Roadblocks and Detours: Classism En Route to Drivers Ed

I was shocked when a well-known environmentalist criticized my students’ campaign to make drivers education accessible to low-income students. The campaign ran into a lot of classism, but that was the low point.

When I was in high school, drivers training was part of the public school curriculum.  Obtaining one’s drivers permit and license were rites of passages and symbols of movement into the adult world.   I don’t remember anyone experiencing barriers to obtaining the license, other than the obvious:  one had to make sure they passed all required tests.  Not in this day and age:  drivers training is now privatized, so families without class privilege are unable to pay for drivers training.

Since I teach Sociology, I raised the issue with my students. This group had a strong sense of social justice, and wanted to address the glaring inequality.   They decided to hold a fundraiser to help a few local families pay for drivers training while using the fund-raiser as a consciousness-raiser, too.  They called the project “Open Road.”

A well-known environmentalist,  peace activist, and author who frequently travels the globe promoting her books and who has more status than all of us put together and then some,  called the college and complained that they were supporting non-green actions by letting us do this project.  Instead of communicating with us directly, though, she used her social position and status to discredit our hard work and project by contacting the college without any consideration for the issues; she seemingly had no conception of what it feels like to be poor; no awareness of what it feels like to be unable to participate in “normal” rites of passages as a teenager; and no awareness of what reality is like for those who are less privileged.

I would have liked her to sit down with the families who were struggling, to hear another reality.   Perhaps after deeply listening to the families while exploring her learned classism, she might have used her social position to work with the families and my students to create a win-win.  She also might have taken pause for a moment to examine her own carbon footprint, as well. I hear that flying around the globe is much worse for the planet than driving from home to school or work.

Another environmentalist agreed that we should change our project.  “We don’t need more cars on the road as they damage the earth.  Wars are fought over oil.  We are healthier when we walk.  It is better for the air.   Plus, we really do not want to continue to support the auto industry, “she said, not taking into account that many poor people live out of town and thus, cannot easily walk to town. Another person said, “You should put your energy towards working towards creating a mass transit system.”

We could see their points, and agreed , but felt it was idealistic to put our energy into environmental concerns without taking into account social class inequality and the immediate concerns first, like teenage self-esteem, safety, and chances for mobility.

We are all safer when drivers have gone through drivers training.  Poor teens die on the road at a higher rate than privileged teens.  In addition, research suggests that poor teens living in isolated and rural areas are more apt to achieve social mobility and a healthier quality of life when they are able to get to work, school, and extracurricular activities.   Despite our concern for the earth, until we abolish the automobile altogether and find other ways to reach our destinations, we would just like to see all teens, regardless of class background, obtain their drivers licenses in areas where mass transportation is a problem.  We would also like to see progressives open their minds to classism and what it feels like to live in the taxing space of economic struggle.

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A special thanks to former student Katie Kettner for all her help with this project and for always going above and beyond the call of duty.

8 Responses

  1. Exactly the kind of environmentalism we don’t need, and I say this as one who puts a good deal of thought about how to build an environmental justice movement in Springfield. I think this woman should be outed, so that she can *possibly* be educated by those who have a better understanding of class issues and not NOT to spread the environmental movement cross-class. She could have easily helped develop a program where young people learned about how to mitigate the impact of driving by taking a myriad of other actions.

    1. Nicole Braun
      Nicole Braun

      Hi Michaelann,

      Thank you for your support and insights. I absolutely agree with you. I cannot tell you what a relief it is to have found this site and people like you. Classism is a huge problem in our area (everywhere, really) and within the progressive movements locally, it can be a lonely journey. Many of the progressive environmentalists live in a very different world and this has a silencing impact on those of us who do not feel as empowered or privileged. We are working on becoming more empowered, though. 🙂 The woman I wrote about “trumps” the rest of us who worked on the project because of classism, too. Because she is a “star,” the university takes her more seriously.

  2. CP

    I feel so frustrated and disappointed when I hear stories like this. I can recall MANY arguments over conundrums like this I participated in within Green Party and other Green Movement circles. For a person with “clout” to have not thought this through when plenty of others have is unfortunately too common. It takes a multi-layered, multi-contextural approach to deal with ecological impacts of contemporary realities that are also deeply class-complicated—and the longer I live it seems there are fewer contemporary realities that aren’t ALSO very deeply class-complicated, especially in the ecological impact mitigation realm.

