My husband moved to the United States from Nigeria when he was 28 years old. Prior to coming here, he attended a small Bible college to study theology, and interned as a student pastor. Other than this, he had little work experience.
Not long after my husband arrived in the United States, he decided to go back to school. He enrolled at North Central University and was able to transfer a few credits from his school in Nigeria, which meant that he didn’t have to start completely over. But he wasn’t there for more than a few semesters. North Central more so caters to traditional students and since my husband worked during the day, he had a hard time scheduling classes. He transferred to Bethel University and enrolled in their adult learning program which enabled him to take evening classes.
For a period of three or so years, my husband’s daily schedule looked something like this: wake at 4 a.m., work at 5 a.m. until 3 p.m. And he didn’t work in a comfy office or at a community organization, but at a manufacturing company where he was exposed to explosives on a daily basis. After work he would go home and study, except on Wednesdays when he had class from 5.30 p.m. to 9.00 p.m. However, right after we married, his company changed the work schedule for all employees so that he worked from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a daily basis, a 12 hour day. My husband continued to go to school because he had a vision for our family that stretched beyond his employer.
After graduating from school in 2010 and earning a degree in Organizational Leadership, my husband had a hard time finding other employment. He filled out job application after job application, but never even received an interview. But he figured that his luck had more to do with his lack of experience outside of the manufacturing industry more than anything else. And so, he decided to go back to school and enroll in a program where he would have a lot of internship requirements, something that his undergrad didn’t afford him.
Right before he started working towards his Master’s Degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the Master’s of Advocacy and Political Leadership, my husband took a step of faith and walked away from his job. He knew that if he wanted to get to where he needed to go in terms of his studies, and do meaningful internships, that he wouldn’t be able to work those long, hot 12 hour days. But he did want to work. Although he couldn’t find full time employment, he was able to find a very part time job in the human services field that gave him less than 20 hours most weeks.
As soon as he started school, he landed an internship with former councilmember Melvin Carter’s reelection campaign in 2011. In the summer of 2012, he interned with the Metropolitan Council. Both of these internship opportunities granted him the experience that many employers in his field required. Coupled with the learnings that he gained from his part-time job, he was now padding his resume and it looked nice.
Throughout all of the internship opportunities, my husband continued to seek fulltime employment opportunities in the nonprofit and public sectors. For a long time, he did not get any responses and wondered if his resume and accompanying cover were good enough. Finally in January of this year, he started receiving a few interviews. To date, nothing has materialized.
My husband graduated in May of this year with a cumulative average of 3.8. He walked across that stage among a cohort of nearly ten students, all of which had employment opportunities upon graduation if not before. The two black students in the cohort, including himself, were the only ones without any job prospects.
I tell this story to emphasize the fact that there are millions of people in the United States who find themselves in situations like my husband. They have given it their all. They have tried their best. They have jumped through all of the hoops, and did everything that society told them that they should do in order to get ahead and make a living. Still they find themselves without the very thing that they worked so hard for.
And they have worked hard. Really hard. My husband worked 12 hours a day and went to school in the evening just so that he could reach his goals. And there are so many like him, who have perhaps worked even harder. Many people work 2 or more jobs just to make ends meet and provide for the needs of their family. In spite of all of their efforts, the ends never come together.
We have to get rid of the myth that says people are in the position that they are in because they haven’t worked hard enough, that they haven’t tried enough, that they haven’t begged enough. Most people in this country are putting in everything that they have just to meet their basic needs of food, shelter, and transportation and yet their efforts continue to fall short. Why? Because of systemic injustice, largely driven by racism, that discriminates and keeps people of color cut off from opportunities such as employment.
This is the narrative that we need to be sharing and we need to preach it everywhere – starting in our homes, our churches, and our schools. People of color are not left behind because we want to be; we are left behind because someone keeps pushing us to the back of the line. It started in 1492 and it continues through 2013. And it won’t stop unless we start truth telling, telling ourselves the truth about America’s history of racism that is still in operation today.
So for the love of God, stop telling us to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It’s really annoying.