Other DukeEngage Seattle participants have written about the unexpected challenges of their non-profit work, Pride celebrations’ struggles with true inclusivity, and the American Dream’s place in our world today. These posts are spot-on reflections that display a remarkable understanding of the issues that we face as DukeEngage participants. Despite the value in those blogs, I’d like to focus on something even more challenging for Duke students—acknowledging when we do not understand an issue and can stand to learn from others, even when we are trying to do right.
During last week’s weekly reflection dinner, we had the chance to talk to a man who—through a chain of unfortunate events—had ended up homeless for several months. His story was fascinating, deeply personal, and challenging to our ideas of the issue of homelessness.
In preparation for the reflection dinner we were asked to watch Seattle is Dying, a local news-produced “documentary” about homelessness in Seattle—a blunt, un-nuanced depiction of homelessness that boiled down to blaming people experiencing homelessness for hurting the rest of the city. It was received poorly by most of the Duke Engage participants—not to mention my non-profit partner, who urged us to read other viewpoints.
Thanks to the mandatory documentary, we went into the talk primed to discuss our issues with how it portrayed people experiencing homelessness, prepared to dispute the video’s ignorance of broader social, economic, and racial issues that shape homelessness. Instead, we heard a deeply personal story, focused on personal decisions, responsibility, and faith—told by someone both better equipped to understand the personal side of the issue than we were, and someone hesitant to tie his own story to broad questions.
We struggled to listen to his story on his terms, instead of trying to make it part of our own. We struggled to ask questions that gave weight to personal experience, rather than pushing someone to comment on issues that they had tried to side-step in previous questions. We struggled at times to show that we wanted to listen, rather than to talk.
I can’t quite reconcile all of the personal experiences that we heard with what we know about the issue of homelessness—in Seattle and around the country. At the same time, that should not give me leave to push someone’s experience—one that I’m ill equipped to understand—into my own narrative, ignoring personal experiences along the way.
My goal is not to say that we are wrong in our focus on underlying causes that contribute to homelessness. In fact, I think that we’re quite right to do so, and that in many ways we are in a good position to understand those issues and act on them. That being said, we also have to make sure that we don’t let our own position blind us to what others might have to contribute to the discussion.
On the first day of non-profit work in Seattle, our non-profit took time out of our orientation to impress upon us a key challenge in their work—differentiating solidarity from charity. While both strategies aim to help people with needs, charity assumes that you know best, and have a better understanding of people’s experiences, needs, and strengths than they do. Solidarity assumes that both sides have strengths, and that the best way to accomplish lasting change is through dialogue and cooperation. Showing true solidarity requires accepting others’ experiences at face value and taking that experience as strength, rather than dismissing those experiences because they do not meet your own understanding of an issue.