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America Today | Thomas Hart Benton | 2012.478a-j | Work of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
America Today by Thomas Hart Benton

Years ago, in what seems like another life time, I wrote a political column called “Taking Care of Labor” in the local daily newspaper. It was in direct response, or opposition, to another column called “Taking Care of Business” written by my nemesis, Andy Caldwell. Interestingly, Caldwell is now running for the seat of an old colleague of mine, Salud Carbajal, who is the current US Congressman for our District.

I didn’t know either man when I began writing the column. I was teaching as an adjunct professor or part-time instructor at three different colleges and universities at the time. I was what was known then as a “Freeway Flyer,” someone who pieces together a full-time living on part-time wages. Part-time instructors were all the rage back then and no doubt they still are.

Colleges and universities could save tons of money hiring teaching staff on a part-time basis, where they didn’t have to provide health care or offices, or pay for “office hours” to advise students. Instead, we part-timers held office hours in libraries, or on campus benches, or even from the tailgates of our cars when we needed to hand out study materials from files we kept in back seats. Indeed, we only got paid for the actual hours we spent in class, not for the considerable prep time before class or for the evaluations and grading of work after class. But this exploitation of part-time labor wasn’t confined to higher education. It was, and still is, rampant throughout all industries.

That’s when I entered politics, to help right this wrong. My column was my first step on this road. I also was involved in creating a state-wide association for part-time community college instructors so we could lobby for change at the state level. I served as the communications director, writing and editing a newspaper for members that was distributed to every college campus across the state. Eventually I led an effort to organize a union for part-time instructors at one of the colleges where I worked. As its first president and contract negotiator, we were able to finally get increased wages, paid office hours (no offices however), and some limited health insurance.

After all this, however, I became so disenchanted with higher education that I left it to work in the nonprofit field. This is where I met Carbajal. He was the board president of the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN) when I joined. He left soon after to become a county board supervisor, and I eventually became the board president, and then the Director, of SBCAN, advocating on social justice and environmental issues at the city and county level. My column evolved to take up that work–again, in opposition to Caldwell’s columns. We butted heads often when advocating on opposite sides of issues at Board of Supervisor hearings.

Once Andy and I appeared back to back for interviews on a local radio station. He challenged me to a public debate. I had to laugh it off. I knew, and my board buddies knew, that he would have behaved in much the same manner as Trump treated Biden at that first debate. We weren’t willing to give him that show.

When my husband retired in 2011 and we moved to a new county, I also retired. I had become disenchanted with political advocacy and sought a creative life. At the core of my being I had always thought of myself as a writer, and now I would have the time to pursue that. I’ve managed to stay outside politics, or on its fringe all these years. I could well afford to because I lived in a state and county that “leaned left” as I did. I was happy and relieved to let others lead in local politics.

But it does seem strange now as I watch TV ads by my former nemesis, Caldwell, and my former colleague, Carbajal, vying for the same seat in Congress. Both still actively fighting the good fight, as they see it, while I sit on the sidelines. One of our SBCAN board members was a political icon in Santa Barbara County well into her nineties. She would attend our board meetings, as well as a dozen others in her walker. She was actively engaged in politics until the day she died. I fear she would be disappointed in me.

There was a time when she and other colleagues hoped that I would take Carbajal’s path, running for a seat on city council or county board of supervisors. I was sorry to have to disappoint them. But having sat through so many of those meetings, I knew I would be bored to tears to take that on full-time. It’s not where my passion lay.

I do not regret that choice, but it’s interesting sometimes to look back and see where we’ve been and where it led us. And sometimes I think I could have taken up a larger pen, even in retirement, to advocate on the issues that most touch my heart–a living wage, affordable housing, an end to homelessness, decriminalization of drug use, and increased services and treatment programs for substance abuse and mental health.

Perhaps I’m writing all this to assuage a guilt I still sometimes feel, having abandoned colleagues and causes I had once fought so fervently with and for. Looking back, I can honestly say I’d “been there, done that.” I’d hoped this would reassure me in my choice to go another direction now.

But it also reminds me how the good fight never really seems to end. Certainly not in one lifetime. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Inch by slow inch.

I am deeply grateful to all who are still actively engaged in helping to bend that mighty arc.