Friday, December 22, 2006

My job puts me in an awkward position sometimes. It is my responsibility to decide how product that has been donated to my organization will be redistributed to non-profits and churches in the inner city. Sometimes, this means that I have to make judgment calls about how things like shampoo, clothing, school supplies and toys will best be put to use. As a young, white woman, I have a very thin line to walk between due diligence and paternalism. On the one hand, I am educated and passionate about the theories of responsible charity and community development. On the other hand, my education and passion can easily lull me into believing that my opinion is right, which can quickly lead to acting like I’m the Great White Hope. It is easy to think that because I am literate and articulate, then I know more than the people from these hurting neighborhoods. In reality, I don’t know more; I know different things. For instance, they are geniuses of relationships and community. Life on the west side has taught them to know everyone in their neighborhood, what special needs and resources those people possess and to what level they can take the relationship. I think we’ve established pretty definitively that I’m terrible at all of that. The best I can say is that I try to interact with all types of people not just those that are like me, but the most I can usually manage is to stumble along, stepping on toes and having to apologize a lot. The ironic bit about this is that good relationships are what will change the world. I can know all the theories about what works to rebuild communities, but if I do not have a real relationship with the people that live in those communities, my theories will never get implemented. So, really, in terms of what is essential to fixing the problems of poverty, they know more than I do. My role is just an after-thought about efficiency.

But, because of my studies and my experiences, I’m becoming resolute in my opinion that simply offering up stuff for people to come and take home with them is actually making the problem worse. It’s the old give-a-man-a-fish-vs-teach-a-man-to-fish dilemma. It’s better to teach a man to fish because then he can support himself when something happens to the fish-giver. In fact, if you keep giving fish when you could be teaching fish, generations of people grow up not even realizing that fish come from water. Also, the people begin to identify themselves as Receivers rather than Fishers. A guy named Jayakumar Christian calls this a “marred self-identity” and it is actually worse than any situation except literal starvation.

But what do you do when you have a warehouse full of fish that have already been caught?

I can’t let them rot, so I try to give my fish (remember, Dad, I’m actually talking about shampoo, clothes, school supplies and toys) to organizations that are using those fish as incentives to bring starving people in the doors in order to teach them how to fish for themselves next time. This doesn’t account for all the fish that I have and, of course, it’s not that simple, but it is the criteria that I try to keep at the top of the list when determining who gets what.

In August, everyone wants backpacks for their back-to-school BBQs. Most of my community partners have a big party and pass out flyers and any kid that shows up gets a backpack, whether she really needs one or not. Giving the kid a fish, as it were. I’m not a big fan of this practice for the reasons that I stated above. So this year, I decided to give the backpacks that I had to the schools that fell in a one-mile radius of our facility. I figured that the schools would know which kids were actually starving because the schools would know which kids showed up on the first day of school without a backpack. However, since it had been the practice of my predecessor to give a few backpacks to every community partner who asked for them, I had to face some angry people who felt like they had been cut off unfairly.

In retrospect, I could have done that better. I could have sent out a letter explaining to my partners about my choice and providing alternate resources to purchase backpacks at reduced prices, which I see as the equivalent of teaching them to fish for backpacks themselves. Then, people wouldn’t feel so pole-axed. Like I said, I’m not so good with the relationships. But I’ll do better next year.

One of the worst interactions that I had was with a tiny African American woman who pastors a church just down the street. Her head reaches its pinnacle at my shoulders and she is slight of frame, but with the nobility that only poor, Black women in their fifties have earned the right to carry. She came to me on August 25th and started our conversation with, “I’m down on my knees begging you for my kids.” This, of course, brings to the surface every discomfort and fear that I have of becoming the Great White Hope. This fear often manifests itself as anger that someone would think that I would be so crass as to make my decisions about who gets what based on who toadied up to me the most. Don’t they know how much I agonize about being fair?!?! Of course, they don’t really think that about me and, if they did, they don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. It’s just how the world works in an under-resourced community. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and all that.

Because I knew in my head that women like the one in front of me are actually smarter than me when it comes to changing the world, I tried to tamp down the indignance of my heart and said as kindly as I could manage, "Please don't beg, Linda. I don't want to be the cause of your loss of dignity." She said that no indignity was too great if it will help her kids. I told her that I didn't have any more backpacks and explained to her about giving them to the schools this year. At this point, she was visibly upset. If I had brought James Brown himself in to sing, "I don't want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door. I'll get it myself," she wouldn't have seen him because probably all she could see was these children that she loved starting school with empty hands. She looked up at me somewhat fiercely and told me, "Something about that doesn't feel right." She repeated herself when I didn't say anything. I didn't know what to say. Finally, though, I asked her if she could explain why it wasn't right. I tried to be as open and honestly interested in my demeanor as I could. I don't know how well I succeeded. I was saying, "I'd like to know because I'm changing the program in the next couple of months and your input would be valuable." By the time I got to the end of that awkward sentence, she had already turned her back on me and walked away.

