Last night, as part of our Culture and Identity class, we had a field trip to Skid Row, where we met General Jeff, a community activist. Skid Row has one of the largest populations of homeless people in the USA.
I was deeply affected by meeting General Jeff. He is from South LA, and moved to Skid Row about 7 years ago to work in the community and be a voice for the community. He worked in the music industry as a successful rap artist before deciding to move to Skid Row, and give his life to the community and people there. He has now become a pillar of strength and voice for the community, saying things that few others dare to say, and being a positive influence to the extent that few dare to or even think of trying.
My initial feelings and thoughts when starting on the tour - was irritation, questioning why we were doing this - a few students taking a tour as spectators to this community which holds people with very real problems, and very real pain. However, after spending our time with General Jeff - I knew that I had missed the point earlier. The point is that although this community is filled with crime, homelessness and more - there are many positive things going on in the community, and many people working to effect change in the lives of the residents of Skid Row.
Homelessness has a face, and has a name. Poverty has a face, and a name. Each person who lives at Skid Row, whether homeless, mentally-ill or struggling with addiction, has a face, and has a name. This is true for people and children around the world who live in poverty. At what point do we stop walking past the people around us who need us, at what point do we look past the stigma of homeless and poverty, that the person we see is a person we see is a person with real needs, real life experiences and real pain. When do we stop and engage - not helper to homeless, but person to person, not superficially, not just a 'hi' or 'God bless you', but a genuine seeking to know and understand. These are questions I am posing at myself - questions I know I need to work out in order to do this work in a way that truly empowers rather than causing harm to communities.
I need to learn how to approach this work through thought-processes and dialogues that engage issues at both a macro and very micro level.
I am learning that things are not always as they appear to be, and as people portray them to be. Just as General Jeff emphasized yesterday, "There are two sides to every story". We need to be willing to listen to the communities we are working in, otherwise it is so easy to miss the point, and more importantly, miss the people.
The last two years have been full of seeing, and thinking, and being inspired by the great work that people and organizations are doing here, and around the world. But yesterday, it was the closest experience and encounter with the kind of work I feel myself being drawn to more. I do not know what shape this will all eventually take...I just know that in terms of my life's work, that there is more, and a deeper work that needs to be done. That my current frame with regard to social transformation and youth development is way too limited. I know there is more...