July 18, 2024

three tales of courage

a marquee sign on the side of the road with a car driving behind it.
photo caption: a roadside marquee sign. there’s probably something funny written on it, but it’s too bright in the photo to read. behind it, a car speeds past. the post-sunset sky flows from purple to beige. though the car looks like it’s driving the wrong way, this photo is from texas. i miss texas even when most of the voters there want me dead.

Last week, I said that our success in a system often means it’s tilted towards us. What I mean to say is that the systems that we live, work, and play in are arbitrary. There’s no reason they have to stay the way they are. For centuries, these systems belonged by force to people who benefit from white supremacy. More recently, that group has grown to include people with privilege and those who can succeed under those conditions. The systems themselves are durable. While it can feel difficult or even impossible to change them, I know it can be done. It takes courage.

That doesn’t mean that people haven’t started. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to upset the secrets to our success. What would that even look like? How might we disrupt our own power to create a better world? I give the reader a partial answer this question with three pieces of advice and three stories.

help protestors meet their demands

Before 2022, most people in the u.s. didn’t think much about the working conditions of rail workers. Their pre-Christmas strike was such an emergency that the government stepped in. Rail bosses deferred or refused to meet many of their workers’ demands, citing high costs. The conditions and lack of safety regulations likely led to the environmental disaster in East Palestine, OH.

In Washington, farmworkers at Ostrom Mushroom Farms tried to form a union more than once. Management ignored their demands to end massive layoffs and unrealistic harvesting goals. Those workers organized a strike to protest against these unsafe and exploitative conditions.

Strikes and boycotts are what come to mind when I think about having solidarity with workers. But strikes are often a last resort when other methods fail to influence management. Unions don’t usually call for boycotts unless there’s a good reason to. Boycotts take messaging away from other solidarity actions that may be more effective. It’s important to listen to the workers and find out what they want consumers to do. Rasmus Hästbacka for Organizing Work names four ways to pressure companies into doing the right thing. These are moral pressure, psychological pressure, economic pressure, and legal pressure. They all have different advantages and drawbacks.As always, it’s up to us to let the people closest to the problem tell us how to solve it.

In Ostrom’s case, striking workers did put out a request to boycott their products. UFW says to check the labels of your mushrooms. If they are from Sunnyside, WA or have an “Ostrom Mushroom Farms” label, don’t buy! Instead, take a picture and send it to @sffw_uw with the store name and location. UFW’s page has a full list of actions you can take, workers’ demands, and updates on their progress.

The strike action may have led to a hasty sale of the company to an investment group, but the union’s fight isn’t over. The cost of so many things, from food to rent to other daily necessities, continues to go up. People can’t justify low prices as a reason to exploit workers when those prices aren’t even low. We have to support each other.

refuse reputation washing and say why

When I worked in food banking, my employer received an offer for a huge amount of donated pork. Animal proteins are a boon in food banking: this was a tempting offer! The donor’s major request was that we host a PR-friendly donation ceremony at our warehouse. Many of us felt like this was reputation washing: using good publicity to cover up bad publicity.

At the time, Smithfield Foods faced more than one lawsuit in North Carolina from people who live near their pig farms. Each farm produces huge lagoons of pig waste and a stink that gets into everything. During hurricanes and other disasters, those lagoons can overflow and contaminate flood waters. Slaughterhouses are also some of the most dangerous workplaces in the country. Some prey on immigrants with and without legal residency status and people with few job options. PR moves like these force non-profits to debate if it’s worth it to help some people at the expense of others. These debates happen all the time in the non-profit world. Rarely do we come out and settle the debate. Remember that the ends never justify the means.

No! Of course it’s not worth it! There is no reward or benefit that’s worth exploiting or harming people. Lots of non-profits wrestle with decisions like these. Many who choose to decline usually sent a polite “no, thank you” or ghost the donor altogether. This is what standards of professionalism might dictate, after all. But that frees the donor to find someone else willing to launder their ethics violations.

Instead, decline the offer and explain why. Insist that they end those harmful practices or repair the harm. Give them a chance to respond to the concern and go public if they don’t. We’re not just shaming that company when we go public. We’re signaling to our colleagues that they shouldn’t accept the offer, either. Don’t let companies launder their wrongs. Encourage them to set things right.

whatever you stand against is happening right now

We’re still writing this story. Thanks to social media and performative allyship, we’re all allies to someone. In every single direction I look, people are under attack. Trans people. Black people. LGBTQ people. I won’t link to the attacks because they’re distressing to look at—and you already know what I’m referring to.

I remember positions of tolerance people used to say were okay. Those days are over. Nate Shalev recently wrote a post on LinkedIn worth thinking about. It begins, “The reason so much of the anti-trans legislation has been able to pass is simple but you might not like the answer. The answer might be you.” The whole article is worth your deep consideration—even if you think you’re doing everything right. We need allies who are willing to fight alongside us all the time. Support from the sidelines or only when convenient is deadlier than an outright attack.

I started out thinking that I felt scared about what could happen next. I’m worried, sure, but I’m not scared. I’m angry. I’m outraged. People who call themselves an LGBT ally still insist on playing the antisemitic and transphobic wizard game. One of my favorite exchanges on twitter is one by @makeupbyshaniah. A user wrote, “Don’t quote me but I’m pretty sure our generation would have fought back during slavery.” She responded, “y’all can’t even boycott chic fil a.”

No choice is simple. But when you have the power to choose, side with the workers. Side with the marginalized. Side with the oppressed. If you can’t do that, you’re not on the side you think you are.

photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space