is essential to this principle, which builds bridges between disadvantaged people. For example, women living with disabilities face life-threatening struggles that the public may be unaware of. Although disability touches every gender, race and class, it continues to be an issue that is not sufficiently understood, discussed and acted upon.

We, as women, are traditionally paid only 80.5 percent of what most men make, a number that is even lower for women of color. Women’s benefits are calculated on their wages during their working years, and if their work is interrupted by family care, pregnancy or illness, they end up being worse off. Since benefits are calculated based on income, women are further disadvantaged. If that isn’t bad enough, there are currently more than $70 billion worth of cuts to the Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, on the table and very little organized opposition against them from a broad base. We ignore this not only at our own peril, but also at that of our community.

I lost nine years of work over a bad diagnosis and a long recovery from spine surgery, and I am still trying to figure out how to adapt in order to get back to work on a regular basis, as I need many accommodations. My combination of disabilities (some invisible) is something that, according to the judge, called for a “sheltered work environment.” Work environments of this sort, allow for people with disabilities to be paid at a subminimum wage. Goodwill has been a big player in this sphere, paying their employees with disabilities as little as 22 cents an hour. The company is gradually phasing this out after huge backlash, though it is still legal under Section 14(c) of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

With proposals to have work or community engagement requirements attached to Medicaid, this is an even more frightening scenario, as the many people with serious illnesses have full-time jobs and are already doing what has to be done to take care of themselves. In addition, the minimum wage isn’t a living wage for most people, let alone those with the extra expenses that serious medical conditions entail, many of which aren’t covered by current benefits. Moreover, such requirements would effectively block access to necessary care for many, especially those on the streets who would not be able to navigate the accompanying bureaucratic nightmare.

We need to stand together against federal attacks on the social safety net, as well as the very real threats they pose in our community.

I speak of this because people with disabilities are under attack right now, as the dominant rhetoric from all major parties is that SSDI is not part of Social Security’s core mission and therefore often overlooked when we speak of cuts to Social Security. This makes these programs more susceptible to cuts without the same political consequences they would have if they were recognized as having the same importance as the Social Security retirement income, and very few people seem to want to talk about it.

As women, we are all aware of what being on the receiving end of discrimination is like, but still, it is easy to lose sight of issues that are often covered up or don’t receive as much media attention. When someone speaks up, it’s up to us not only to listen, but to hear and to act. Let’s not leave anyone behind.

Mary Behm-Steinberg is an activist and artist who is running for Berkeley City Council’s District 1 seat.

OCTOBER 02, 2018