Tuesday morning we served with A Wider Circle, a community organization in Maryland that provides a host of services to low-income clients. At A Wider Circle, individuals can furnish their homes for the first time, adults can update their business wardrobes and skill sets, and families can start on the pathway out of poverty. Our Wider Circle experience was enriching in many ways. I was inspired to see the change A Wider Circle is making in the community, and my experience with the clients educated me about the face of poverty. I had an expectation about what clients would look like, act like, and be like, but at the end of the day, I found that that expectation was limited and inaccurate.
In our Tuesday group reflection time, our conversation largely centered on how the service we are doing this week impacts us and impacts the people we serve, and how our expectations for others and ourselves often do not line up with reality. As a society and as individuals, we have a tendency to stereotype groups we observe from a distance or are unfamiliar with. We stereotype the homeless, we stereotype the low-income population, and we place upon them expectations of how they should dress, act, and look, and the items that they should possess. This is not appropriate behavior, though. We cannot hold the dignity of those we serve ransom in order to fulfill our own expectations and stereotypes. Being in poverty doesn’t automatically mean you don’t have a car or nice clothes; being homeless doesn’t automatically mean you don’t have a phone. This week is the first time I have considered these concepts.
This leads me to a question: What exactly is our expectation for an immersion experience? Do we come to fix others, be fixed ourselves, or simply become more educated about the world we live in? I believe the answer to this question, the point of our entire experience this week must unequivocally be to become more educated. We are in Washington, D.C. to learn; we are incapable of changing the world in the week we spend here. I did not change anyone’s life while serving at A Wider Circle, but I was educated about poverty throughout the day.
Yesterday, we heard from two speakers who work with National Coalition for the Homeless. One of our speakers, Eric, is still homeless. Yet he works daily to advocate for the homeless community in Washington. We’re talking blogging, emailing, calling, and generally bringing awareness to circles of people who are very reluctant to become aware of the problems our homeless population faces. Eric understands homelessness better than I could ever hope to, because he has lived it.
Each day of the week, our group considers a new word and its implications in our experience here and in our daily lives. Tuesday’s word was awareness. My entire awareness of the homeless and impoverished population is completely changed by the experiences I am having here, and I love every minute of it. What I have learned so far is this: we are incapable of changing the world in a week. However, many individuals battling homelessness, poverty, and the other injustices we are encountering this week have been fighting for change for years, or sometimes even decades. The most valuable contribution we can make to their cause is to amplify their words and calls to action. Maybe we are not designed to be the leaders of change but rather the mouthpiece for individuals who have much more experience understanding the needs of the homeless and impoverished. This is difficult, and it requires us to first dismiss our limited expectations and stereotypes of these groups, and then act as people who empower and not as saviors.