Two months ago I wrote a farewell op-ed for my school's newspaper, The Herald. The piece was addressed to Harold Washington College's class of 2014 and City Colleges of Chicago students in general. In it I explained my decision to boycott my own graduation in protest of the individual chosen as our commencement ceremony speaker, Chief Operations Officer (COO) of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg. I explained that as an activist, a socialist, and a Marxist-feminist fighting for a world free of oppression and exploitation, I was offended (though not surprised) that our neoliberal administration would choose a wealthy bourgeois-feminist like Sandberg—someone so laughably out of touch with the student body of an institution like ours which serves primarily low-income students of color—to tell us that all we need to do to get ahead is pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and "lean in."
In her first book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sandberg writes that she believes “a truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.” While I agree that in a just and equal world productive and reproductive labor will no longer be divided according to manufactured gender roles, Sandberg isn't looking to upset this economic status quo from which she profits. She may be in favor of breaking the glass celling and having more female representation in board rooms and Fortune 500s, but her approach deliberately excludes working class women, particularly those of color, and does little to end the systemic oppression and exploitation which are produced and necessitated by a capitalist economy. Ultimately, what Sandberg wants is to make room for more white, middle class women to get a piece of the capitalist pie knowing full well that this will require working class women of color to remain in low wage, hyper-exploitative jobs.
Likewise, Sandberg's brand of career advice for new graduates relies heavily on omission. Sandberg isn't telling us that even if we stick to the script, take on massive student debt in order to obtain a degree (or several), and generally play by the rules, there aren't enough board rooms and COO positions like the one she holds for all of us. She's not telling us that the majority of jobs awaiting new graduates are low wage service jobs because our economy and job market have been restructured after the 2008 financial crisis to restore profitability to the 1%, not to ensure that people have decent jobs with living wages. And she certainly isn't telling us that only collective struggle for jobs, healthcare, housing, and education can ensure that these things are available to us all.
Sandberg isn't telling us this stuff because that kind of rhetoric doesn't make her millions. Selling a lie to people desperate to overcome the grim reality of our barbaric neoliberal society does. Rebranding and co-opting feminism and promoting bootstraps narratives don't upset the status quo which she has a stake in maintaining, but they do effectively exclude, and even further marginalize, already disenfranchised low-income students (especially us women of color). It's kind of hard to "sit at the table" and "lean in" when institutional racism, sexism, and systemic poverty have made it so that finding a table for us to sit at is virtually impossible.
So instead of "leaning in" and competing with each other hoping we each individually make it out of these dead end roads, I say we unite and collectively fight back against the structural and institutional barriers like racism and sexism that hold us back. Against the corporations who year after year continue to turn over record profits but refuse to pay us–the workers who actually produce those profits–a living wage. Against the destruction and privatization of our public schools and institutions for the profit of a few. Against the defunding and gutting of our social services in order to subsidize corporations and bail out banks.
Let's start thinking critically about the ills that plague our society and our world. Let's start asking the hard questions and rejecting misguided and harmful politics that blame the most vulnerable people in society for their oppression and exploitation. Let's ditch the cynicism we've been forced to buy into and start believing that another world is actually possible. And let's start expecting and demanding more of each other and ourselves. After all, we are the ones who will inherit the debts, the wars, and the environmental destruction that those in power leave behind when they've made their wealth and moved on.
So, fellow graduates and future graduates, let's say NO to another individualistic "lean in" narrative, and instead realize that together we have a world to win and nothing to lose but our chains.
Crystal Stella Becerril is a Chicago-based activist, writer, and journalist. She is currently a contributing writer for Socialist Worker Newspaper, Harold Washington College's The Herald, and Red Wedge Magazine where she was also a former editor. She is an undergrad philosophy student at Harold Washington College where her focus is on socialist/Marxist theory and intersectional feminism. Her written work focuses on covering political events and providing context and analysis, developing sociological and materialist perspectives on pop culture, and chronicling her experiences as a Xicana feminist.
Image via Chicago Tribune.