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April 14, 2015

How Low Wages got me Arrested.

WalMartStrikers_Flickr

I had the most profound experience of wellbeing this past fall.

No, it wasn’t on the mat in a killer yoga class or on the cushion in a zen center. No, it wasn’t hiking through the redwoods of California or on a secluded beach in Bali. It wasn’t even teaching mindfulness to kids or doing service work in a shelter.

I found wellbeing in the most unlikely place: jail.

Hear me out.

I have committed my life to wellbeing. Ever since losing my step-dad on 9-11, I have known spiritual practice as a significant source of healing and a real-life tool for recovery and renewal. My own story of transformation revealed the power and possibility of wellbeing. Wellbeing has the capacity to access my full self, my whole, embodied, intelligent, emotional self. I support wellbeing for all people and have spent the last 10 years dreaming and designing a movement that brings this vision to life—a vision that looks like meditation in schools, healthy food in cafeterias, clean air in public spaces, holistic healthcare covered.

What I witnessed last fall did not look like that. It was not bright and shiny. It was not aspirational and transcendent. It was real and authentic. It was gritty. And it was powerful. A different kind of power than we are used to experiencing. It was an inner power. Power in action that comes from a deep and felt sense of dignity. That “I” matter. That “we” matter. And that everyone deserves to live a dignified life that is sustained economically, socially and personally.

I was among 14 Walmart employees and 12 allies who were arrested and charged with civil disobedience after staging a protest outside the Manhattan residence of Alice Walton (heir to the Walmart fortune), blocking traffic on Park Ave and demanding to increase the minimum wage to $15.

Just to give you a sense of my motivation, the Walton family has more wealth than the bottom 42% of this country. In the fast-food industry, workers are struggling to pay rent and feed their kids on $8.75 (the average hourly rate for fast food workers) while fast food corporations are making record profits, with the average fast food CEO bringing home 23 million dollars in annual salary. Get where I’m coming from?

So on this otherwise ordinary day in October 2014, I hit the streets and marched side by side with workers from around the country who embodied an aspect of wellbeing that I have never had to experience in my privileged life. I have not known what it feels like to be paid poverty wages, or to be denied health coverage, or to commute three hours a day to and from work, or to not have choices about food, education or transportation. I grew up well: healthy, safe and supported.

My experience of wellbeing has been a privilege and a choice. But my friends with whom I marched have a very different experience of wellbeing. For them, it is basic human rights: fair pay, fair share, fair shot. These are the things that many of us take for granted.

And so what is our role and responsibility as allies? As friends and neighbors? As human beings?

“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ~ Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson

Inequality and poverty impacts us all.

We see it playing out in failing schools, crowded prisons, unhealthy children and planetary destruction. We see it reflected in our economy and perpetuated by our systems. And yet we act like it is someone else’s problem. But we are all experiencing a feeling of disempowerment; whether it be from a culture that disconnects us from one another, or from a system that seeks to rob us of our power or a political environment that has silenced our voices and our votes. Whether you are on the front lines of the fringe, you experience injustice first hand or learn about it through the media or you lean into it in service or turn away in apathy, we are all impacted.

But we also share a commitment to caring for our families, for feeling safe in our communities, for living healthy lives, for experiencing personal fulfillment. When it comes down to it, we are not that different at all.

What I experienced amidst workers from all around the country had less to do with what we were doing than who we were being. What I am realizing is that there is power in the practice and there is power in the streets. What ties them together is the realization that no one gives us our dignity – no one can tell us we matter – if we don’t believe it ourselves.

We are now seeing workers and allies and activists reclaim their dignity and unleash a collective power that disrupts and delivers. OUR movement is a powerful embodiment of wellbeing in that it is reclaiming our dignity and unleashing the power of people for the sake of one another.

And so I invite you to step outside of your comfort zone. To connect across communities. To listen and ask questions. To stand up for one another. To act on behalf of justice and wellbeing of all.

Join us.

Join us for the Fight for 15 National Day of Action on 4-15-15 and help us lift up and sign the pledge to demand fair wages and wellbeing for all.

You can also sign the petition here.

#figthfor15
#wellbeingforall
@ctznwell

~

References: 

National Woman’s Law Center

Half of Americans Made Less than $27,000 Last Year“. Business Insider.

 ~

Author: Kerri Kelly

Editor: Alli Sarazen

Photo: Flickr

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Kerri Kelly