Throughout college I was asked countless times if I was FLI (first-generation and/or low-income), or had to explain to people who assumed that Iʻm FLI that Iʻm actually not. People saw the communities I was involved with and what I spoke up about, and presumed that to be that passionate about FLI issues I was probably FLI.
The thing is, I’m by no means FLI — my mom rose up from very little and got an MBA, and my dad finished his Bachelorʻs when I was a young child. Their education was more about achieving their degrees than having the ‘typical’ college experience.
I never shy away from the fact that I’m 2nd gen and have financial backing — to do so would be to hide how proud I am in my parents for accomplishing what they did, despite the odds and the difficulties, to help provide a better life for themselves, my brother & me, and our extended family. To shy away from my 2nd gen status would also be to hide my privileges and the responsibilities that come with them, and potentially fall into the all-too-common trope of donning a ‘poor aesthetic’.
FLI struggles and erasure
There’s lots of pride being a FLI student, as well as a lot of struggle. Most non-FLI students don’t have any idea the challenges that come with being FLI. In fact, at Stanford (my alma mater), the experiences of FLI students seemed like an afterthought, at best, for most of the student body. From the need for available campus housing during winter break (when campus forces all students to leave), to the need for food access during spring break when dining halls are closed (which after student pressure Stanford just started supplying small stipends for), to training for staff and faculty around FLI issues (which, same as training around race/gender/ability/etc., Stanford still doesn’t require at all), the issues the FLI community on campus faced seemed endless. Yet, all the burden for making things better was put on the FLI students.
At most of the FLIP (First-generation and/or Low-Income Partnership) events on campus discussing FLI issues, or the intersectionalities between FLI issues and those of other communities, when I was able to attend I was one of a couple (or the only) non-FLI students there. Outside of hollow claims that FLI students deserve better, the general apathy from the general student body was frustrating to say the least.
It felt as if people who weren’t FLI felt no personal compulsion to fight for FLI issues — as they had no stake in the fight. They had already ʻmade it’ so why should they prioritize those who hadn’t? My alma mater is by no means the only place this happens; rather, it highlights an insidious mindset prevalent in our country.
2nd Gen Mindset
Just as how white supremacy required that each group successively added to the whiteness umbrella had to assimilate and forfeit most (if not all) of their cultural ties and practices, classism encourages those who’ve ʻmade it’ to look down on those who are still struggling and assimilate into the narrative of meritocracy and bootstrapping. Classist structures encourage those generationally removed from poverty to never question, let alone fight against, the structures that uphold and strengthen wealth divisions over time. This is largely because society encourages the needless hoarding of wealth rather than its redistribution so that all are ensured a quality standard of living and equitable treatment.
This is why it’s critical to develop what I call a ʻ2nd gen mindset’. I may have never personally lived through poverty, but that doesn’t mean I should forget the struggles of my parents or my grandparents. Honoring their fights means also fighting for FLI students and for low-income people as a whole. It means continuing to educate myself about the struggles people are going through, and being an advocate in every space I have access to as well as breaking down the walls that prevent the community from entering and having a voice in these spaces. It means recognizing that there are multitude of FLI experiences (especially at places like Stanford where the threshold defining low income is nearly $10,000 above the national median household income), especially when considering the intersections with other identities and statuses. It means listening to the FLI community at both a group and an interpersonal level, as well as low-income communities outside of school, and truly paying attention to what their needs and concerns are. It means showing up when I’m called to, and making others question why they might not feel compelled to do the same.
Being generationally removed from poverty doesn’t mean we’re safe from it, and it definitely doesn’t mean we should abandon those still stuck in it. What being generationally removed from poverty means is that we need to use our socioeconomic privilege to work against the systems that rely on the exploitation and subjugation of low-income people to support the absurd wealth of a relative few and pacify those in the middle.