Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Service Oriented Field Experience Reflection: Next Steps

Growing up in a diverse area, I always thought of myself as tolerant and inclusive. I thought I understood the emotions of those around me, because we were dealing with many of the same issues. When I first heard the phrase, unconscious bias, I thought I understood what this meant. Unconscious referred to those things that we are not cognitively aware exist, and biases are beliefs and attitudes we possess that lead to preferences in terms of what we designate as “normal.” However, an unconscious bias was not something that I had. Looking back, the irony of that statement is not lost on me.
            When I first began walking this path toward reconciling the normative behaviors and characteristics dictated to me during my enculturation to the dominant culture with reality, I was shocked. I expressed disbelief that I was possessed of any bias, and when the disbelief was replaced by anger and subsequently by grief, my heart laid low. I was at a loss for what to do. The journey forward moved methodically slow with no clear end to the work in sight, but as Jeff B. Evans, the guide who took a blind man to the top of Mt. Everest said: Life happens on the side of the mountain, not the top. The Service Oriented Field Experience taught me the importance of combatting stereotypes to improve access to wealth and advocating for social change through changes in policy.      
The Service Oriented Field Experience (SOFE) presented me with continuous opportunities to build upon the internal work I have been doing to reconcile my biases and work toward that place of inclusion. Every step of the journey led me back to the themes of stereotypes, the stigmas they cause, and the stories of the individual people we serve. Stereotypes are borne out of our enculturation and make up the bulk of our unconscious biases. Some stereotypes are helpful and serve to protect us from harm, but most of them result in the judgment of someone’s character. Words that arise when we see someone who is food or housing insecure include lazy, weak, or dumb. They are diminished, and we pride ourselves on our ability to swoop in and save them from their situations.
As if the stereotypes were not enough, we create stigmas based on other, subtler identifiers. We create stigmas around mental health issues, disabilities, and social identifiers at the very core of our fellow citizens to keep them down, to keep them in their place as less than us, the normative majority of the dominant over-culture. We have created a dominance-based society over the course of many generations, and we feed societal dominance by tearing down those who are different until they are nothing.
We began the SOFE with sessions designed for us to learn more about ourselves through discussions of privilege, styles of conflict resolution, and social justice. Framing our experience in this way provided an entry point to deepening our awareness of the bigger picture—something many of our nonprofit organizations fail to do. When each institution is focused on a singular, insulated issue, the failures in the systems lie hidden and thus fall silently into disrepair. Through the lens of a faith practice, Dr. Dena Samuels described how social justice ensures diverse people have instead of have not. The Jewish practice of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, has evolved to refer to social action and the liberal pursuit of equity and social justice, and Dr. Samuels’ discussion of this concept became a constant companion in my journal entries (personal communication, July 16, 2017).
As we turned our minds to Robert Reich’s discussion of the distribution of income and wealth in Inequality for All (Chaiken & Kornbluth, 2013), my journal entries incorporated the disparities in our current society that result in underutilized financial capacity, creating market and economic stagnation. The true center of the economic universe is the middle class, and as the income disparities grow, the middle class shrinks. The economy needs the middle class, the center of the proverbial bell curve of society, to be strong in order for the economy itself to be strong. All of these realizations lead to a greater awareness of the imbalances of power and the inequity inherent in our financial systems. We are not creating a world that is better than we found it.
Carol Hedges from the Colorado Fiscal Institute reminded us of the power of fiscal policy. Our fiscal rules dictate where the wealth goes based on a system of taxation and exemption. Taxes are imposed on behaviors we wish to discourage or diminish, whereas exemptions are given to encourage behaviors we wish to see expand. Much as Reich discussed, Hedges explained that the lack of resources for purchasing anything beyond the basic needs of housing, food, and healthcare creates a drag on the economy. Her discussion drew back to social inequity in her discussion of institutional racism. Institutional racism requires a societal bias that people of color are genetically inferior and unable to perform at the same level as Caucasians. These stereotypes keep families of color in poverty.
