As an ally in the struggle for economic and social justice, I have to live with the contradiction that I benefit from privilege even as I work for change. On the evening of March 13, I stepped out of my cocoon and spent the night on the steps of City Hall in community with some of the most vulnerable members of our society. In the process, I recovered a small piece of my humanity.
In many ways, I felt like a fish out of water that night. The 150-200 people gathered to protest the city's encampment sweeps were all either homeless themselves or middle-class activists whose work focused on advocating for the homeless. I am neither. However, I felt instantly welcomed when I recognized the man speaking to the crowd, a Real Change vendor named Michael Garcia, whom I'd met at the cross-class retreat I facilitated for Real Change in February. Michael's message of hope and courage moved me and I fought back tears as he closed with a poem we had read at that retreat, "The Low Road" by Marge Piercy. As he called out the last stanza, I felt a spirit of quiet determination and camaraderie amongst all who were gathered:
It goes one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
But who exactly is the "We"? I soon wondered. My initial experience of feeling welcomed was quickly displaced by the strident message of the next speaker, the Rev. Richard Lang from the Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard. Rev. Lang asserted that the lower, working and middle classes must unite around their shared economic vulnerability. It is they who are the We. "Forget about the rich," he told the crowd. "They care only about preserving their own power and privilege and don't give a damn about you."
Listening to Lang, I felt familiar feelings of shame, isolation, and doubt arise. As a member of the privileged class that he decries, I found myself questioning what it means to be an upper-class "ally" and whether I even had any business being at the protest.
Intellectually, I understand that through history those with means have played key roles in social movements, whether through direct advocacy, resource generation, or unlocking gates of power. I also understand that to be an effective ally, one must be willing to bear the anger of oppressed groups without taking it personally. And yet the words still stung.
My thoughts and I tossed like waves that night in my tent. Over the past decade, I have become increasingly aware of my own privilege and the importance of using it to effect meaningful change. And yet integrating values and actions has not always come easily. My transitory experience of physical discomfort at City Hall that night prompted me to ask the broader question: How much am I really willing to sacrifice my own comfort and privilege for the more just world that I believe in? The more I either deny or cling to that privilege and sense of entitlement, the more I feel I am complicit in its impact -- on the world and my own psyche.
Paul Farmer, in the seminal book Mountains Beyond Mountains states, "If you're making sacrifices, unless you are automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you are trying to lessen some psychic discomfort." Camped in my backpacking tent in the rain on the steps of City Hall, I realized that I was trying to lessen the discomfort of the reverend's harsh message, to assuage the guilt I feel about my (unearned) privilege, and to recover a small semblance of connection to a world beyond my daily experience.
To some extent, it worked. I woke up Friday morning physically cold and tired, but buoyed by the feelings of connection I had experienced during the long night protesting in community. Jack, Calvin, Deb, Richard, and others defied the monolithic stereotypes that are often naively imposed on the homeless. As I listened to their stories, hopes, and dreams, I understood a core paradox: that as human beings we really are, as Sherman Alexie says, "99 percent alike"; yet our lives can take radically different trajectories based on fluke circumstances or a single bounce on the wheel of ovarian roulette. For me, this understanding bred compassion and humility, piercing the many layers that have callused my heart and soul.
Tim Harris, Real Change's executive director, often argues that self-interest will motivate middle-class activists to form cross-class alliances. A similar narrative holds true for those of us in the upper class. Our self-interest is not grounded in shared economic vulnerability, but in alleviating the psychic discomfort to which Farmer alludes. The emotional and spiritual disconnection that I have experienced as a byproduct of unexamined privilege is acutely painful. As such, experiences like the campout make it clear to me that the "sacrifices" I am called to make are actually gifts: opportunities to recover and expand my own sense of identity, integrity, and connection to a broader community.