A panel of community members joined Sen. Bernie Sanders on the stage of Shawnee State University’s (SSU) Vern Riffe Center for the Arts (VRCFA) Tuesday morning, where they discussed issues impacting local individuals as well as individuals around the nation.
“Hosting a national political leader like Sen. Sanders on our campus is good for our students and community,” Dr. Rick Kurtz, SSU President stated. “These types of visits spur discussions and healthy debate on important local, regional, national and global issues. The exchange of ideas is an important aspect of college life, and we are happy that our students and university community have this opportunity. Having this type of event on the second day of the semester definitely sets the tone for out academic year.”
As Sen. Sanders greeted the packed VRCFA, he asked if Portsmouth was ready for a dose of reality – a call panel members and those seated in the audience met.
“Today I’m very pleased to have a wonderful panel of people here to talk about issues you may not see on TV every night and some of them may be painful, but they are realities that impact not just this county and this state, but my state and every state in this country,” Sanders stated.
The senator went on to explain that across the nation people are hurting and suffering. He added that is through discussions and understanding that solutions to such suffering is possible.
SSU student and panel member Andrew Walker greeted the crowd with a story about a struggle for education and for healthcare.
“Attending this university has opened my eyes to how hard it is to get by as a full-time student,” Walker began.
Walker spoke about late nights and financial struggles that many students experience as they work to get a career – a goal that is not guaranteed even with a college degree. He spoke about the rising tuition costs that make it difficult for graduates to survive as they carry the burden into their early adult lives. Walker added that costs of tuition and living have increased over recent decades while wages have failed to increase at the same rate.
“My generation is not asking for a handout. We’re asking for help,” the student commented.
Walker then turned to his mother in the audience, a mother whom Walker says has $80,000 worth of educational debt.
“She used to joke that the only way she would ever be able to pay off that debt is if she became disabled for died,” Walker said.
During his story, Walker explained that shortly after his mom finished nursing school, she found out she had kidney cancer. Today, she is 100 percent disabled. Walker explained that without military health insurance his family would never be able to afford her treatments that cost more than $7,000 each.
“Her experience has taught her and myself that government healthcare isn’t perfect but it is definitely a step in the right direction,” Walker concluded.
Sanders explained that in just the three minutes that Walker spoke of himself and his family he brought about important issues including the need for jobs, rising costs of education, healthcare and the high costs of prescription drugs.
Walker was followed by panelist Summer Kirby with Compass Community Health. Kirby spoke on her experiences with Medicaid and the Medicaid expansion, explaining that through the expansion, she has seen 11,000 men treated for substance abuse and 245 babies born drug-free to mothers battling addiction.
In response to her story, Sanders encouraged all present to ask themselves if they feel healthcare should be a right of all human beings and, if so, how is a cost-effective healthcare system that guarantees healthcare for all people possible. The senator stressed that the U.S. is the only major nation in the world that does not guarantee healthcare for all citizens.
Adding to the discussion on healthcare, panelist Lisa Mowery spoke on her more than 20 years working in the mental health field. She was followed by Zach Holbrook who struggles with financial difficulties as he continues to seek treatment for his disabled daughter who is not yet three-years-old. He explained that his daughter has multiple health problems and is unable to walk or speak. After she was born, his wife was no longer able to keep up with their daughter’s health needs and work. The family was then forced to survive on his income of $9 per hour.
Sanders spoke about how such families are living in the wealthiest nation is history and struggle to “survive with dignity.”
It was not long before the discussion turned to focus more strongly on the opioid epidemic, crime and corruption.
Drew Carter, local resident and SSU alumnus, brought these issues to the forefront. Carter shared his experiences growing up in Scioto County, watching as his friends became drug users, died or went to jail.
“Do you know what it’s like walking to school and passing your aunts while they’re selling their bodies for crack, to walk around the corner and see blood on the pavement from your uncle who was just shot seven times?” he questioned.
Carter talked about growing up as a young black kid who experienced racial profiling, living with a single mom doing her best to take care of five kids and turning to the homeless shelter for assistance.
“Do you know what its like to live in a hopeless city where corruption and drugs run rampant?” he encouraged all to consider.
Carter talked about overdoses but also in hope. He explained that it is through mentors that he was able to choose a different path for himself. Still, he questioned how and why this is happening to those around him.
Sen. Sanders encouraged local people to question what is going on their community and their nation, explaining that Carter’s discussion raised “about a million questions.” The senator sought answers to the questions, opening the discussion up to audience members. He asked how many people have been impacted by drug addiction and nearly every hand went up. As Sanders started understand how far reaching the issues Carter presented actually are, he continued to ask for answers, ask for a scope on the local drug problem, attempting to understand the how and why.
Ultimately, he encouraged all to ask themselves what kind of nation they want to live in, explaining that the power still lies with the people. He urged them to consider social and economic justice, the number of people who do not make a living wage, education reform, a “broken criminal justice system that spends $80 billion a year locking people up rather than investing in education and jobs,” climate change, public participation in government and finally democracy.
Sanders explained that free healthcare and free education may seem like radical ideas, but they are being accomplished by nearly all other major countries and are being accomplished a price less than current systems in the U.S. are costing tax payers. He explained that people are not getting adequate healthcare, which costs more and more people end up in hospitals and emergency rooms.
Sanders stated that such reforms are efforts of “funding the future of us as a whole rather than getting something for free.”
“We are a nation that should be worried about all of us,” he stressed as he commented that too many people are only concerned with the well-being of themselves and their families without realizing that increasing health and education is good for the whole, not just the individuals. “I’m here because I’m an old-fashioned guy who does not believe in red states and blue states.”
Sanders explained that answers to the problems facing Portsmouth, the State and the Nation can be found through unity rather than division.
A video of the discussion can be found on the Bernie Sanders Facebook page, where there was a live feed of the event.
Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931.