ESSAY- Times a-changin': UVA students see poverty's reach

It's Friday, April 14, I'm working my way down an ever-expanding to-do list when I get a call from Joe Szakos, director of the Virginia Organizing Project, with the news that 17 students are sitting in at a University of Virginia administrative building, demanding a living wage for all UVA employees.

The fight over wages at UVA has been going on for about 15 years, but no one expected something like this on the staid campus whose founder is still referred to as "Mr. Jefferson," as if he might come ambling down the lawn at any moment.

My assignment from Joe– to call one of the sitters-in and express my support– moves right to the top of the to-do list. Lauren, the woman whose cell phone I'm assigned to call, sounds a little breathless and distracted. Or maybe she's just light-headed from hunger because, as she explains, the university administration has spitefully blocked food deliveries to the protestors.

I tell her I live in the community and I'm thrilled with what she's doing. Charlottesville doesn't look like a town where 25 percent of the residents live in poverty, but that's only because the poor people's housing is cunningly hidden off the main roads, so the UVA alumni who pour in every fall for Cavalier games don't have to see it.

If you shop at the upscale Barracks Road Shopping Center instead of Sam's Club, if you drive instead of taking the buses, you could live here indefinitely thinking everything is just fine, thank you– unaware of the desperation going on within a two-mile radius.

But I know the true state of things in this lovely Blue Ridge mountain town, because I've been hanging out with the Virginia Organizing Project folks ever since I moved here in 2001– agitating for a living wage in local hotels as well as at the university, which is the largest local employer.

Another one of my informants is a lady who works behind the deli counter at Whole Foods, and the fact that she does so tells you a lot about wages at UVA: She has another full-time job there as a house keeper.

Saturday I get a call from Victoria Young, a student member of the Living Wage Campaign at UVA: Can I speak at a rally Monday? Sure, and I point out that this is Dogwood Festival day in Charlottesville. I'm going to the festival with my family and will pass out flyers if they have any.

We talk along time– about momentum, morale, and the arrogance of the administration, which found $2 million to upgrade the football stadium this year but can't manage to pay its workers decently. Victoria tells me that she's learned more in the last week than she has in her three years at UVA, and I wonder if the university understands what it's teaching her.

The Dogwood Festival turns out to be a pretty funky affair – a few kiddy rides and booths selling toxic treats like funnel cakes. It's beastly hot– 88 degrees– even with the sugary shaved ice my granddaughter is eating dripping on my legs. After 20 minutes of mounting stickiness, my cell rings and I make my connection with Jessie, another UVA student, at the green dragon ride. They're not exactly flyers that she hands me, more like pamphlets of stapled, photocopied pages. Whatever. It's time to peel off from the family and wade into the crowd.

"Hi, do you know that students are sitting in at UVA for a living wage for campus workers?" Amazingly, most people do; they've seen the local TV coverage. And almost everyone is supportive, even eager to listen. I talk to a Hispanic woman who translates everything I say to her husband. He listens carefully then grins and shakes my hand like I'm welcoming him to America.

An African-American woman wants to know if this is for a living wage for everyone, because she wants one too. My only rejection is from a yuppie white guy who tells me he's here to enjoy the festival, "not for politics."

I can think of a lot of responses involving the concepts of neighborliness and community, but they all seem to contain the word "di*khead," which is not how we talk here in the south. Sunday morning I sign on at AOL and find– displayed as a "top story"– that the 17 student protestors were arrested last night. How could the administration be so bone-headed?

UVA's president could have defused the protest with time-honored delaying tactics, like promising to form a committee. Or he could have done the honorable thing and agreed to go with the students to the state legislature to demand more funds for wages. But no, he had to go and make national news by treating his most idealistic, morally responsible students like common criminals.

I talk to Victoria about the need to pack the courtroom on Monday. It's a rainy Monday and, yes, the courtroom is packed, in fact it's standing room only.

There are maybe 60 students, a pretty straight-looking bunch by my ancient '60s standards, plus some faculty, campus workers, and local activists like Joe. I'm here in a sort of in loco parentis capacity because I want the judge to see that there are grown-ups who care and because the protestors have begun, in some mystical way, to seem like my very own children.

Good news, or at least not bad news: the 17 students are to be released from jail, where they've been for two nights, on $500 personal recognizance bonds. We spill out onto the sidewalk for the hugging and hand-shaking phase.

For the first time, Charlottesville feels like home. I see a true community information, a place where students think about the person who cleans their classrooms at night and wonder how she feeds her children, where poverty isn't hidden any more, but is out on the table as problem we all have to solve.

I meet Victoria face to face and remind her to give me a statement I can read to the students at Washington and Lee, where I'll be speaking tomorrow, because this is a national movement– from Georgetown to Stanford– and I want to spread the word.

Now I'm off to the rally.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of the best-selling Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. She lives in Charlottesville.

Cassandra Clark, with the UVA police, keeps outsiders bearing food away from the protestors on Friday. Much of the food that piled up outside Madison Hall was discarded the following night.

Democratic City Council candidates Julian Taliaferro and Dave Norris appeared at Friday's rally to lend their support to the protest.

Inside protestors were ordered by police to keep away from windows and doors.