Perhaps one of the most valuable, albeit painful, lessons I have learned this year is being able to recognize the extent of my own privilege. In many of my college classes, we spent time talking about privilege in terms of race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, and mental and physical health. Before embarking on this adventure with Urban Servant Corps, I could have spoken semi-eloquently about the concept of privilege from an academic standpoint. I could have listed areas in which I experience privilege, and I could have quoted from memory pieces of Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” However, it wasn’t until I found myself in the middle of the messiness of front line social justice work that I was forced to truly confront my own privilege head on. Sometimes these realizations were brought to me gently; more often they came in the form of some pretty harsh wake-up calls that left me shaken to the core.
No matter how hard I try to empathize with my clients experiencing poverty and homelessness, the reality is that I am a white, heterosexual female who was born to a Midwestern middle class family. When I was young, my parents bought me stacks of books with every book order, sat with me when I had homework to complete, and instilled in me the value of an education. They enrolled me in piano lessons, and bought me a flute so that I could join the high school band. I had a large backyard (an entire farm really) to run and play in the fresh air, with the most significant safety concerns being scraped knees, bruised elbows, and cat scratches. I had an abundance of toys, an abundance of opportunities, and an abundance of love.
I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from a private liberal arts college. When I was in high school, the question asked was never if I was going to college, but instead where I wanted to go. I based my decision on finding a school that seemed to be a good fit socially and spiritually probably more so than on practicality. I had a work study job in college but used that income primarily for my own spending money—movies, dinners out with friends, road trips. Never did I have to worry about not being able to pay rent or not having enough to eat. Because I didn’t have to financially support myself, I had time to get involved in extracurricular activities and had plenty of time to study and to devote to homework (on top of having at least somewhat of a social life.) I traveled abroad twice. I took classes like ceramics and creative writing just for fun. I had the privilege of thinking about concepts like calling and vocation, and I had the privilege to spend a couple of years undecided in my major without ever worrying about finding the most cost efficient route to an end goal. I grew up surrounded by the belief that I could accomplish anything I put my mind and heart to. And then when I graduated from college, I had the privilege of being able to afford to spend a year in volunteer service.
And then I, an incredibly privileged overachieving white girl, was plopped down in the middle of the inner city in the midst of a world I knew almost nothing about. I met real people dealing with real trauma, experiencing everyday horrors I still struggle to even comprehend. Families caught in the exhausting, ugly cycle of poverty. Mothers and their children fleeing domestic violence. Kids who have grown up on the streets, who have never experienced fresh out-of-the-city air, who know little of what it means to run and play and to simply be kids. People of color fighting the very present realities of structural racism and police brutality. Women who have given themselves into prostitution or the drug trade as a means to survive. Kids who possess so much natural musical, artistic, athletic, or academic talent but have been unable to nurture those gifts due to a life of instability and inconsistency. Teenagers who hardly dare to dream about attending community college one day. People who have been treated as less than human, both on a structural and personal level, and have been told over and over by both words and actions that they are unworthy of love.
And yet every day I am blown away by the sheer strength of these individuals. Their wisdom, their determination, and their resilience leaves me in awe on an almost daily basis. I have so very much to learn from them.
I am learning when to speak up on behalf of those who do not share my level of privilege and when to step back and simply listen. I am learning how to be an ally instead of trying to be a savior. I am learning to swallow my pride and admit that in no way, shape, or form did I earn the privilege I have been given. I am struggling to figure out how to own my privilege and not be ashamed of it but also how to use it effectively without flaunting it. I am learning that it is okay to be downright angry about the injustices of the world, but that I cannot let the anger (or the sadness) consume me. I am learning how to be present in the midst of others’ pain and am learning how to draw healthy boundaries and practice self-care in the midst of it all. I am learning to let myself be vulnerable, am learning that there is no shame in tears, and am also learning the importance of celebrating the little victories that come every step of the way.
It is a long, messy journey, and the work we all have before us is only just beginning. But I am convinced that there is great beauty to be found here, even in the midst of the messiness, the pain, and the anger that comes along with social justice work (whatever form that may take). And thankfully there is enough grace to go around as we all struggle to figure out how to create a better world for all of us.