The cycle of poverty feeds itself through the effect it has on the youth of America. Children who spend a single year living in poverty have significant stress levels that can result in less successful education and career endeavors. According to the US Department of Education, these children are seven times more likely to drop out of school. This leads to lower wages, decreased access to higher education, and lack of skills training—resulting in another household living in poverty.  As Sarah Hughes explained, families and individuals who are underpaid often find themselves living in a “redlined” area, meaning an area that is “not worth investment” (Colorado Children’s Campaign, 2017, p.17). Redlined neighborhoods developed as a result of housing discrimination. Beginning in the 1930’s, banks awarded long-term, low-interest loans to white families while limiting the ability of families of color to borrow money. Over time, the white families had wealth amassed in property ownership that they could then pass down to their children, creating generational wealth, but families of color, who were denied the access to purchase, had no wealth to pass down. Thus, families of color have to start over every generation (Williams, 2017, p. 49).
These communities are not without worth. As Paul Schmitz (2012) reminds us, all communities have assets, and an asset-based path to identify those assets, connect them, and help them contribute to the improvement of the community will create a major shift in power from people as clients of the nonprofits who serve them to “people as producers” of their own solutions (p. 139). This happens when we begin by listening to their stories and allowing them to tell us what their strengths and opportunities for improvement are.
Carol Hedges said, “If you are interested in the notion of power, follow the money” (personal communication, July 18, 2017). In light of this reality, we as consumers have more power than we realize. Every item we purchase is a vote for what we want to encourage. Every sale we pass by is a vote for what we want to discourage. As we make our food choices, we can change what crops the government will subsidize. As we purchase homes and vehicles and donate to political agendas, we can improve access for others to do the same. Mike Green quoted for us, “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” because we have the power to make change (personal communication, July 17, 2017). Our inequity is not the result of a lack of supply compared to demand. Our inequity is the result of a lack of access to the supply. Poverty and hunger continue to be two of our biggest issues, yet we filled up four large garbage cans with spoiled food in the single afternoon we were volunteering at Metro Caring. We have an enviable abundance—and we throw it all away.
Stereotypes and stigmas feed the systems, and the systems must change. Change MUST happen in order to create a world where, as Dr. Carroll Watkins Ali says, we encourage others to walk in their freedom—but first we have to help them find it. Finding our freedom lies in owning our stories, and through story, we will change the world. Stories bring perspective to those in power, because they make the issues real. Invisible biases that bring judgment and shame can be moved to freedom when we lend power to the narratives of the people we serve. System and Institutions, Dr. Carolyn Love’s words in my head, are the keys to moving from a place of charity to a place of justice. Stories help to bring education and perspective to those in power. Stories make them hear our words and stop believing that throwing food or housing vouchers or healthcare credits at people equates to justice for the “least” among us.
The power of story is the first step in building a culture of activism within our organizations. My personal action plan includes creating space for the stories of those with less power to be heard. As we educate the people, they will see the reality of what is hidden behind the stereotypes. Understanding leads to compassion, and it is from a place of compassion that most of us are compelled to act. This will not be an easy path, because I have a strong tendency to compromise in conflict situations. I will also create alliances with 9to5, a community organization that advocates for social change, to get involved with at least two different campaigns for social change within the next year. As my involvement solidifies and grows, I will strive to form an alliance with our church to add more hands and voices to the cause. Social change is scary. The fear response is high. As a member of the privileged class of society, there exists a fear that what I have will be lost. As an Elder of mine once told me, there is no way to practice courage without fear. In closing, I offer my courage to those who are afraid, that we may be courageous together and work not only to be the change we want to see in the world, but to make it.

Chaiken, J. (Producer), & Kornbluth, J. (Director). (2013). Inequality for all (Documentary).
USA: 72 Productions.
Colorado Children’s Campaign. (2017). Kids count in Colorado: Evaluating equity. Denver, CO:
Colorado Children’s Campaign.
Schmitz, P. (2012). Everyone leads: Building leadership from the community up. San Francisco,
CA: Jossey-Bass.
Williams, R.B. (2017). The privileges of wealth: Rising inequality and the growing racial divide.

New York, NY: Routledge.