Written by Emily Miron, Policy Intern
In the beginning of the summer, my mother gave me a beautifully framed poem about justice and finding one’s passion by author and artist, Mary Ann Radmacher. The opening stanzas pose important questions: “What is a voice if it does not raise against injustice? What is a voice if it does not sing for change?” I hung the poem on the far wall of my bedroom so that before I go to bed and when I wake up I can read it and be reminded of what I believe in. The questions Radmacher raises have been reverberating in my mind since I took a college course titled “History of Justice and Equality” my first semester freshman year at the University of Rochester.
The course, without exaggeration, has influenced the rest of my education and outlook on the world in general. Throughout the small seminar-based course we read works by Plato, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, to try and answer broad questions like: What is justice? What is equality? How are they intertwined and are they universal? Throughout the class I became more aware of my own privileges and the ways that society is deliberately organized to favor some groups over others. Additionally, the course brought into focus how the lack of justice and equality has manifested in the contemporary world through segregation, systematic racism, racial profiling and socioeconomic inequality. I was taken aback by the severity of these issues and their implications.
My major at the University of Rochester is in public health, and more specifically, “Health, Behavior and Society.” I chose this major to learn how social determinants of health, like poverty and access to resources, impact one’s health outcomes throughout their lifetime. I want to combine my passion for public health and advocacy in a proactive and meaningful way, and I feel very fortunate to be able to intern at Empire Justice Center this summer with the policy team to be able to engage in the political process to make important changes for New Yorkers.
During my second week with Empire Justice Center, I was able to see the impact of grassroots activism during the SWEAT lobby day. SWEAT stands for Securing Wages Earned Against Theft. The purpose of the proposed SWEAT legislation is to help workers and New York State collect the wages they are rightfully owed from unscrupulous employers. Wage theft is a problem across all of New York State that predominantly affects low-wage industries, resulting in over one billion dollars in stolen wages per year. These lost wages impact their housing, food, lifestyle and, ultimately, their health. The lobby day was a day for all members of the SWEAT coalition to come together, as activists, workers, policy makers and legal representatives alike to advocate for the SWEAT legislation and educate various Senators and Assembly Members on the merits of the proposed bill. It was quite remarkable to witness activism in action and see what can be accomplished.
I continued to work on SWEAT through the end of the legislative session by passing out memos of support to members of the legislature and participating in meetings with the Senate and Assembly legislative staff with the rest of the Empire Justice Center policy team. We shared high hopes for the passage of the SWEAT bill, and even though neither house ultimately passed it, I could tell that momentum was building in both houses. The groundwork has been laid for success in the next session.
I have learned so much this summer about the political process, the hard work that goes into legislative advocacy, and most importantly, that all the efforts by Empire Justice Center, the SWEAT coalition, and workers themselves is extremely beneficial. Even though the SWEAT bill did not pass and become law, important strides were made in spreading awareness about how extensive this problem is in New York State. Overall, working on the SWEAT bill during the legislative session surrounding has confirmed my passion for social justice and how I can be a voice in the world to fight against injustice and for vital change.
Emily Miron is a senior at the University of Rochester pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health with a minor in History. She hopes to get a Master’s in Public Health with a focus in health equity following graduation.