EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first column in a three-part series exploring poverty, activism, and philanthropy. The views expressed are those of the writer.
Part I: Looking in the Mirror
When most people hear the word “activist,” the image that comes to mind is someone carrying a large sign on a stick in a crowd of people, espousing some angry slogan. This of course, is a stereotype. To stereotype people and ideas and certain words for that matter, is a way of dismissing problems or challenges without opening yourself to more realistic views. It’s much easier to plunk it in a category, and then you don’t have to think about it anymore. After all, thinking is hard work, and we all have enough responsibility as it is, just to get through the day.
But in a broader sense, someone who engages in “activism” is simply a person who is acting upon their values and beliefs; without deeds, beliefs don’t mean much. In my younger years, I was content to simply mind my own business, earn a living, and have some fun along the way. But gradually I began to experience the unfairness of the way the world often works. Loyalty is not always rewarded; hard work doesn’t guarantee prosperity; not everyone is worthy of trust; suffering is inevitable, in us and all around us, its causes often perplexing.
Fast forward to middle age. Much heartache later, one eventually realizes that in some way the choice is almost black and white: contend with the ways of the world with courage and faith and optimism, or become a complaining cynic, a back seat driver stuck in a self-imposed rut, lacking the creativity to imagine and work toward what is possible. The first rule of being in a rut is to stop digging.
Needless to say I have become an activist—that is, someone who more and more is acting on my beliefs. Every community is composed of the “haves” and the “have nots”. If we’re fortunate enough to be in the former category, often we believe it’s solely on account of our individual merit that we have attained a certain level of social status and economic security. While this is true on one hand — individual striving is indispensable for success — the other side of the story is too often ignored.
Those of us on the “have” side of life tend to ignore the fact that stability, education, skills, values, ambitions and talents — even health — were in most cases things given to us or encouraged early in life: they weren’t earned; it is because our family of origin had such things to impart. And these gifts gave us the capacity to be successful and responsible citizens later in life. Such is mostly not so for the “have nots.” (This reflection doesn’t even begin to address the sacrifices made by our ancestors to give us freedom and the entire societal infrastructure that makes our present economy possible.)
The most common opinion I hear from my cohorts, in one form or another is that “poor people are that way because they’re lazy.” This is a gross misrepresentation of an entire segment of our community; each member has a story to tell. By such labeling, we excuse ourselves from taking the time to find out more, to reexamine our assumptions, or to overcome disappointment in previous attempts to help. I am willing to bet that despair and low expectations are more prevalent than inherent laziness.
Just observe how children so often want to help. How the long term environment interacts with this natural impulse will have lifelong impacts, for better or for worse. Many of us have witnessed among the poor a common attitude of entitlement and dependence bred by generational poverty; despite this, I believe that deep down everyone wants to be a part of something, to contribute something meaningful to their family and community; simply to belong, just like you and me. That the poor are treated as morally weak social outcasts makes a bad situation worse.
A certain person in this town who started a soup kitchen 17 years ago told me a story. When the whole enterprise began, the church minister posed a challenging question to her that went something like this: “When you see these people come in here, knowing how much they spend on their cell phones and cigarettes, how do you justify feeding them? She replied, “Thank God I don’t have to justify it! I’m not supposed to judge that. This is just what Jesus would do.”
Caroline McColloch is a freelance writer, farmer and local foods advocate. She can be reached at (937) 773-0663 or firstname.lastname@example.org.