(This piece by Amber Mathwig was originally published in the December Zine)
I have been unemployed for 6 months. I have about $20 in my bank account and I’m pretty sure I am supposed to pay a friend back with it. I have no idea how I am going to pay my truck payments or insurance next week and I have creditors calling me several times a day (yo, they’re getting blocked though, it’s so much quieter).
I have never been happier.
Many of you may already be familiar with my back story. On April 24 of this year, I was arrested at my place of employment for trespassing after coming upon the university police conducting an unsafe active shooter training exercise and refusing to leave until they put the proper safety measures in place or cancelled the training altogether. I was placed on (paid) “investigatory leave” the next day and about five weeks later I was terminated from my position. As an at-will employee in a state with horrible worker protections, my supervisor did not need to provide a cause. After obtaining my investigative report and going through a grievance process (still going, by the way), they had supposedly made this decision based on my inability to work with cops AND that I had made the veterans center an unwelcoming place for “some populations of students”. Laughable, at best, given all the efforts I took throughout the previous year to find ways to work with university police in the capacity of my job while I was witnessing them commit violence and wielding the (in)justice system against students and community members whenever they possibly could. Also considering that making the veterans center a welcoming place for veterans or civilians who may identify as a person of color, queer, woman, transgender, anti-war, parent, immigrant, mixed citizenship family, old, young, disabled (you get the point) is something that I was KNOWN for and often applauded for, I can take a few educated and informed guesses where the sudden, “made the center unwelcoming” came from in light of the overall manner in which I was summarily dismissed from my job. I was not even allowed to go pack up my personal items on a regular business day, but directed to arrive at a time when no students would be present.
Anyways, I digress. I had thought I wanted to write to you all about the grievance process. Or being an anti-war, woman veteran working in veterans services. Or working in Student Affairs in Higher Education as a replaceable cog in the greater machine of commodification of our pain and challenges in the post military transition. All of these are important to me and flow constantly through my brain, and I want you all to know it’s not just you experiencing the challenges.
But I want to tell you how good it can be.
Since early September I have lived with a friend in a tiny, very poor community in Georgia, where one of the largest immigration detention facilities sits just one mile out of town. I volunteer my time doing immigration court watch and identifying needs of some of the detained people and trying to get them met as I am able. While I have sought out remote work to do to support my staying here longer, that has been slow to materialize.
Our original agreement was that I would not have to pay any rent or utilities in exchange for labor around the house and helping with the dogs, particularly when my friend travels. This, of course, enables him to focus on working to free detained people from the for profit immigration industrial complex and tend to the household things he enjoys (the man can COOK! And BAKE!). As he shifted into a larger house on a bigger property (with many more labor needs, indoor and out), and my bank account quickly drained from my necessary bills and groceries, we have kept the conversations open about this mutually agreeable and beneficial exchange of resources and labor. He has shifted to providing almost all of my food (and alcohol, yay) to include food for the dogs (we have two each, all who eat the same food. Yes, it’s a hot mess sometimes) and always leaves me with a full tank of gas when he borrows my truck for something.
This situation often causes me to reflect on what is my time and labor worth? When I calculate whether I should spend an hour seeking paid work through the internet or another hour in the yard doing one of one hundred possible tasks needed, I find myself querying what is the value and cost return?
What value do I add to my friend’s household in providing dog nannying, chicken minding, or cleaning up a yard (ok, it’s not a “yard”, it’s 3 acres total) that was largely neglected in the past couple of years? Or tidying inside the house and reaching into the high ceilings and cabinets to pull out cobwebs and other things left behind by the previous owners? Versus what value or cost return do I find in what is often a fruitless hour of self-promotion for a special, niche skill that most will, or must due to their own budget restraints, choose to obtain through an automated service that will provide a low quality return. As you may imagine, I often find that my exchange of labor benefits most from knowing that I will eat a delicious, hot meal everyday and have a safe, warm place where my dogs and I can indefinitely stay during the winter months. My basic needs are being met.
I acknowledge a lot of privileges and freedoms in being able to make this choice to directly trade my labor for resources. I do not have children. I can obtain VA healthcare if needed. I received a small severance that got me through a couple months. I have family that can help me financially, if absolutely necessary, and own their own homes, a place for me to return to if absolutely everything goes to shit. I have generous friends who send me small gifts. My friend I stay with benefitted from much of the same in his youth when he chose to full time volunteer working on behalf of Palestinian rights. I can take some risks.
Not too long ago, I kept telling myself that if I just made a little bit more money, things would get better. If I could get a little more power in the machine, I could change things. Then I would be happier. But I always knew that wouldn’t be true. What does another few hundred a month matter when the things that are absolutely necessary to even get me to that job each day – such as local housing costs, transportation and parking, “appropriate” work clothing, or therapy and anxiety medication co-pays – are atrocious and rising unchecked each day?
In conclusion – I challenge all of you. For those who can take this risk, will you? For those who can’t, can you support someone else? Can we collectively find a way to start living communally/community-based again? An essential aspect of fighting against the ways in which capitalism demands our most valuable resources – our time and health – is that we start living our values. I am grateful that I have been able to start living mine and hope you can do the same.