This week I spent an energizing day talking capitalism with wonderful students and faculty at West Side Leadership Academy - Go Cougars!
West Side is one of two high schools in Gary, Indiana. and when it opened in 1968 it was the biggest high school in the State, with 3,000 students. The buildings and parking lots are enormous but today they are largely empty. The school currently has approximately 900 students. Declining enrollment in all of Gary's public schools reflects dramatic declines in Gary's population in the decades since it opened as well as fierce competition from charter schools.
The contrast between the prosperity of West Side's past and the challenges the school and its students and faculty face today highlights important dynamics of 20th century U.S. capitalism. The city of Gary was established in 1906 with the express purpose of providing labor to U.S. Steel, newly formed by Elbert Gary, Andrew Carnegie, Charles Schwab, and J. P. Morgan. The company was capitalized with $1.4 billion, the largest amount in history. The U.S. Steel plant in Gary was the biggest steel plant in the world, employing 30,000 people in the 1970s.
Throughout its history the company has been at the center of changing expectations of accountability to workers and the public in multiple area, including labor rights, environmental protection, and monopoly restrictions. Today the plant employs only 5,000 people. (The decline of U.S. steel production has been caused by changes in technology as well as global competition and its future continues to be a focus of political campaigns - and hyperbole). (NOTE: several days after leaving Gary I heard on NPR this interesting report about the recent boom in U.S. steel and the possibility of a steelworkers strike).
As a city, Gary deals with loss of businesses, high levels of unemployment and severely declining tax revenues. Racially-based economic disparites - an important part of Gary's industrial and civic past - play a significant role today. The impact of economic decline hit Gary's schools particularly hard and the Gary Community Schools Corporation was placed under State control (receivership) in 2017. The State then hired a private, Florida-based management company, MGT Consulting to manage the school system.
Schools are important centers of hope in any community and West Side is no exception. The main office buzzes with energy; a steady flow of family members and students passing through, staff (including students) attend cheerfully to each need - for a student to be pulled from class, for a forgotten lunch to be delivered, for a transcript to be printed.
The Principal, Mr. Marcus Muhammad, took over the job this year and is charged with merging two schools' student bodies (part of a reorganization effort). He took time out of his busy day to connect me with Mr. Christopher Buggs, Social Studies teacher and Head Boys Basketball coach.
Mr. Buggs is a graduate of West Side and has taught a variety of social studies classes there since he finished college. On the day I visited he was teaching economics to three senior classes. He was very gracious about letting me do a deep dive into capitalism with his students.
I started out asking them if they'd ever heard the word "capitalism" - many had. But pretty much everyone was challenged to say what it is. "Money" seemed to be a reference point - and certainly it's part of capitalism. I emphasized that even though talking about it was unfamiliar, that I think of them as young experts on it: at 17 and 18 years old, they've lived in capitalism a long time and are getting old enough to have a sense of how it works. It's often hard, when we open up a discussion like this, to get past the way talk of "economics" can make people feel intimidated. A main objective of these capitalism conversations is to get past that feeling and tap into people's lived experience.
NOTE: I'm unable to show students in the pictures of the classroom.
The capitalism diagram can help make the topic more approachable: many of these students have jobs (some up to 30 hours a week. They know about their parents' efforts to keep household bills paid and deal with challenges of their jobs. So, when we talked about how managers can get workers to work harder, one young woman described working 10 hours straight at Dairy Queen, without a break. And, when we talked about what it means to be a business owner, one young man spoke about his project of raising pit bull pups: the costs associated with it, expected revenue, likely profits.
Taxes were a hot topic. They were all interested in the fact that in 2017 Amazon paid zero Federal taxes. And we had a lively discussion about pay differentials between school bus drivers and professional athletes. The issue of what government provides - in terms of services and infrastructure - and whether that justifies taxes taken out of pay checks was, I thought, important and challenging. In Gary the investment of taxes in public well-being is harder to see than it is in many communities. We talked about government regulation: minimum wages, child labor laws, the issue of vaping.
There were a lot of questions, some laughing (some surreptitious checking of phones. A little napping). I was very impressed by the students' thoughtfulness and willingness to engage.
Towards the end of each class period I asked students to write responses to a few questions:
What's good about capitalism?
"Companies pay taxes which are supposedly used to help the communities"
"People get money"
"You can own your own business and you make your own paycheck"
"You get a lot of money"
"The people who work get their needs and wants. The business gets a profit while the workers get pay"
What's not good about it?
"What's not good about it is that some people are paid a lot and some people are not"
"The businesses may lower pay for workers or even fine them to save money. Workers may work harder too"
"People care about profits more than people, more work and less pay etc."
"You could go bankrupt if you don't know how to run a business properly or you could be forced to go into foreclosure"
"We have to give our hard-earned money to the government"
What would you change to make it better?
"I would change the way management cares about money more than the people"
"If people are forced to do more work than they should get paid a little bit more"
"I think it's fine how it is"
"Take away taxes and make it so our money doesn't have to be given away"
"I would change how people get paid because we all working in the same business. What is the other people doing that I can't and why are they getting more money on their pay than others"
In the third period, Mr. Buggs spoke to the students (whose attention he thought was lagging a bit). "You need to wake up and pay attention to this", he said. "You're what, 8 months away from graduation? If you don't learn about how this capitalistic system works, you're not going to know your rights - like not having to work 10 hours without a break - and if you want to have your own business (he pointed to one of the boys and said, "you want to have your own barbershop"), you're not going to know to be smart about making sure you pay your taxes and don't just spend all the money that comes in". He told them, with urgency, "You have to have a plan; you need to have a plan for what comes next, either college or the military or trade school. I don't want to see you a few years from now working at KFC." And he told them about his own experience of working at KFC in high school and how committed he was to getting to college. He talked about how if they don't have a plan, if they work to avoid getting chewed up by "the capitalistic system", they could end up with with serious problems, including drug and alcohol use and depression.
Despite the challenges they face, the students and faculty at West Side Leadership Academy convey a strong sense of professionalism and caring for students' and the community's future. I learned a great deal from Mr. Buggs and his students and am very grateful for the opportunity they gave me to work with them. Thank you!