Creating and maintaining eye contact has been something that I was taught from a young age to be “attentive” and an honest/good conversational skill; a way of treating that person with respect and dignity. This is something I have taken pride in over the years, and has seemed to me like a basic part of social interaction and communication. Eye contact = acknowledgement.
Never in my life have I wanted to avoid eye contact as much as I did on the way to our first day of work. Walking through the Tenderloin is like moving through a world that belongs to us, but doesn’t feel like it’s ours. People everywhere you look, huddled with their belongings, sleeping with toes outstretched, staring off in the distance, or shooting up right in front of you. Some say hi; most don’t. The scent of urine, marijuana, and other unpleasant stenches wafted up to us and hit like a wall. Moving through this space, I felt like an intruder- helpless, scared, and most of all upset by the stark differences in care and circumstance that led each of these people to not be able to afford housing, to afford a healthy life, here in San Francisco. I still feel some of these emotions. The fear has morphed into frustration, and the helplessness has softened with the knowledge that organizations like Larkin Street Youth Services are actively trying to make a difference- that I am too. Dealing with the shame of recoiling into myself and then reflecting on why I was so uncomfortable has been, and continues to be, something I have to do daily. Why do I feel this way in this situation? What is it about this scenario that is actually bothering me? How can I, if possible, change my actions and how I’m interpreting this situation? Applying this to not only these walks through the tenderloin, but to interactions with clients and my peers has been instrumental in managing my feelings and wellbeing throughout this process.
It has taken time to accept that the way I felt while walking through the Tenderloin was normal, and that I’ll probably never stop being upset and saddened by what I see. Recognizing when we should show compassion to ourselves is important for effective engagement. None of us are going to go through our Duke Engage experience without feeling like we’ve made a mistake or misjudged a situation. Like we’ve made an unfair assumption, reacted inappropriately, or been clueless about what to do next. These mistakes have real consequences, but using them as learning opportunities is how we can make the best of these instances. More than likely, others in our positions have faced similar challenges and made similar mistakes. I’ve had to have the heart to heart with myself about not letting the fear of something going wrong get in the way of building relationships and fully fleshing out the work with the youth and the work within myself.
“Be not afraid of going slowly. Be afraid only of standing still” – Chinese proverb