Friday, July 13, 2012

I Wish I Had Said Something

As I was getting ready for work yesterday afternoon, I opened a drawer and pulled out a light gray shirt with a big blue and white Nittany Lion logo on it. Anyone who has followed the Penn State scandal for the last several months most likely heard about the Freeh Report that was released yesterday morning, the product of a months-long investigation into how PSU's administration handled and enabled Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of several children. So I knew that, as it did for me, the sight of this shirt would instantly evoke some type of emotion in anyone who saw it yesterday. I decided to wear it anyway, not because I wanted to annoy anyone or demonstrate some type of cliché solidarity with my alma mater; I wore it because this is no ordinary Penn State shirt.

Work was busy last night, so I spent no time thinking about the shirt I was wearing... until one customer said, "You picked a hell of a day to wear that shirt." I looked down at my shirt to be reminded of what he was talking about, then I just smiled and went about my business. He probably meant no harm with his comment, so of course I kept it civil; but I don't believe strongly enough in customer service to come up with some kind of fake, agreeable response. I quit Starbucks a long time ago.

But I wish I had taken a couple of minutes to tell this kid that what I was wearing was no ordinary Penn State shirt.

This shirt was made by Alta Gracia, self-described on their website as "the only apparel company in the world that pays a living wage to the people who make its clothing, respects their rights, provides a safe workplace, and welcomes unrestricted monitoring of its factory by an independent watchdog." It was given to me as a gift from a professor and group of students at Penn State Brandywine (the nearby campus from which I graduated in Spring 2011) as a token of their appreciation for my assistance in helping the campus to attain Fair Trade University status this year. You can read more about the ongoing efforts of the Fair Trade TrailBlazers at Penn State Brandywine here on their blog.

I wish I had shared the Fair Trade gospel with this customer last night. It wouldn't have been too hard to say, "Hey, bash Penn State if you must, but this shirt helped someone earn a living wage in a facility where women and children don't get raped, underfed, and underpaid. What are you wearing?" See, buying and wearing Fair Trade products is one thing; but we often miss out on unique opportunities to make a deeper impact by teaching others why their choices as consumers are crucially crucial. Maybe this individual would have walked away and ignored the message, but someone will eventually pay attention. That's why it's important to get in the habit of educating whenever appropriate and possible.

While I have seen many recent posts online branding Joe Paterno and Penn State as "evil" or worse, I have also seen and heard quite a few more broadly finger-pointing comments about how "the culture" of PSU permitted Sandusky's detestable crimes to go on for so long. "Culture," in this sense, refers to an institutional ethos, a group's set of shared priorities and beliefs that inform how members respond to authority figures, traditions, and unforeseen circumstances. In this case, the alleged cultural crime is a shared prioritization of football and "the glory of old State" at the expense of several young boys who were sexually assaulted on campus by a respected leader. Such blaming of "the culture," while ignoring the many positive contributions made by Penn State students and alumni around the world, are not without a certain validity. Institutions cannot survive without a great deal of accountability and perpetual, internal evaluation of priorities and practices.

But this indictment of university culture should not take the spotlight away from individuals who failed at their responsibilities to protect children in their care, even if they were not technically mandated reporters under Pennsylvania law. Likewise, each individual has a certain degree of consumer power and responsibility to support businesses who treat their workers fairly, regardless of how much our "culture" or "society" inundates us with so many cheap, unethically made options. It's not always easy to discern the right choices, and I am far from an expert or a disciplined shopper. But to sit around waiting for the culture to change is to ignore our potential as actors within the culture. Our beliefs, our choices, and our habits might be the minority positions right now; but if we continue to spend our money responsibly, educate our neighbors, and demand action from our legislators, maybe one day "the culture" will no longer be an excuse for injustice.