In case you’ve missed it, there's a pandemic happening. I wrote this article before COVID-19 and have decided not to edit it. Paid leave is an important issue for all Wisconsinites. There will be plenty of other articles and people saying it’s more important now, but I don’t agree. Our individual well-being has always affected others. Our failure to provide the same opportunities and care for everyone travels through social networks. It deprives humanity of the most diverse ideas and talent. It robs us all of our ability to provide compassion to ourself and others. It lowers our tolerance for our own uncertainty and vulnerability. As a disabled and chronically ill person, I’m intimately aware of this interdependence. I hope coronavirus can help more people see this too.
I was standing at a press conference at Wisconsin's Capitol with "Family Leave for Everyone" hastily scribbled in oil pastels on a piece of paper. Paper that had random notes on the other side. Other people are wearing crisp slacks and clean button ups. Some are holding pretty purple printed signs. I felt drab in running gear, a choice I made to force myself to run home after. I cut corners wherever I can to deal with the limited energy that chronic illness leaves me with.
I was watching a doctor speak. She's a pediatrician and the chair of the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She was talking about parents bonding with infants. About sick children with cancer. She was one speaker of many making a considered, compassionate plea for policy that would help countless Wisconsinites.
I thought about my sick parents. About my dad working at a Harley Davidson plant with constant pain as his spine fused over time. I thought about my illnesses, infections, and time on short term and long term disability. I lost over 20 pounds for my 29th birthday from colitis that went undiagnosed for years. A much easier thing to share than the burnout and suicidal feelings that caused me to originally take medical leave. I thought of the constant worry that I would lose LTD whenever I socialized or volunteered. Which eventually did happen, because of the time I spent as an organizer for Madison Women in Tech. I had few, equally terrible choices at the time and yet most Wisconsinites have no choice at all.
I also thought about how this doctor is doing what I had dreamt about for over a decade of my life. Specifically a pediatrician and advocate. I did medical research, shadowed in Pediatric Rheumatology, and volunteered in clinics here at home and a thousand miles away. I was dedicated, but life had other plans. Now I'm just scruffily showing up, listening to others speak, and ducking out a back door afterwards.
In many ways, I'm just a body in the room at this event. I don't know if that's real irony or Alanis Morissette irony, but it's not lost on me as someone with chronic illness. Whether it's yours or a loved ones, there's a level of grief and (if you're lucky) acceptance that tags along with illness. I mostly know where my limits are and what I can contribute. I have a flexible, remote first job working on getting more people's voices heard in local government. I can take the time to attend when that's how I choose to participate. Being "just a body" that can show up for a cause is a privilege not everyone has.
Instead of feeling sad about the hurdles I've tripped over along the way, I felt bolstered. I've landed in my own realm, however accidentally, and there were plenty of people ready to step up and do the work in other areas. Work that my path was no longer taking me toward.
Sara Finger is the Founder and Executive Director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women's Health and the conductor orchestrating this press conference. I met Sara when I was on paid leave a few years ago. She told me over coffee to pick a specific cause or area to influence. She was also kind, one of the first to listen to my ideas, and encourage me to chase them. I think I speak for many when I say there's no better leader for women’s health.
Empowering others leads to both small ripples and endless amplification of positive change.
I chose access to data and technology as my cause. Empowering others leads to both small ripples and endless amplification of positive change. There's magic in seeing and speaking the invisible languages of machines. Less than a third of a percent of people can write code. Less than a tenth of those developers have a machine learning background. This rarity increases when my identity gets merged in. This is intentional: tech can only preserve unbalanced power with a narrow set of identities at the helm and several servings of gatekeeping. No matter what I have to face to exist in tech, I'm still in a highly privileged sliver of people shaping the world with data and algorithms.
No matter your cause or discipline, it's a gift to be able to do work to improve people's lives. I often feel there is no shortage of things that need to be done and I almost never feel like the most capable person to do them. It's only when I'm reminded of other advocates, nonprofit leaders, and social entrepreneurs that I feel unstoppable. Looking around me at the different speakers, representatives, attendees, and journalists, I couldn't be more grateful for everyone carrying that gift with me.
Learn more about the Wisconsin Family Medical Leave Insurance Act.
Only 17% of Americans have access to paid leave through an employer. Like many other racial disparities in our country and Wisconsin, this is disproportionately affecting black women, children, and families. One of the featured speakers was Tia Murray, co-founder of Harambee Village Doulas. Along with co-founder Micaela Berry, they have supported this legislation as critical to helping the black infant and maternal mortality crisis in Wisconsin.
The City of Madison, Dane County and over 30 other organizations have signed on to a Wisconsin Public Health Resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. Typhanny Greene can attest to these disparities, as a woman of color who dealt with racism while undergoing breast cancer treatment.
Ways to Get Involved:
Vote for state representatives who support paid leave. The primary for Wisconsin state reps is August 11th, 2020.
Write a social media post or article sharing your experiences #wipaidleave . I'll share! I'm @thecakelin on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You can send it to me to post for you if you’d like your experience to remain anonymous.
Talk to other people in your life about paid leave. Encourage them to advocate for it and vote for representatives who support it.
[Header image description: a picture of the "Family Leave for Everyone" sign described in the introduction paragraph. A filter has been applied to give rainbow shading effects.]