Labor Rights: Combating Inequity with Place-Based Work

While Labor Day weekend is often full of barbecues, massive shopping sales, and last chance summer activities, this national holiday is an opportunity to remember those who have come before us in creating rights for workers. As a nation, the United States has a long history of exploitative labor practices. Indigenous communities, people of color, immigrants, women, children, the disabled, the poor –– all have faced violent, and often deadly, repercussions in the fight to create just and fair rights concerning labor.

Today, the fight for fair work continues all across the world. People are continuing to push for economic justice by calling out unethical, outdated, and oppressive systems that keep people trapped in cycles of poverty. Whether looking at the for-profit prison industries exploitation of young black men, the threat women face against their careers upon pregnancy & parenthood, or the manipulative cycles in food industries that treat undocumented workers as a disposable, replaceable resource for cheap labor, the mainstream approach to creating a thriving economy is instead creating disparities.

“People have literally died in the streets fighting for a living wage and a 40-hour work week in this country,” says Thunder Valley CDC Executive Director, Nick Tilsen, “we cannot forget those who have won victories in the past by not continuing to fight for achieving equity for all people.”

Currently, there is no state in the United States where a family can afford rent for a two-bedroom apartment while working a minimum wage job. That means that not only is the minimum wage not livable, but families are having to spend well over 40 hours per week just to make ends meet [Source].Additionally, if families are to escape this cycle of poverty, it requires having almost no emergencies to happen over a long enough period of time for them to actually save money [Source]. Some states are worse off than others for affordability, with some cities quickly becoming behemoths of gentrification. Neighborhoods and communities with limited access to economic wealth, and by proxy, limited access to legal support, find themselves literally struggling to survive the profit seeking missions of real estate, resource extraction, and unavailable medical care.

“Place matters,” says Tilsen, “Today your life expectancy has more to do with your zip code than almost anything else. And that is why community based solutions to achieving equity are about making an investment into communities in order to empower people to be change makers.”

In our own community here on Pine Ridge, data collection completed by the nonprofit organization, First Peoples Fund, shows that 51% of people rely on home-based enterprises for cash income, and over 79% of those enterprises consist of some form of traditional art. That makes it very clear that art is not only a local priority, but it is not to be underestimated as a strong investment for economic growth. It is for that reason that we’ve made art an integral part of our community development process, contracting artists to give feedback on architectural design, create public arts pieces for the community, and begin planning steps for an art gallery and spaces for cultivating and teaching art. Through this approach, not only will current artists have increased opportunities, but more people will be able to develop a career in art.

“If we continue to invest in this place based strategy it will combat disparities over time,” says Tilsen. “We can honor local priorities and who we are as Lakota people while increasing access to reliable jobs and income.”

Another approach we’ve taken to creating a local workforce is our Workforce Development Through Sustainable Construction Program. Now in its third year, the program develops not only the hands-on constructions skills participants need to enter the local workforce, but personalized education plans, social/emotional training, and soft skills development for managing everything from stress to finances. This program treats participants not just as potential profit centers for the local economy, but as integral members of the local community, whose health and wellbeing are deeply tied to our ability to create long-term prosperity.

“We really have to value the worker, especially in these difficult political times,” says Tilsen, “It’s not just about prepping people for the workforce –– it’s about people’s rights to equity and opportunity.”

 Utilizing the triple bottom line “People, Planet, Prosperity” as the foundational tenants of our approach to all of our work ensures that anything profitable will also be beneficial for the local community and environmentally sustainable. Justice and healing for our people goes hand in hand with reconnecting people to roles in society where they feel useful, necessary, appreciated, and respected. Additionally, it means providing a space in which people can learn to balance the demands of consistent labor with the realities of everyday life.

“Our place based work here at TVCDC absolutely connects to the history of the labor rights movement & the challenges workers face in our contemporary society,” says Tilsen. “Labor rights have to be intentionally thought about and actively maintained.”


Check out our 2017 Workforce Development Initiative Report here!

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