Monday, November 23, 2015

The Glamorization of Poverty

The Febrauary 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) discusses some serious issues around the glamorization of poverty by many punks of privilege, and how stark a contrast this presents with the real, entrenched poverty experienced by many public school students, particularly students of color in and around economically disadvantaged communities. It is by Mike Friedberg, who teaches 7th grade science and 8th grade language arts at a public school in Chicago. Mike has run a record label and distro, booked shows, writes a zine (No Thanks), and was in Kontaminat. He can be contacted directly at mfriedberg85 [at] gmail.com

For the past several years, I have increasingly had mental debates whether I should attend various punk festivals. I'll be thirty by the time this is published. I have more responsibilities and focuses in my life, and punk has become less of a priority, which is not necessarily positive or negative. I still love hardcore punk, its energy, and the release it brings me. And I also more responsibilities and other areas of focus and interest. It's a duality that many punks face as they get older.
But one aspect of first world punk that continuously bothers me is the glamorization of poverty. Punk is about rejecting society in many ways. But so many punks attempt to do this by repudiating the common things that give many working class people a sense of basic dignity- their appearance, cleanliness, clothes, etc.
My perspective on this evolved more and more as I have worked with urban youth over seven years ago. I began working at a local community center, became a substitute teacher, and eventually became a full time public school teacher, which I have been doing for nearly three years now. One of the first conversations I had where this topic came up was at an after school program that I worked for. Somehow, the topic of dumpster diving came up. My students had never heard of it and were completely flabbergasted that someone would eat food from the garbage, let alone by choice. They were in complete shock. One of them told me that you couldn't pay him enough money to do that.
That conversation stuck with me, especially because dumpster diving is so prevalent with many punks, even beyond the "lifestyle" of many "activists" and oogles.
Years before this, I remember discussing this kind of thinking with an older punk I looked up to, and he told me that his main issue with those people was that they're simply taking, not building or creating anything. He also pointed out that in the process of advocating shoplifting from Walmart (an undoubtedly horrendous corporation) the prices become raised for working class people who shop there out of necessity. This point is controversial to many. What is definitely true is the white privilege factor that a white punk has that many ignore. Every single person of color that I know is incredibly cautious in stores. I was with a family member (who is a person of color) and she mentioned that even though I try to reuse bags when I bring them into stores, she never does because she would be accused of stealing.
I know that for the most part I'm preaching to the choir here, but these points are still relevant, and the fact is that glamorizing poverty is still all too prevalent in punk. This really stood out to me when I went to a big show a few years ago. I was overwhelmed with disgust at seeing the punks there. Perhaps I was naive, but I always believed that punk was about more than not bathing and acting like an idiot. What attracted me to punk (and what still attracts me) is the critical thinking aspect of it; punk is about questioning and looking at not just the outside world, but our own scene as well.
I'm not sure how to say that without sounding judgmental, but it's the truth. I have no problem with people who just want to relax and party, as most of my friends do, and punk shows are definitely an escape and a place to relax. But I don't think that punk shows should become the equivalent of college first parties, except with a different dress code, which encourages people to appear as poor and dirty as humanly possible.
Between the filth, ignorance, and scummy old dudes trying to hit on young girls, by the end of the show I became pretty depressed. I had a long talk with a friend who also attended who I got into punk with at the same time. We both realized that this was a new chapter in our lives. As much as we had detached from punk in many ways, we realized that we would probably stop going to many of these big shows/fests, and that we were moving on. It felt strange, especially because for many years, punk seemed to be the only thing I had.
(With all that said, I still love punk and everything it brings to me. A week ago I saw Glue, Violent End, and Public Assault- a band I had not seen and has a singer still in high school. The bands were amazing and it made me so happy to see super young punks going crazy and having fun for great bands; I wouldn't say I'm jaded, but I am critical.)
Two days later I returned to the school I work at to witness one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. The classroom next to mine performed a "mock trial", complete with two real life lawyers as judges. The students all had different roles- prosecution, defense, bailiff, witnesses- complete with pieces of evidence for all to see. All the students dressed up to the nines. You could see them beaming with pride in their shirts, ties, dresses, skirts, etc.
I teach at a low income school where 93% of our students are low-income. It is nearly all students of color. The community deals with many common urban problems- poverty, gangs, violence, and drug use. This becomes relevant as a reference point. Seeing our students perform this mock trial was beyond inspiring. Many of our students are "teenage kids with adult problems", as my coworker put it. Seeing these kids put in 100% into this event was incredible. They worked so hard, and were so proud.
My own pride came shining through when I watched the jury, which was composed entirely of my own students! Seeing them use their critical thinking skills to evaluate the evidence of the trial was incredible. I felt such joy in being their teacher. One of them even told me afterwords that she now wants to become a lawyer. This was particularly incredibly because of the student herself, who has an incredibly difficult life and is one of the most persistent people I have ever met. She, like many of my students, will be the first person in her family to attend college.
Hearing those words was amazing, and a complete contrast from the disgust I had felt a few days ago. I'm not saying this to be self-righteous or to say that teaching is for everyone, because it definitely is not. (Nor is college.) I love hardcore, but if punks want to be taken seriously and create any tangible, positive change in the world, they have got to wake the fuck up and stop glamorizing poverty. --Mike Friedberg


I am an activist, a punk, and an aspiring teacher. I am constantly searching for ideas/inspiration on how to radicalize and subvert teaching pedagogy (the science, art, and philosophy of education) to better understand and elevate my students. As mentioned earlier, this column is designed to provide a platform for radical, subversive teachers/educators to share their ideas and draw attention to important issues around education; particularly compulsory- and community-based education. If you are a teacher (anywhere in the world) for students of primary or secondary school ages (K-12), Community Colleges, or alternative learning arrangements such as collectivist free schools, and you want to submit an idea for a column, please write an email to teachingresistance [at] gmail.com --John No, Teaching Resistance editor

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