The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Sustainability Spotlight: Conversations in the Classroom

classroom discussion

It is not news that the coronavirus pandemic has altered our lives, from the mundane ins and outs of our days to the momentous occasions meant to happen during this time. It is not news that the virus impacts some more than others. It is also not news that there are specific systems that underlie these disproportionate impacts and that we have the ability—and responsibility—to change them. 

The current pandemic has illuminated the stark disparities existing along racial and socioeconomic lines that determine one’s access to what some would consider fundamental human rights. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks to this, referring to the health care plans, social security programs, food production and distribution chains, and other central systems that must be designed in ways to ensure access to these rights and resources, regardless of race, gender, economic status, or other socially-stratifying factors.  

In the 391AH seminar that I am taking this semester, “Revisioning the New Deal,” we have shifted gears from discussing mid-20th-century policies and social movements, to talking about the need for systemic change in order to address many of the same existing socioeconomic challenges that have been brought to the surface once again by the current pandemic. One benefit of the 391AH seminar, as an Honors requirement, is its ability to bring together students from every discipline across campus to discuss topics that have a broad spectrum of relevance. In turn, each student and professor brings with them their unique background, contributing to a diversity of knowledge and experience in formulating potential solutions to these challenges. 

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, one of our recent Zoom discussions centered around creating a list of “collective demands” that might be included in a campaign pertaining to human and workers’ rights in how the government is addressing the crisis. Some of these rights pertain directly to the current pandemic, while others are more general (but just as pivotal) in their implications. These ideas, shared by the majority of our class, if not unanimously, include access to: 

  • A universal basic income and expanded social security

  • Single-payer universal health care system

  • Safe working conditions, hazard pay, and paid sick leave for workers in all sectors

  • Nationalization of certain businesses such as banks and medical facilities

  • Free, widely-available coronavirus testing with automatically-delivered results

  • Expanded SNAP benefits and other food assistance programs, including free meals

  • Freezing rent payments and forgiveness of student and medical debt

Despite our differing academic and experiential backgrounds, the majority of us have agreed on these items (and others) as being fundamental human rights. 

While it is difficult, if not discouraging, to consider the role that these systems play in providing (or failing to provide) access to resources, the more we understand about the inequities that they have created—both historically and at present—the more equipped we are to fix them. It is an unfortunate reality that crises of this magnitude are often catastrophic enough to spur critical change. There will only be positive implications, however, if enough of us can look beyond our immediate circle of consciousness to recognize and demand the changes that are necessary from leaders, those around us, and ourselves.