The thriving of low-income Black workers in Baltimore and beyond is critical for equitable access to housing, food, education, health, recreation, transportation. When someone who works for a living, is still unable to afford adequate food, shelter, clothing and medicine, we remain an inequitable society. When those workers congregate into the same racial/ethnic group, we have systematic racism: racism which is not only individualized but embedded deep within the policies and infrastructures of our society. A Black Worker Center can be a base of organizing to address this inequity for black people in Baltimore*.
The ability to work is the first step toward equity. This means that a person has the physical and mental wellness, health, to support them finding employment. The second step is being qualified to work: has the person had the necessary training to compete in the marketplace for a position? The third step is the availability of work. The fourth step is that the place of employment supports the worker so they can stay in the position and thrive. This fourth step brings us back full circle to the first: a thriving person has the ability to work. It’s a cycle that continues and that either allows a healthy and holistic body and mind to thrive, or not: on a cellular, organ, individual, community level.
Our environment supports our ability to work by supporting or physical and mental well being. This includes having healthy food, adequate shelter, regular and affordable access to preventive health care, a safe community, and a life not burdened by the stress of systematic discrimination. For a Black body, none of these conditions for a healthy life is assured. In fact, being Black increases the likelihood that these conditions are diminished and that an ongoing struggle is necessary to assure one or all of these conditions are in place. The historical trauma of slavery and current racism for Black people in America is a risk factor for diminished physical and mental health. This history includes government policies and public:private partnerships resulting in redlining, segregation and abandonment, urban renewal, and serial forced displacement. This historical and current racial oppression have increased the likelihood of low-income Black communities living with increased crime, drug trade, food deserts, diminished infrastructure, inadequate education, housing, transportation, and health services, and abandoned/boarded housing. These environments increase the risk of diminished health and shorter life spans. Low-income jobs which do not allow a family to leave such neighborhoods and laws and policies which continue community rebuilding that segregate and displace residents continue the risk of diminished health, and ability to work.
Qualified to work
Being qualified to work requires that a person has had the opportunity to receive training that makes them competitive with others seeking similar employment. But if a low-income Black person, growing up in an abandoned and under-invested community has not received adequate education and training, they cannot compete with a person growing up in a neighborhood which allowed access to adequate education and training. If a low-income Black person has been in a community without role models who have succeeded in the market/workplace, they have not benefited from this type of informal-training. If a low-income Black person has received education that is not truthful about the courage, resilience, and accomplishments of Black people, they can/will internalize these wrong perceptions and believe that they cannot strive or achieve great things. And if the communities in which a low-income Black worker lives is not connected to a functional transportation system, they will be challenged to make it to work on time. Access to the workplace qualifies one to work.
Availability of Work
There must be jobs available for low-income workers. Jobs which provide on-the-job training, apprenticeships, and access to education are important to assure that a low-income person can make their way out of a low-income lifestyle. The people hiring for these jobs must be trained in anti-oppression/anti-racism so they will not discriminate against hiring Black workers. Low-income jobs should not be equated to inadequate-income jobs. This means low-income jobs should pay enough to afford a family to: live in healthy neighborhoods, access adequate health care, access nutritious food. If employers in Baltimore will not/cannot pay adequate income to afford a family to live in a healthy neighborhood, a guaranteed basic income may be necessary to assure low-income families can break this cycle of poverty.
Supportive Work Environment
Whether a person remains in a position once hired is determined by many factors. Are they promoted the same as other workers? For a Black worker, are they promoted, paid, and treated the same as White workers? Do co-workers or supervisors aggress Black workers with language and behaviors? Are low-income workers treated fairly, provided health insurance, a living wage, regular raises? If the wages paid do not allow a worker to live in healthy neighborhoods then the work environment continues to contribute to diminished health, decreasing the ability to work and live in healthy communities: the inequitable and unhealthy work cycle for low-wage Black workers continue into another generation. If the work environment does not respect the worker, workers will look elsewhere for an income to support themselves and their family. This type of work can be perceived as not a viable option for work. If there is no work, as occurred during the industrial revolution when factory work left cities and large unemployment occurred in communities, hustling begins (Dr. Mindy Fullilove, Black Mental Health Alliance series, 2016). This results in decreased social cohesion and dysfunctional communities.
The generational impact of unfair low-wage work is detrimental to healthy community rebuilding for all workers; specifically detrimental for recovery from historical trauma for Black workers. Black Worker Centers are increasing across the US with Baltimore launching its center (Black workers share about challenges faced working in sub-contracting positions for big corporations) on Martin Luther King Day, January 2017. Baltimore Black Worker Center (BBWC) is committed to building a Black worker base to address the conditions of workers and to organize to change unfair policies and introduce new policies which support equitable treatment and healthy living, working, and learning conditions for Black workers. If our most vulnerable populations thrive, all of Baltimore will thrive. The reverse is also true. Stay tuned for BBWC’s first report on the history and current status of Black workers in Baltimore.
*Low income work is defined as less than $35,000/year, gross.
# Maps: http://bniajfi.org/
$ Living Wage Table: http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/24510