On April 15, I joined Washington University in St. Louis graduate workers and housekeepers in protest for a $15 wage and childcare for more than 1,000 working people on campus. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, we held a sit-in at Wash U Chancellor-Elect Andrew Martin’s office to bring the issue directly to him. Though he didn’t meet with us, he did send the police, who arrested all eight of us in civil disobedience.

I joined the graduate workers and housekeepers because we need to confront inequity and injustice, whether it be in the streets of Ferguson or in the halls of Missouri’s premier academic institution. We don’t put our bodies on the line because we want to – we do so because we need a real change on this campus and in this city.

This campus coalition unites all sorts of people from all walks of life – graduate workers, housekeepers, cafeteria workers, white, black, brown – together because it’s deeply unfair that they struggle to make ends meet at such a wealthy university. While Wash U enjoys an $8.5 billion endowment, those who make it such a great place to learn are paid so little many are forced to rely on food stamps and food banks to feed their families.

It’s immoral for an institution of higher learning that bills itself as a regional leader to pay workers so little they live under the threat of eviction and feed their children ramen noodles for dinner. It’s wrong that the fourth-largest employer in the metro area refuses to recognize the shameful role it plays in perpetuating poverty that holds our most vulnerable neighborhoods back.

While Wash U waits, other universities are taking action to better their communities. Last week, after graduate workers came together, Duke University announced a plan to raise its pay to $15 in 2023. The University of Virginia also recently announced its plan to raise the campus minimum wage to $15.

We need that same spirit in St. Louis. With new leadership, Wash U has the opportunity to turn over a new leaf and be a true leader for the working families of our region, particularly the working poor, who come in from across St. Louis County and city to make the university run. A higher wage means more money to take home and spend in their neighborhoods, boosting local businesses and the economy.

But this isn’t just about economics – it’s about racial equity. It’s about lifting struggling neighborhoods, especially in North St. Louis, where so many Wash U workers live.

Change requires action, and we understand that. The working people of Wash U have shown they’re ready to do whatever it takes to win that more secure future for their families. The question is whether Chancellor-Elect Martin is listening. It’s up to us, the community, to make sure he does.

Rev. Darryl Gray is a longtime civil rights activist. He currently lives in St. Louis.  

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