Amy Glass is an I.C.U. nurse in California's Central Valley. Working in the heart of the valley for more than fifteen years, Glass has seen more than enough rural poverty for a lifetime. The often undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants who make up the Valley's agricultural workforce live in atrocious conditions. They're often housed in broken down trailers without running water that bake to unbearable temperatures in the irrigated desert's sun. These women, men, and children find themselves in Glass's care after being stricken with massively high rates of cancer and asthma caused by pesticide exposure, as well as more mundane maladies like debilitating back issues and chronic fatigue syndrome that occur far earlier than they do for most Americans. As a professional caregiver to some of the poorest people in America, Glass did not think she could be shocked by rural inequality and dislocation.
That is, she did not think she could be shocked before she came to South Carolina.
Talking to Curtis Dixon, a collard green picker in Clarendon County, Glass was brought to tears by what she saw. Working twelve hours a day and paid by the box of greens he picks, Dixon described to her how it was virtually impossible to put even make the minuscule South Carolina minimum wage of $7.75 per hour. Despite his twelve-hour days, he struggled to put food in his children's mouths while keeping his lights and water on. As he told Glass, "no one in America should have to do this for that amount."
"It just felt different," Glass told me.
The conditions in the Valley are horrible for sure, but the people I treat there have hope. They came here for a better life and while they are realistic enough to know that they might not live long enough to see it they think their children will at least have more opportunities than they have had.
For Glass, this was the big distinction between what she sees every day in the Valley and what she's seen in South Carolina. The poverty, inequality, and health crises are the same. The difference though, was that despite the horrible conditions she's come to see every day in California, the undocumented migrants she treats maintain a hopefulness for a better tomorrow, while families like Curtis Dixon's are representative of a disintegrated American dream, a disintegrated dream that for poor black farmers in South Carolina has likely never existed.
Glass came to South Carolina with a team of nurses from around the country as part of the Vote Nurses Values campaign for Bernie Sanders. Pundits and Democratic Party elites are skeptical, if not downright derisive of what Sanders terms "political revolution." For Glass and her colleagues who are on the frontlines of treating the ill effects of the more than 33 million Americans lacking health insurance and the millions more whose wages barely cover it, political revolution is not an abstract concept though. As Bessie Gray, a nurse from Kansas City, told me, political revolution means "coming together and actually making sure the government helps people where they're hurting."
The derision with which comfortable Democratic elites and pundits who have likely never gone without health insurance have greeted Sanders' call for political revolution is palpable. From the perch of a Manhattan loft or Washington D.C. townhouse, Sanders' campaign and groups like these nurses he is inspiring is one of "ideological purity," a "magic unicorn" that offers naïve hope. For such operatives and writers, the solidarity demonstrated by nurses like Glass, Gray, and Dixon is inconsequential. Politics, they tell us, is about incremental change and what they define as the "achievable possible." It's what's practiced in $2,000 dollar-a-plate donor dinners, in speeches in front of corporate executives, and by "responsible" party leaders and analysts. What they fail to recognize is how Sanders' message of universal health care, access to higher education as a right, and living wages for all Americans inspires the kinds of conversations and encounters like what occurred between Glass and Dixon on Monday. Sanders' political revolution is not built on slogans or wishful thinking. It's not about ideology or loudly proclaiming how much smarter his supporters are than those of other candidates.
It is in fact, built on diametrically opposite grounds. It is about commonality and shared interests. It is about Americans of all stripes recognizing that despite their myriad differences, when they get down to it, most agree that hard work should be able to provide a decently comfortable life for them and their families -- a life that includes health care, not worrying what your children are going to eat at night, and giving them a real opportunity to follow their dreams. In the final analysis, it is about precisely why Glass, Gray, and other nurses came to South Carolina. They came here to do what nurses do -- talk to people about where they are hurting -- and find ways to work with them to truly fix it.
I asked Glass what she thought about people who would call her organizing and her trip to South Carolina naive. Channeling her new friend Curtis Dixon, this Central California raised horseback rider and target shooter told me, "they need to wake up and smell the collards."