It took me years to find my freedom. Chicago’s foster care system introduced me early to the compounded challenges of living as both Black and unemployed. Being denied access to meaningful employment informed every aspect of the community around me and was boldly woven into the fabric of my world. I experienced how the criminalization of Black behavior and state-sponsored violence against Black bodies were connected to historical cycles of poverty and economic injustice, but like many Black youth I couldn’t escape the conditions of my environment. Eventually I began abusing alcohol, and by the age of nineteen, I was incarcerated.
Upon my release from jail, I was determined to protect my newfound sobriety and reassemble my life. Securing gainful employment was an important aspect of my ability to forge a new path, but my criminal record made finding work nearly impossible. Turned down by every employer I approached, I was finally offered a job at the local chapter of the ACLU.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that job would change my life. It launched my career as an organizer, but just as important, it was the very first job – out of jail, no less – that paid me a fair wage. For the first time ever, I had the means to live my life independently. I could pay for groceries and fare for public transportation. Most important, I could afford to leave the halfway house I was staying in to finally strike out on my own.
Being able to work jobs that pay me a living wage has been critical to my ability to live my life with dignity and purpose. Since my first job out of jail, I’ve always had access to jobs that pay a fair wage, putting me on a trajectory to take full advantage of my earning potential and empowering me to plan my economic future. Being paid a fair, livable wage at that time in my life meant being able to survive.
But surviving is not the same as living. Too many people lack access to jobs that pay a fair wage. Service sector jobs like many of those in the fast food industry proudly under-pay their workers and prevent them from organizing a union that could help improve their working conditions. Black people are over-represented in low-wage occupations, meaning our families and communities are disproportionately impacted by falling wages, diminishing purchasing power, and lack of access to the benefits of collective bargaining. And when companies hold down wages for Black workers, our families and communities are left to pay the price, often for generations. The fight for fair wages is a fight for Black lives.
Being paid a fair wage is a fundamental right that should be afforded to all workers, but it is not just about being able to afford life’s most basic necessities. For me, being paid a fair wage means that I don’t have to work an extra job just to make ends meet. It means I have the time I need for self-care to maintain my health and my sobriety (now 14 years strong), and it means I have time and energy to parent my daughter – taking her to gymnastics practices, attending meetings at her school, reading to her at night and being an active participant in her life.
Earning enough money also gives me the space to fight in solidarity with those workers still economically-trapped in low-wage occupations. Black people care about fair paying jobs, and we must continue to stand on the front lines of the fight for higher wages and better jobs. Without the economic security afforded to me by being paid fairly for my work, I have no doubt that I would have landed back in jail. A fair wage was one of the tools that helped my second chance succeed, and I stand in solidarity alongside those working to make sure the next generation has a fair shot at a secure future. Today, having a fair wage means everything to me and my family. But more than that, it means freedom to live the life I choose.
Jasson Perez a Chicago-based organizer and is the National Co-Chair of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), an activist member-based organization of Black 18-35 year olds, dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all Black people. On April 15, BYP100 will join the #Fightfor15 national day of action, dubbed the largest low-wage protest in modern American history, with events in Chicago, New Orleans and New York City. For more information, visit: bit.ly/BYP415