Last May, we featured a group of enthusiastic Westminster School eighth graders, creators of the local movement Wage Up OKC intent on increasing Oklahoma City’s minimum wage from $7.25 to a living wage of $12. The students spent their eighth grade year learning about poverty as part of the school’s community service initiative. Their research, meetings with community leaders and personal experience in a “poverty simulation” spurred them to action. We caught up with the group to see how they have continued to positively impact Oklahoma City.
“Last year was eye-opening as we researched and met people,” said Wage Up member Sarah*, now a sophomore at Bishop McGuinness. “This year has been about seeing what I can do that’s bigger than myself and how that actually affects people.”
Though these students have graduated from Westminster (which goes through eighth grade) and now attend various high schools around the metro, they have remained committed to their mission, meeting weekly with former classmates who founded the group.
The students spend much of their time communicating and meeting with local businesses to encourage them to become Wage Up partners, which requires businesses to already be paying employees a living wage or commit to doing so within an agreed-upon length of time.
Just 18 months ago, the dozen students who started Wage Up had no idea what Oklahoma City families living under the poverty line endure every day.
“I didn’t realize how hard it is for a family, for someone who works full time, to make a living and feed their family,” said Campbell, a sophomore at Heritage Hall. “It’s made me appreciate what my parents do for me, even simple things like food. I feel proud that I get to help other families eat and buy their kids clothes.”
In the students’ research, they discovered 16 percent of Oklahomans live under that poverty line, eye opening for Gary, a sophomore at Heritage Hall, who didn’t realize how prevalent poverty is in his home state, a point he always shares with potential Wage Up partners. At the current minimum wage rate, a family of two cannot live above the poverty line, which is just above $16,000 a year. In fact, Ryleigh adds, people being paid the current minimum wage are still $10,000 below the poverty line.
“We chose $12 for a reason,” said Ryleigh, a sophomore at Heritage Hall. “$10 an hour would allow someone to afford housing, but they would still struggle with groceries and necessities.”
The Wage Up team has more than doubled their committed business partners since we saw them last, now at 55. Their goal is 208 partners by the time they graduate high school, or one new business partner per week throughout their high school careers.
In addition to making phone calls, visiting businesses in person and sending informative emails, the students have spent the last year beefing up their web presence and partner benefits to attract more businesses.
“Partners can now easily sign up through our web site,” said Gary. “And our site promotes all our partners, serving up a new featured partner every time you refresh the page.”
In her calls to local businesses, Sarah has learned to employ a bit of positive peer pressure, sharing the names of already-committed partners in the same line of work. Kate, a sophomore at Bishop McGuinness, helped establish a partnership with Keep it Local, which recognizes new Wage Up partners on its web site, a big benefit for partner promotion. Ryleigh appeals to business leaders by explaining that raising minimum wage enables people to have more expendable income and support those businesses financially. The social media team posts regularly about the businesses who have partnered with Wage Up in hopes of attracting new customers. Gary was instrumental in developing a window decal for new partners.
“You can come to our web site and learn about local businesses who are credible and paying their workers a living wage,” said Gary. “We want to encourage people to shop at and do business with places that support our mission.”
While most of Wage Up’s partners are already paying employees a living wage, or up-and-coming businesses that don’t yet have employees but are committed to paying a living wage when they do, the team has inspired several local retailers to increase employee pay, including A1 Pet Emporium and Red Coyote. Burke Beck, co-owner of Red Coyote with husband Jon, was impressed by the Wage Up students, who strive to educate business owners about the effects of poverty on the community while also appealing to their altruism and bottom line.
“A higher minimum wage improves productivity,” said Kate. “Workers who are economically secure work harder and change jobs less often, so employers don’t have to look for new workers and train more people.”
Beck immediately wanted to make the Wage Up mission a priority in her business. Just six months after becoming a partner, Red Coyote increased its starting salary to $12 an hour for its full team of 33 employees.
“A key component of Red Coyote’s mission has always been community support, and this is a unique way for us to contribute to our community and create more value for our team,” said Beck. “We are going to set aside funds each year to continue this initiative and keeping raising our starting wage annually.”
Creating Wage Up has taught the student team what it takes to start a business, build a web site and work as part of a team, all skills they recognize will be helpful when they are seeking jobs themselves. They have also gained confidence as they’ve realized their age and group’s size don’t preclude them from making a big difference.
“Seeing how people have been helped by our one small group makes me want to spend more time finding ways to help change things I care about,” said Ryleigh.
Sticking with the initiative past their eighth grade year has allowed them to witness their own positive impact. A year ago, the students partnered with the Homeless Alliance’s Curbside Chronicle, a magazine employing individuals transitioning out of homelessness, to launch the organization’s first Mother’s Day floral sale. Combined with its already established Valentine’s Day bouquet offerings, Curbside Chronicle’s total holiday floral sales have skyrocketed, and the organization is making plans to open a freestanding store later this year.
“They are passionate and motivated to change our city, and they are doing so one business at a time,” said Emmery Frejo, Westminster director of communications. “It’s lovely to see their belief that while they are a small group, they are mighty and they truly can change the world.”
*To protect the privacy of the students, Westminster’s policy allows us to print first names only of current and former students.