    Being on the lower portion of the strata, and a committed Green (politically and in every other life-context area) I struggled with pulling my aging “gift from retired grandfather” 25+ year old Ford into a parking lot loaded with Prius’ (“Priusi?”), plastered with my peace and GP stickers and dealing with the “looks” and the “comments” from others, who usually also had many many frequent flyer miles earned from trips to Bali, and other eco-tourist locales. I tried to buy a Prius once, honest. The Toyota man very politely informed us “the Prius was not for people like [us].” The Nissan Leaf people were much nicer and just told us when we owned our residence and didn’t rent, they’d love to see us back. The Nissan people did have a point. Our landlord won’t pay to bring the wiring up to code so we couldn’t have installed a charger anyway. Once SCEdison put the “smart meter” up, our electric bill shot up 400% (don’t worry, they say it’s perfectly legal, so does the CPUC). And we all know when you rent… *shrug*

    Now with an almost-16 yo female offspring in a wealthy owning class dominated public HS, we’re confronting the issue of driver’s ed. Back in the pre-innerwebs/pre-car phone days I grew up in the Appalachians. Our PHS had driver’s ed and 2-3 DE cars. Everyone took the same class, everyone got their license and a few of us even scrounged together weekend job money to buy a piece of total crap that managed to wheeze us to and from school and jobs. Some kids pooled job money for a car they all shared. The 1% of the community had their new Mercedes and “classic” BMW limited edition something or other.

    But if you didn’t have a car, the family car was good enough to use the rare chance it wasn’t already in use getting parental units to and from their 2-4 jobs. Nobody bellyached (well OK some of us did and our parents seem to remember every word of our nonsense even in their ripe ole 70’s). Everyone adapted. Where we live now, however, the world just ISN’T like that. When the 16 y.o. cried and threw up her hands saying if you can’t buy me a car, then I just won’t bother with getting a license. I felt for her, and then I promptly breathed a sigh of relief. Until I realized she won’t be going away to a 4-yr college, she’ll be working and taking community college courses as she can swing the bill… and actually will need transportation. And I’m trying to figure out how to pay the rent every month. YAY! I will adapt. Somehow. While I try to avoid being hit by the latest new 16 yo driver in her new parent-purchased Porsche in the morning drop-off line at school.

    Driver’s ed at our PHS now… classroom only and a 5% discount coupon to a $750 private driving school. Our 16 y.o.’s friend has been saving up her cookie sales $ for 18 months now says, “wait until you’re 17 then it goes down to $400, and you can get $50 off of that if you just do the short class where they teach you how to pass the road exam.” I guess for now it’s still Dad and the local soccer complex parking lot when no one’s around doing homegrown, cheap “driver’s ed.”

    1. Nicole Braun
      Nicole Braun

      Hi CP,

      How times have changed—I am interested to know more about what you experienced in Green Party Movement circles. Ironic that movements which address the issues allegedly reproduce the same dynamic ultimately. How can we do things differently, I wonder? I wonder how many people stay away from progressive movements like the GP because of the classism embedded within it? Does inequality always reproduce itself in groups? Is there another way? I loved reading your post and can relate–it is such a relief to interact with others who see classism so clearly embedded in all aspects of life. It sounds like you are really aware but you do not internalize the classism and understand it for what it is. I plan to share your post with my friends and students. Thank you.

  3. Amy Doering

    I remember reading that having a running car is more highly correlated with employment than a GED vs no high school diploma. Wonder what her response to that would be.

    I read the most wonderful short rebuttal to a criticism on some blog comments the other day. In response to criticizing poor people’s economic choices as “penny wise and pound foolish” a woman retorted, “You don’t understand, being poor means being forced into being pound foolish, because all you have are pennies.” Thanks environmentalists, but poor people don’t need any more help pushing them into this area.

    My son and my nephew are both 16, and both want to be doctors. Both live someplace where public transportation isn’t feasible. When my son gets his license it will enable him to attend the local college where he can graduate with his high school diploma and AA degree at the same time paid for by the state. It will also allow him to volunteer someplace where he’ll get experience and contacts in the medical field. My nephew is getting his license because of some connections through church who are helping out, but I don’t know if he’ll have use of a car often enough (or gas money, or reliable enough car) to attend the same program. Instead he might well wind up PAYING for those same two years of college and being two years behind his cousin… or more, considering there’s no guarantee he won’t have the same problem after graduation. The inequality of their opportunities makes me crazy.

    1. CP

      Amy, that’s the best rebuttal ever. I’d love to use it as a signature line in email. Do you know who wrote it?

      I hear you about the intra-family inequality. We see that between our kids and their cousins all the time. My bro’s fam has Prius & now a Leaf, both ecological choice I would make in a heartbeat if I could afford it. I’m happy for them, their opportunities. What drives me crazy is when they start talking about their being poor, not realizing their father gave me gas money so we could visit them. My SIL is always, “we haven’t seen you, you should come over.” I’m always like, ‘yeah, that’d be awesome, come out here.’ What I don’t say is why I don’t go see them more: I don’t have enough money for gas for the trip, and why can’t they ever come here? Is it because we rent a piece of crap house without a pool? Talking about class is taboo in their house (not positive thinking). It’s hard.

    2. Nicole Braun
      Nicole Braun

      Hi Amy,

      Thanks for the post! I am with CP–the rebuttal you shared is right on the money, no pun intended! It is hard enough being poor, but experiencing constant condemnation because the “right choices” are not being made makes it worse. I appreciate the example you shared about your son and your nephew and know just what you mean–the inequality of opportunity makes me feel the same.

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