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Ralph Jackson, Jr. personally registered over 300 people to vote in 2008; that’s one of the first things he’ll tell you. Next, perhaps, he’ll with a smile offer you vegetables grown in his own garden or eggs from his chickens. He’s happily retired now, but Ralph definitely knows about work. The son of migrant farmers, Ralph worked long hot hours in the sun picking beans as a child and moving around to follow the harvest. After high school, he followed his father’s footsteps into the military.
“I went into the military because I wanted to serve my country,” he explains. “I also needed a job. Jobs weren’t easy to come by for a young black man.”
After duty in Asia, including Vietnam and Japan, Ralph returned and began his career as a plumber. He owned his own plumbing business in New Jersey for 17 years, then came to Florida and got a job with the St. Lucie school system. His career in both states was riddled with racial discrimination.
“In Jersey, I found out that the plumbing supply company where I had my account was charging me more because I was black. If I sent one of my guys in who was white, he was charged less for the same supplies. Any white guy off the street paid less than I did even though I had an account with them for years.”
Down in Florida, after years of stellar service as a master plumber with the school system, he applied for the foreman position and had his application silently withdrawn. Ralph filed a lawsuit with several other African-American employees alleging racial discrimination and won, yet not without a violent reaction.
“I was warned to get out of the county,” he says solemnly before he tells the stories of being firebombed at his house or finding nooses hanging off of his truck. His granddaughter widens her eyes and says “Yep, I remember that.”
But as Ralph says, “I gotta think about those who come after me.” So he continued to fight. And he continues today. “When Occupy exploded, I exploded. I was so happy!” he exclaims.
Ralph is angry about the economic status quo and speaks out on many topics: Underemployment, where companies keep people just under full-time status to avoid paying benefits; insurance companies and banks charge so much and provide such little real service; and the inequality built into the tax system where those who make more pay less.
“It’s like the cards are stacked against us. They’re cheating and getting away with it, in broad daylight!”
Ralph believes our elected leaders don’t change things because they don’t understand what it’s like to be poor. “Guys like Mitt Romney were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. If they worked the fields, cut sugar cane, did the hard work and got nothing for it, then they could relate.”
He says he’s relying on the smart and intelligent youth of today to make change. Yet if there’s a meeting or a protest in Fort Pierce, you can bet Ralph Jackson, Jr will be there himself, ready to keep fighting.
According to Luis and Teri Miguel, it all started at a Stand Up Florida meeting in Lake Worth, Florida last year. For weeks, the couple had watched as the Occupy movement emerged, inspired by their message and compelled to join them and stand up for the 99 percent.
“People kept saying Occupy should go to work – but we had been there, marching with them – and we work, we work very hard,” Luis Miguel explained.
After their first meeting with other concerned citizens, the couple knew they were in right place. “It was inspiring to see people finally taking action – standing up and protesting,” Teri Miguel remarked.
“I can’t help myself,” Luis says, not missing a beat, “It is time for change!”
But Luis Miguel knew there was something wrong long before that first meeting.
In 1976, at the age of 23, Luis started working at Eastern Airlines, servicing aircraft. By 1984, Luis was making $24 per hour at the airline, a proud member of his union and proud of the work that he and his coworkers were doing each day. Despite his pride, before long Luis concluded that his company’s primary interest was breaking the union, not operating a successful business venture. When the company ultimately went out of business, Luis remembers that management blamed the workers for “living too well.”
Luis managed to escape the airline just in time, starting his own business painting aircraft, often employing up to forty people, and always paying a decent wage. But for the Miguel’s, watching the fate of Eastern Airlines was a seminal moment.
“For the last thirty years, we’ve watched this country get manipulated in favor of the wealthy,” started Luis, “Really, it is mind boggling. Working people are struggling in this country while some of our leaders are working on behalf of the super-rich – and yet people don’t take action.”
“These politicians are only concerned about the rich and corporations,” Teri continues, “Look at how they vote – it is as if they don’t acknowledge the poor even exist!”
“I sound like an old guy,” he laughs, “But I tell the young men I work with, you don’t even know how bad you have it. In 1984, my mortgage payment was $126 per month for a decent three bedroom house – but today, today you can’t even pay your light bill with that!”
“Those in power, they have degraded the lifestyles of working people,” Luis adds.
Just days after Congress passed the GOP’s reckless budget plan, the Miguel’s are bewildered, trying to understand the decision. “Things are bad for senior citizens and the middle class in this country,” Teri says without hesitation, “And now this vote? This is not acceptable.”
According to Luis, attacks on critical programs like Medicare and Social Security are particularly unacceptable. “People keep on talking about reforming ‘entitlements’, but I hate that word,” he says with conviction, “I’ve worked my whole life, paying into Medicare and Social Security – they aren’t entitlements, I earned those benefits.”
More than anything, the Miguels argue, this is about fairness: fair wage, a fair shake and a fair opportunity to retire.
And for Luis, fairness is a family value. Miguel’s father was a successful businessman in Cuba who guided his business with a simple practice: A deal is not a good deal if everyone involved doesn’t do well. Plain and simple.
But a lot has changed since the days of his father’s successful business ventures in Cuba. “I left Cuba in 1964, on a boat, and as a member of the 1 percent,” Luis reflects, “And almost 50 years later, I am a victim of the 1 percent.”
However, it isn’t this frame of reference that has driven Luis or Teri to get involved and take action in their community. “We teach our children to be good to our fellow man,” Luis concludes, “Can’t we expect the same from our leaders, too?”
“No matter who we are,” Teri adds quietly, “We have an obligation to address injustice.”
Etienne Prophete has been a pastor in South Florida for seventeen years, leading people of faith during some of the region’s most trying moments. Additionally, Prophete has spent nearly forty years building a mission in Haiti with churches, schools, feeding centers for the homeless and a hospital. Throughout that time, Prophete has also led countless mission projects in Haiti. When asked what has driven him to become a local activist, he smiles, explaining, “I love America because it is a land of opportunity, everyone can be something – but we need to make sure that opportunity continues to be available to all people.”
Prophete, originally from Haiti, and the proud father of seven children, understands just how critical opportunity is to building a stronger country. All seven of his children went to college, the Pastor explains, but that didn’t come without sacrifice on the part of his family. “We must expand educational opportunities so that anyone who wants to learn has the opportunity to learn – there is no greater gift than the gift of knowledge.”
But for Etienne Prophete, the decision to join his fellow citizens and take action through Stand Up Florida is not just about opportunity, it’s about a broader moral crisis in this country.
“We have a moral obligation to stand for the poor, for the sick, for the hurting and for the weak and make them strong.”
“What we are lacking in this country right now is balance,” Prophete continues, “We have leaders who don’t recognize the plight of working people. We have leaders who put the rich ahead of the poor. But what we need is balance, a seat at the table for all people.”
More than anything, Prophete argues, we have to work together to achieve real change in this country. “We have given corporations great opportunity to be successful in this country, and now it is their turn to open their arms and provide opportunity for people who want to work, and work hard, in this country.”
“It’s simple,” Prophete adds with a smile, “I don’t want America to be down – I want America to prosper!”