Jarrett Brown is a factory worker, activist, and voter. He resides in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Those of you who are graduating high school or college right now are doing so at an interesting time. The experience you’ve had over the last several months during your senior year is unlike that of any class that came before you. Congratulations for being able to adapt to and overcome the circumstances in the pursuit of your goal.
As you start out toward your next goal you will encounter many more obstacles and inconveniences because of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout. There will be roadblocks along the path to wherever it is you are going in life. My message to you is very simple: Don’t stop trying to reach your destination, but don’t wait until you get there to make a difference. You don’t have to have an advanced degree, a fancy title, or a fat bank account to make a difference. If you look around you will notice that there are all sorts of problems right now. Use the gifts that you were born with to solve problems around you.
When I was in high school, I did really well academically. The assumption that most people had was that I would go to college and then move on to a professional career. However, going to college full-time and living the college life wasn’t an option for me because of my parents’ financial situation and the fact that I would have to provide for myself in every way from the moment I left high school. .
So, after I finished school I went to work full-time at a Taco Bell. After a few months, I took a job working for my uncle in the tile industry. It was a physically demanding job, but I found the energy to take night classes at the community college.
Honestly, I was proud that I could take care of myself, but I was disappointed, frustrated, and angry that I wasn’t going to have the traditional college experience. I felt like I had been robbed of my opportunity to be somebody and make a difference by virtue of the fact that my parents had limited funds.
After saving money for a few years I decided to see what else there was in the world and I went traveling. I ended up in Arizona and continued my education there. Then came the 2008 financial crisis which led into the Great Recession. I was forced to leave college and find full-time employment. Again, I was disappointed, frustrated, and angry because I felt like I had been robbed of my opportunity to be somebody and make a difference.
The low-wage jobs in Arizona didn’t pay well enough for me to support myself, so I decided to go to Kansas and work at a beef plant. I knew that the wages there were slightly above average and that no matter what I would have a job because people need to eat, even during a recession.
While I was working at the plant in Kansas I became acutely aware of issues facing workers. I saw people who were not being treated fairly and I wanted to do something about it, so I became a union steward. I spoke up about issues in the workplace, I taught my co-workers about their rights, I defended co-workers when they were wronged by management. When the union leaders didn’t fulfill their obligation to protect the rights of the workers, I gave the leaders an earful about it.
As a kid growing up in North Carolina, I never imagined that I would end up working in a plant. I saw myself becoming a reporter, lawyer, or professor. The life that I was living wasn’t what I had planned for myself, but I realized that I had a chance to make a difference and tried as hard as I could to do that. I spent my free time studying workplace issues and learning everything I could about the company, the union, employment law, and the relevant government agencies and regulations. For a year or so, I woke up early and worked for the local newspaper as a reporter. I wrote about different organizations in the community and the resources and services that they offered.
It took me a while to realize my own strength and have the confidence to use the skills that I had. Once I was able to see that my efforts could help others I poured my energy into it. Nearly a dozen years later I am still trying to inform workers about their rights and am trying to empower them by directly assisting them privately and speaking out very publicly. I like to think that I am somebody who is making a difference, which is all I ever really wanted to be.
The idea that I hope stands out most from this message is that you have gifts that you can use now to improve the lives of others. No matter what happens in the months and years to come, keep trying to go wherever it is you are trying to go in life, but don’t wait until you get there to make a difference. Now, more than ever, what you have to offer the world is needed.