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poverty

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the culture of encounter

(In which I give in and write more about SketchFactor.)

How supremely perfect it is that the SketchFactor app debuted at the same time as the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. On the SketchFactor scale of 1-5, where 1 is "kind of quirky" and 5 is "could be dangerous," Ferguson probably ranks at about a 30 right now, what with the rioting and the wooden bullets and all. According to these metrics, at least, it's a place to be avoided.

But is it, really? Because avoidance, at least of the mental kind, might be how we got here in the first place.

My man Pope Francis has been on a tear lately talking about the "culture of encounter," the idea that we learn and grow when we interact with people different from ourselves. In one letter of which I'm particularly fond, he talks about the role that communications and technology can play in fostering greater human dignity:

In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all.  Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity.  The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. 

The essential problem with apps like SketchFactor is that they don't break down these walls. They build them by specifying where we shouldn't walk, literally dividing us and our environs into safe and unsafe, worthy and unworthy. In its own way, this discourse is violent and destructive - not just to those it victimizes, but to our connections to each other as well.

Walls like these are what allow those of us who are not regularly harassed for our race or class to turn a blind eye to the killing, by police, of young, unarmed persons of color; they block out the protests, the riots, the sound of sirens. They let us believe it doesn't happen that often. Walls like these give us an excuse to make assumptions, because we've never learned that a "gang sign" is actually a symbol of peace. Walls like these prevent the large-scale catalyzing of public opinion against procedures that are fundamentally unjust. And walls like these allow us to avoid imagining ourselves, as individuals, in the same situation.

Elsewhere in that letter, the Pope invokes the parable of the Good Samaritan and its call for us to view ourselves as "neighbors" to all of humanity:

Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours.  The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him.  ...(I)t is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other.  Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God... 

Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road.  The Levite and the priest do not regard him as a neighbour, but as a stranger to be kept at a distance.  

It's hard to be someone's neighbor, though, if you won't even go near their neighborhood. Is this the world we want? Full of strangers, kept at a distance? 

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who'll sing this song?

For me to wholly claim Appalachia would be theft. I've lived there intermittently for the last ten years - I went to college in Kentucky, but on its periphery, and my family lives in east Tennessee, where I have also lived and worked, off and on. So I know more about the region than probably 90% of people in DC, but I can't say it's mine really, not like my friends who grew up in Laurel County or Ashland or Hazard. I only know it as an adult.

But if you spend any real amount of time there, the region gets under your skin, makes you want to rise to its defense even if you haven't earned the privilege. It's hard to explain to an outsider the sweet burn of peach moonshine, or the joyful feeling of stomping to a banjo's rhythm, or the way an abandoned trailer, surrounded by rusting barbed wire, looks in the fog. It's poor, yes, and different from other places, but it's complicated and beautiful too. And if I, an Appalachian Johnny-come-lately, feel this many conflicting emotions, imagine how much love and frustration must be felt by a person who carries the region in their blood - especially when they see how outsiders view them.

The rest of America has always enjoyed a strained relationship with this pocket of the country, with its poverty and luminous strangeness. (For an introduction to this issue, I always recommend Elizabeth Barret's documentary Stranger with a Camerawhich chronicles the death of photographer Hugh O'Connor in Letcher County, Kentucky.) A friend recently sent me a review of a new Brooklyn restaurant that looks like a parody of Appalachia, like some sort of weird poverty theme park where you can pretend to be poor and have a corn dog with a Budweiser. To the reviewer's credit, he castigates the owner for cashing in on a place he doesn't even understand. (Sample quote: "I doubt if he is aware or even curious to inquire how that barn he bought became fallow.")

However, he falls into another trap, which is the pity of the well-meaning outsider. In his review, he says that "(t)he miserable condition of Appalachia, a region that runs from New York to Mississippi, is as raw a wound and as deep a shame as a decapitated strip-mined peak. Poor, poor and damned poor are the mountain people who still live there, though as Ronald Eller notes in his bleak study Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, there’s not that many of them." It echoes Annie Lowrey's recent piece in the New York Times, "What's The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?", which notes "the desperation of coal country."

Well, yes, but.

There's no arguing with the fact that much of Appalachia is poor - very poor, poor in ways that might surprise you if you've never been. And yes, it is derided and/or ignored by much of America, because these issues, and our political complicity in them, are hard and painful to deal with. But there's also no arguing with the richness I've experienced there, even as an outsider, and the cultural and artistic offerings the region provides. My parents live outside the Storytelling Capital of the World - that's not my opinion, that's an official title. The Amish fried donuts at the Johnson City Farmers' Market are better than you can believe. And we're always coming up with new ways to make meth. (Joke. Joke.) 

The way we view Appalachia echoes the way we view most of the "developing" countries of the world - as places in dire need of our noblesse oblige, rather than as whole, complex entities with things to offer as well as needs. You can be desperate and still be beautiful, in ways that have nothing to do with your desperation. You can be financially rich, but still blind to what the country around you provides.

Poverty like Appalachia's cannot be ignored, but it's also not the sole defining characteristic of its towns or its people. And maybe we should care about it because its existence impedes us from accessing what lies within. When all we can think about is how much a place lacks, it's easy to miss how much it has to offer. 

