The Politics of Metaphor


by Carla Bates

Throughout my 20s I was involved in grassroots organizing with welfare recipients in coalition with homeless groups, some peace and justice types and a few labor unions. One of the most important and enduring themes from this work for me was the time we all spent on thinking and talking about where our “political power” was located. What sort of definition could we ascribe to the role of “welfare recipient” within a political framework that would enable us to act politically? Despite the fact that I was a student at the time, I was grandmothered into the group as close-to-legit having grown up on welfare in the 1960s and 1970s in the middle of South Dakota. (My status became a huge problem in the group once we successfully grew our membership enough to split into factions, but it was a great five years as I met a lot of wonderful women and learned so much about political activism.)

Many of our members refused to call themselves “welfare recipients” as they found the term “recipient” to be too passive, reflective of their position within a large bureaucracy but not reflective of the real work that they saw themselves as contributing to the greater good: namely parenting and, more specifically, mothering. So, some called themselves “welfare participants” and preferred to think of themselves as “consumers” within a market of public goods, namely welfare benefits. And others took up the cause of British welfare activists and talked about forming a “mother’s union” and that welfare was really “wages for housework” which included parenting.

The 1980s were very, very difficult days for so many activists: the Democratic party was in chaos, still struggling from losing its soul in Vietnam and living through its final corrupt days as the majority party in Congress while the Republicans had just begun to enjoy the reign of Ronald Reagan with his pronouncement that it was “morning in America” and that he was determined to ride rough shod over those “welfare queens” in their “welfare Cadillacs.” Welfare fraud became the policy tool that politicos used to begin dismantling the programs of the War on Poverty as they looked ahead to taking apart the New Deal, including workman’s comp and unemployment insurance and, the true prize: Social Security. The tropes of racism, misogyny, and homophobia were rampant in the 1980s attack on welfare. The dismantling and chronic underfunding of all forms of public assistance continues.

As we are looking for a new world order, let it start in one of the most crucial places to our future: the public schools.

What will be the metaphors we, as parents, choose to use in thinking about ourselves in relationship to our schools: are we consumers of a good provided by corporate entities who must compete with others for our business? are we citizens of a democracy which values the common good and wants to insure through our virtuous and vigilant participation that our schools are well run and adequately funded? are we actually the owners of a raw good ( i.e. human capital) which we would like to invest in hopes of getting the highest return (a good education)?

I so often hear parents decry the state of Minneapolis Public Schools in terms of customer service and I guess I just don’t feel like a customer. I hate shopping. I don’t feel as if I have any power as a consumer. Operating as a consumer-parent doesn’t allow me to assert my rights as it gives me no responsibilities other than to be a conscientious shopper. Boycotts? Supporting competitors?

I also find the role of citizen-parent limiting in that then our main contribution is to elect and then lobby school board members, as well as participate in that special public school embodiment of civil society: the PTA.

And, so, I have opted for the time-being for the role of worker-parent who is struggling for some control over the means of production. Parents need to be equal partners. After all, we contribute labor in terms of parenting and raw goods in terms of our children: should we not have some role in terms of real engagement in how the workplace is organized?

I am sure this metaphor will not sit well with many people, but I offer it less as something to adopt as strategy and more as something to consider as theory:

Where do you get your power as a parent in the school system?

What sort of rights do you have?

What are the means of production under your control?