WHAT MATTERS

with Janee Woods

Finding a New Perspective: Reconciling Privilege with Empathy

I think a lot about poverty and low-income families. Reading this report from the Children’s Defense Fund about ways to reduce child poverty made me want to do more to advocate change. But at no point did I think about how these ideas would impact me personally—because why would they? I’m not a poor child. Not anymore.

I grew up in a single-parent home in a less than desirable neighborhood known for its crime and racial tensions. And we were poor. Yet today, I am occasionally stunned that I have forgotten some of the hardship, even though it colored most of my early memories.

When you’re a kid living in poverty, the things most people call “opportunities” are merely the trappings of ordinary life for most middle class kids. I remember the first day of eighth grade at the small religious private school where I was “the scholarship kid,” and our teacher asked us all what we did over the summer. Almost every student in the class talked nonchalantly about taking a memorable trip or enjoying an enriching experience with their family. When it was my turn, I didn’t have anything interesting to talk about because, like every summer before, we stayed at home in our hot Section 8 apartment, watching TV and not doing much of anything because there was no extra money for fun activities or vacations, and never enough gas in the old car to take us anywhere. Our big treat was visiting the library to enjoy the air conditioning and free books. I remember feeling inadequate and small when it had been my turn to speak because it wasn’t until listening to the other children that I really understood just how little my family had in comparison.


Paul Kuczynski

 

Fast forward 25 years and I’ve become the kind of person who talks about summer adventures I have with my family. I’m middle class now, and I know that I am lucky. Most kids who start off at the bottom like me don’t end up at the top, or even the middle, because upward mobility isn’t as easy as the myth of meritocracy would lead you to believe. In fact, moving from poverty into the middle class is really hard and not surprisingly, the odds are even greater for children of color.

So why do I sometimes forget that I used to be poor? That’s a question I’m still trying to unpack, because those occasional moments of forgetting bear an impact on the depth of my empathy for people struggling against poverty. And while the economic and social privileges I enjoy as an adult are in some ways a distancing buffer to my younger memories, I don’t want to live in a bubble where people like me might be seen as the do-gooders and saviors for the less fortunate among us, like we’re somehow better, because we’re not.

Sometimes privilege brings complacency and I don’t want to be complacent. I’ve noticed recently that my brain sometimes stalls on statistic and facts when I work on poverty issues, but I want to try harder to lead with my heart and connect on a more personal level with people living through the struggles of poverty. It’s harder to do now—I made it out—but I am hesitant to let myself fully embrace what it means to “make it out.” This newer, more privileged perspective on the spectrum of poverty and wealth can be dizzying, but I don’t want to ever lose touch with that kid who suddenly realized one day that she didn’t have the same chances as the other students in her school.

I thought I’d arrived when I finally joined the middle class, yet now I realize my journey is just beginning. I have a lot more to learn about the way I move through the world, and to process what it means to have opportunity, privilege and real empathy as I continue in the fight against social injustice.

Onward.

This post (including the awesome graphics and photos) was published originally on Scenarios USA, where I am a new contributor to The Scenario, a blog where young people and millennials go to talk about social justice issues, the Internet, culture, film and whatever else is on their mind! Scenarios USA is a national organization that uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression, with a focus on marginalized communities.

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2015 by and tagged , , .
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