In October, when we did our regular monthly distribution of stuff, I was working on paperwork and at meetings all day while my colleague met folks at the door and helped them load up their cars. At the end of the day, I asked him how things had gone and because he is a good person, he told me everything had been fine. I pushed a little and he admitted that one person had complained that she didn't get enough. I asked, "Was it Linda?" because he rarely wants to even imply that someone is less than reaonable in their behavior. I named her so he wouldn't have to. He laughed and agreed that it was.

Friday, Linda rang the bell to pick up her Christmas toys early in the morning. We have a visual intercom, so I clicked in on and asked, "Can I help you?" because people either stand VERY close to the camera or move out of its range very quickly after ringing the bell and so I can't tell who is out there. Linda is one of the latter, apparently, "It's Linda, Rebecca!" she called from a distance. "OK, someone will be with you in just a minute!" I yelled back into the intecom. This is what I always say because I manage the administrative side of my program and my colleague manages all of the physical warehousing for the program. After I greet someone through the intercom, I page him and he actually meets them at the dock door and gives them their stuff. I heaved a sigh of relief, thinking how great it was that I could hide in my office and let him - who is so much nicer than me - deal with her this time.

Of course, if one has spent any time at all with Jesus, the moment one heaves that sigh of selfish relief, one realizes that one's actions have begged the question, "What would Jesus do?" The answer is never, "Hide in your office!" Also, if one has spent any time at all with my father, when encountering a broken relationship one is hit with the internal question, "What would El Gordo do?" He would make a deliberate point to go out and be very glad to see Linda, so that she would know that he had no hard feelings. He wouldn't let her assume that no news was good news. Because he knows that people always assume the worst if they aren't told differently.

So, after this double whammy of better judgement, I went out and was very glad to see Linda. I wished her Merry Christmas and told her it was good to see her. Instead of the icy dissatisfaction that I expected from her, she hugged me warmly and asked how I was doing. I felt very successful and comfortable as we made our way through chit-chat that things were going to be just fine. Like the British, we would let social niceties smooth over the rough spot in our history. We could pretend like it never happened.

But African American women from the ghetto who have made it to their mid-fifties don't earn that regal bearing by playing along with the convenient lies of small talk. Linda turned to me and then turned me to face her, grabbing my upper arms with both hands. She said, "Do you remember the last time we talked when you told me not to beg?" I immediately thought that she was going to yell at me aain and so I hedged a little, "I remember when I asked you not to give up your dignity." Instead, she said, "Well, I've been thinking about that and I'm not going to do it anymore."

I was stunned. She kept talking about really examining her behavior and how hard it is to be honest with ourselves. She said that from now on, she was just going to ask me what I have and be grateful for what she gets. I couldn't do much more than restate her words in my own, like a paraphrasing parrot. I told her that if I have it when she asks, she can have it. If I refuse, it's because I don't have it. She wasn't done, though. She went on to say that this past year my company has treated her the best it ever has. Other years, she said, she just got junk and this year she really felt like we gave her good stuff.

It is relationships with people that will change the world. All of the good policy ever written won't make any difference if we don't actually have a chance to see God in the faces of other people because we hide in our office. I'm still terrible at relationships. This is not one of those stories where my life is turned around and aluvasudden I'm no longer awkward at engaging with people that are different from me and now, maybe just a little, I even like it. That only happens with the Grinch and mawkish memoirs. I'm still stepping on a lot of toes. But it is good to feel like maybe I won't always be such a klutz. That Linda, with all of her reason to dislike me, would forgive me for my missteps and even consider that I might have said something worth listening to, is enough to make me keep dancing. Even if my wisdom is the type that comes "out of the mouths of babes," which means, of course, unintentional wisdom come across through ignorance of how something is supposed to be said. I'm grateful that I can accomplish even that.


Anonymous said...

When my tears dry up I may have more comments. Thank you for sharing your journey with me. Best Christmas present ever.
Love, the dad

Al said...


Beautiful! Keep doing what you're doing.


P.S. Note new blog address

PrincessMax said...

Thanks, Al.

For the encouragement and the gentle reminder about your new address. I changed it in my bookmarks but not in the blogroll. Sorry. I love to see that you're still with me.