And I'm going to be honest with you here: I've rewritten this post five or six times, because, as I noted at the beginning, I'm only beginning to understand the region - I can only speak for myself and my own experiences. (For a more nuanced defense from a true native, I strongly encourage you to read Silas House's recent editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal.) So, given the amount that's already been taken from Appalachia by outsiders over the course of the last century, I hesitate to write any more than what I already know. But what I want to convey is that it's worth knowing, all of it. The whole picture.

 

 

 

 

 

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the poor in spirit

(Because this veers into rant territory, parts of it might be incoherent. Apologies. Remember, this is my sketchbook.)

One of the other teachers sometimes wears a t-shirt from her university mediation group to school. I told her jokingly that I wished we could teach mediation, educate the kids on the idea of the BATNA. But later, I realized that I wasn't joking at all. I work with sixth graders, and historically, between the school transition and the puberty, sixth and seventh grades are prime time for jerkhood no matter where you are. The kids yell at each other. When they get angry about something, instead of just TELLING US, they act it out in weird passive-aggressive ways or blow up over some other, usually much smaller, incident. And it's ridiculous. I tell them all the time that if they would just speak nicely to each other, their detentions would probably go down by 50%. The root problems wouldn't go away, and there would still be times when a good holler was necessary, but the road to solving them would be a lot smoother and faster for everyone.

But even so, I like them (obviously), and I know they have the skills to act decently. It's a matter of practice.

The other night I went out with that same teacher in a group for her boyfriend's birthday. She introduced me to one of her other friends as follows: "This is Miss Eason. She thinks about privilege a lot." (This was a compliment. She'd heard me read one of my essays.)

She's right. I do. Because, over the last eight years, I've spent a lot of time working with those very same kids, mostly very poor, mostly minorities, and - often because of the behavior described above - every day you spend doing that is a hit from a boxing glove on a spring, one that's labeled "Privilege." BAM! You did not struggle with this. POW! You took this for granted. WHAM! This problem never even occurred to you. And, to add insult to injury, the rest of the world often sends the message of fault - that struggle is a result of error, that the punches you feel are all in your head.

Because these boxing metaphors are somewhat opaque, however, I'd rather share the best summation of privilege that I've read recently - a hard knock to the idea that everyone here has the same shot. It comes from this article (via my friend Veronica, a former teacher herself).

There’s no give in the finances of a low-wage family: no margin for error, no wiggle room to account for the inevitable vagaries of life. Each day is spent tiptoeing along the edge of a canyon, knowing that the slightest breeze could push you right in.

Things that seem fairly minor to middle-income families — an unexpected car repair, a high heating bill during a cold snap, a trip to the E.R. when little Connor breaks his arm — are cause for total panic, because there’s no cushion to absorb them. Pay for that car repair and now there’s not enough for the light bill; forgo the light bill and now there’s a late fee; pay for all that and now there’s not enough for the rent.

It takes almost nothing to start a real avalanche.

My head started to hurt. People sometimes say folks are poor because they make “bad decisions,” but she wasn’t doing anything wrong (and society needs nurse’s aides, after all, so it seems reasonable to hope you could be one without worrying about starving).

What’s more, I could think of many middle-income and well-off people who’d made “bad decisions” without spiraling into poverty; the difference was just that they’d had the resources to fix them. (They could afford counseling and medication for the depression that sparked the alcohol problem, pay off credit cards just by trimming back on vacations and eating out. They could go back for a second semester after partying and flunking out, because it hadn’t taken their entire life savings to get them there for the first.)

But she had no cushion. There could be no surprises. She could not make mistakes.

I was raised to believe in the power of perseverance to overcome obstacles. I saw it happen through my parents, two of the hardest-working people that I know - people who, truth be told, operated without a cushion for a good part of their adult lives. I was raised to believe that people naturally gravitate towards a market economy. And to be honest, I still do, in my own way.

But I can't handle anymore the inverse of that idea, that these life challenges always equal fault somehow, that privilege doesn't matter that much, that the market weeded you out. As though trauma can't be inherited; as though simply attending your local school is definitely enough to prepare you for the world; as though, if you have all your paperwork in order, your applications or your loans or your processes will definitely go through. As though emotions are illegitimate, or they play no role.

Here is life in America: we trade things with each other, because that is our natural impulse, but not everyone has access to roads, or is allowed to trade with everyone else. Your school might not prepare you for the world. Your culture might not be recognized as legitimate by other people, which is, in a way, the same thing as saying that you are not legitimate either. And the world will tell you that this is your fault, because on paper you had the same chance as everyone else. But paper is two-dimensional. It doesn't let anyone else in.

The Salon article above ends with a call to compassion. In their marvelous book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, the Catholic theologians Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison argue that compassion means "to suffer with" - to understand the experience of another before making these judgments or decisions. It's easy to write off compassion as a series of inefficient handouts, a pie-in-the-sky solution, instead of what it really means: changing the tenor of the argument, lowering the amount that we scream at each other. Trying to understand the vast systemic factors that inform the other person's viewpoint. Privilege is about not having to suffer unless we choose to do so, but making that choice - the choice to at least listen and understand - doesn't mean giving in as much as it means making the problems easier to handle, by everyone. We who have so many resources, can it really be so hard?

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