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Power Redistribution


April 27, 2020

by Ric Schmidt, '02, president of Alumni Association Board of Directors

I am a front-line worker in the COVID-19 pandemic. My wife is a front-line worker. Two of our four kids are front-line workers. To distract myself from bouts of anxiety and worry, I’ve been thinking about a question. Who is the most powerful person in America right now?

With most of us confined to our homes, we have become unintentionally bound to our device screens and TVs. Surely the most powerful person in America will appear there. One of our lawmakers perhaps? Maybe a calming artist or musician? How about a journalist? The evening news programs have enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in viewership lately. I submit to you it is none of these. The people who appear on our screens are actually powerless. The most powerful person in America right now is Roxanne.

You know Roxanne. Her kids go to your kids' school. Sometimes she attends your church. She shops at your grocery store. You’ve seen her working hundreds of times and barely noticed. Roxanne is the spiritual embodiment of every utility line worker who works for every electric power utility company in the United States and well beyond. Roxanne works at WeEnergies, ComED, ConEd, PG&E and hundreds of other utilities. Her service truck is often inconspicuously parked along roadsides, in back alleys, near construction sites or in electric power substations. And Roxanne is stressed out right now.

In the event of a power outage, it is Roxanne’s responsibility to get your power back on as quickly as possible. Her job requires a serious skill set, comparable to a college degree with an ability to improvise thrown in. She works in blinding snow, bitter cold, rain, hail, lightning, and severe weather. She lives in a reality that most of us only think about when our power is out. That reality is this: if there was a widespread and lasting power outage right now, the results would be catastrophic. Life and death. Truth.

Roxanne isn’t going to let that happen. She will go to heroic lengths to keep the power on, at any hour of the day. If there is an outage, she’ll make sure to keep it as short as possible. Because of her vigilance, cell towers function, cable TV and internet providers stay in service. Grocery stores stay open. Gas pumps continue to function, and hospitals and clinics -- who cannot last indefinitely on generated power --  can continue to heal our sick.

We’re all hungry for information. The journalists, politicians, artists and entertainers who appear in our screens often go to great lengths to convince us of their vital importance. And in many ways, they certainly are. But consider this. Roxanne has the power to drive her truck into a substation near a television station, don fire retardant safety gear, put on rubber sleeves and gloves, a hard hat and safety glasses, grab a fiberglass hot stick, throw open a fuse, and instantaneously make them all disappear. She would never do this. She will always do the opposite, but Roxanne holds the ultimate power.

The COVID-19 outbreak is trying to teach us all something. How do we go about assessing the value of human work? It’s clear that true power lies in the hands of the masses. We simply lend our collective power to individuals and groups. Coronavirus, and the accompanying isolation and pain we all are feeling, might just be a kind of default notice on these power loans. The power of people’s work has for too long been based on notoriety. The more well known a person or group is, the more valuable their work appears to be. The workers who are currently on the front lines illustrate for us what types of work are essential and truly powerful. Their contributions to our daily life sustain and enrich us all in countless ways. We must re- learn that there is dignity and value in all work, and that is to be cherished. The grocery store clerk is in fact vastly more powerful than the evening news anchor.

Why do we feel that "famous" people have the market cornered on credibility? Shouldn't it be obvious that if we get to know "ordinary" or "little" people in new ways, they might show us new wisdom? Some people seem more valuable to us because of their education. I'm thinking about doctors, lawyers, educators, etc. But aren't the most appealing of the knowledgeable people also the most empathetic? We all should wake up to the idea that status is not the exclusive metric for human worth.

I don't pretend to have a grand answer to society's ills here, but I have a suggestion. On behalf of Roxanne, grocery store workers, health care workers, sanitation workers, mechanics and all workers who physically make things happen in this world, let's drop a demeaning and de-humanizing phrase from our lexicon -- "ORDINARY PEOPLE." I'm particularly calling on journalists and politicians to stop using this phrase. If this pandemic has taught us anything worthwhile, it's that there are no "ordinary people." Everyone is sacred, unique, valuable and powerful.

I'm sure you're getting sick of being quarantined. Please know, gentle reader, that many of us on the front lines are praying for you while we work. We're praying that you can continue to be brave and patient in a very uncertain and frightening time. I’m personally praying that when we finally emerge from the pandemic, we can be a people renewed, whose recognition of the truly powerful among us is sharpened, clarified and enabled.