Words have the power to hurt. Words have the power to heal. We imbue them with the power to communicate our thoughts and feelings, the ability to influence and inspire, the elasticity to impact both in the here and now as well as across space and time. Because we are each individual beings, there is often a difference between what we intend to communicate and the impact our communication has on others. This difference is caused by the words we choose to use and the way that we use them. And to be clear about why we make those choices, we must be clear about our own thoughts and feelings, which means we must be clear about our own motivations.
In an essay I wrote last week, I set forth an argument for staying centered in our empathy when discussing property taxes. Property taxes are a contentious issue in Oak Park, as many residents feel perpetually overtaxed and those taxes continue to climb. I made clear that I support robust school funding, and since that funding comes through property taxes, I see property taxes as a means of supporting our community in general, and young people specifically. I also pointed out that, too often, I hear advocates for property tax restraint attacking others, questioning their integrity and ethics. I hear coded and not-so-coded racial language, such as implying that a local official was only elected because she is a woman of color, or saying that property taxes should not increase because “inner-city” children won’t benefit from more educational spending. And I wrote, “We can have a conversation about property taxes with care and nuance. There are reasonable positions on both sides of this issue, and we can advocate for lower, higher, or stable property taxes from a racial justice perspective. What we cannot do is discuss property taxes while ignoring the real connection we all have to one another in society, or by throwing others under the bus as less than ourselves.” My argument was that although I am supportive of maintaining and increasing school funding – via property tax increases if necessary – we can make a nuanced, empathetic argument for property tax reduction or increase… and we should strive to do so.
As for all of us, my own moral compass guides me on this issue, and that moral compass is tuned by my own experiences. I have been an educator for the past 17 years, and my primary work relationships have been with Black and Brown students in Chicago Public Schools and the teachers, staff, and principals who help them express their brilliance in the face of a society that tries to hold them back. Because of racism and segregation, there is far too little empathy in our society for Black and Brown young people. And so when I step into mostly white, mostly middle-class spaces like Oak Park, I am very attuned to criticisms, intended or not, of those young people and the adults who support them. Those criticisms happen too often in those spaces in our society, and I am committed to calling them out. In last week’s essay, I tried to integrate my empathy for Black and Brown students with empathy for middle class Oak Park residents, and I soon received some feedback on this attempt.
My essay was posted on the Oak Park newspaper’s website, as well as on a local property tax watch Facebook group (of which I am a member). People commented dozens of times on the essay, mostly negatively. Some people expressed outrage, some hurt, some disappointment. People clearly thought that I was attacking them and other Oak Parkers who are concerned about their property taxes. They expressed that empathy for students has been weaponized by the Oak Park school boards to justify continued increases in property taxes, and that those property taxes are pushing out elderly and middle class residents. Reflecting on my essay, I think one key sentence that offended was, “I worry about whether those in our community who are most vehement in this debate are those who don’t need lower taxes, but want them, and are fine with achieving those lower taxes on the backs of others.” I can understand why some people who read this felt I insinuated that the people who are most dedicated to fighting property taxes do so out of selfishness and greed. It was not my intention that people who are struggling with property taxes or are concerned about those who are would feel attacked, and I regret the words that I chose. And I had to reflect about why that happened.
I will acknowledge that, even though I live here, I don’t have direct experience of middle class people who are truly challenged by taxes in Oak Park. That probably says something about who I know, and it may say something about people’s willingness to say when they are struggling and when to keep it to themselves. I hear people complaining about the taxes all the time, but I don’t know anyone personally who has left Oak Park because of property taxes, or even anyone who has said they will have to leave if the taxes keep increasing. This is in contrast to my direct experience of and relationships with Black and Brown students who are negatively impacted by our society. My empathy for those students is highly developed, whereas my empathy for middle class Oak Parkers (although I am one of them) is less-developed. But empathy, like love, is not an exhaustible resource. My empathy for students and teachers doesn’t mean I cannot have empathy for middle class Oak Parkers struggling with property taxes. It is my responsibility to deepen my well of empathy for all people who are struggling.
When I deepen my well of empathy, that seems to make the problem even more challenging. What is the right level of taxation for Oak Park? Some people have decided that the answer to this question is that taxes are high enough, and so any increased taxes hurt middle class and poor Oak Parkers, while not actually generating any additional benefit for our students. Other people have decided that any property tax increase they can get is valid, because suffering students need all the funds we can give them. When viewed from this vantage point, within the current system, it seems that the interests of these different groups are in conflict. And if there is, in fact, a conflict between the interests of Black and Brown students and middle class Oak Parkers, I have made it clear that my sympathies lie with the students. Even if I build empathy for all, this does not mean the struggles are equivalent. Black and Brown students are still marginalized and devalued by our educational system, whereas middle class Oak Parkers are the comparative winners. And to some degree, advocating for a more just world means that those of us with privilege and money need to be willing to give some of that up for others to receive their basic needs.
But there are often ways that groups that seem to be in opposition can find alignment with one another. The way we can truly transform the system is to think holistically, and be realistic that the system that funds education via property taxes is not designed to serve Black and Brown students or middle class taxpayers. This system is designed to ensure that a community can only provide educational funding that corresponds with the community’s wealth, and that individual taxpayers will be pitted against one another when determining how much they pay. Instead, a system that funds education via income taxes at the state level would distribute the burden for educating students across the state, and give more of that burden to the wealthiest citizens, where it belongs. Of course, changing the system in this way is enormously challenging. There are people across the state who would fight against such a change – chiefly the wealthy and upper-middle-class people whose taxes would increase. And I know that, as challenging as that is for me, I need to develop empathy for them as well, to hear their stories, so that I can better push them to develop empathy in themselves.
Words have the power to hurt and to heal. They also allow us to engage with the experiences and stories of others – to grow our empathy. In this dilemma about property taxes, there are numerous people for whom we need to develop empathy – the Black and Brown students of Oak Park, the teachers in Oak Park schools, the middle class Oak Park taxpayers – and if we can build our empathy for all, we can discern our path forward. The struggles of these groups are not equivalent, and sometimes we need to make challenging choices when the needs of different groups compete. But more often than we realize, I believe that by staying centered in our empathy, we can find a way to step outside the system and use our words to advocate for a renewed community that does truly see the challenges and value the gifts of all its members.
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