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The exodus of empowerment

Posted by Cecilia Garza

It was my fifth interview of the day, and I was scheduled to meet with four Baltimore mothers studying for their GED at a community center that offered onsite childcare. I had interrupted their normal session and each student occupied different corners of the room, their books and notes sprawled across work tables. Sitting in a lone seat at the front of the class, I was acutely aware of the uncomfortable distance between us.

“The background I’m looking for from you guys is what kind of living situation do you come from, and how has this program helped you advance your life,” I explained.

“What do you mean by ‘living situation?’ What do you mean by that?” Tanika asked with a hint of “what are you implying?” in her voice.

I flushed, recognizing the unintended tenor of my question a few beats too late.

I had planned this trip to Baltimore to cover a story on an economic revitalization partnership  between the city and several major community organizations, hospitals and universities. Interviews were scheduled with residents, administrators and community organizers months in advance. Then, just days before I was set to board a plane, Freddie Gray met his untimely death in a swell of tragedy not unheard of in his community.

Overnight, the trajectory of my story changed.

Each day was jammed with back-to-back interviews all over the city. I was learning the state of affairs in Baltimore as I went. Emotions were raw and there was a new layer of stress added to every encounter. I did my work at a downtown Baltimore news hub that partnered with my Seattle publication, but the dark turn of events in the city made any previously offered collaboration virtually impossible.

I found myself on my own, grappling with a story rooted in generations of inequity. Was I prepared to address these issues in my coverage? Not very. I was prepared to drive my reporting as an economy story that touches on social justice, not the opposite – and it showed.

I’ve had mixed emotions on how that reporting trip went for a long time, but attending the SVP Leadership Retreat in Arizona this April shed fresh light on the experience. Walking out of our first day-long equity session with Heather Hackman, I couldn’t stifle the memory of my interview with those four mothers.

I dug up the interview recording, and listened back.

Both disappointment and the embarrassing reminder of how blind I was to real-life inequity washed over me. The conversation is riddled with missed opportunities to ask more meaningful questions about the larger systemic issues at play.

Tanae’s son’s school was shut down as he was going into third grade. Tanika and Lakisha were interested in studying to be social workers after passing the GED so they can help “the mom be a better mom and keep families together.” All of them said they learned of the dual GED-child care program while they were picking up WIC packages – an assortment of USDA-selected foods for low-income pregnant and postpartum women and children at nutritional risk.

In the 45 minutes I spoke to them, I checked off all the questions I had and rarely asked “why” to the answers they gave. I didn’t ask, why was the school shut down? What inspired their desire to pursue social work? What systems and structures were making it hard for intelligent, motivated women to break out of poverty?

Listening back to this interview was not easy — I had to stop the tape a couple of times — but relief also began to hit me like a palm slap to the forehead once, twice, three times, four, five. Just the process of re-listening showed me I was already seeing and hearing clearer. I can do better now, I thought.

Heather Hackman’s session at the SVP Leadership Retreat taught me 4 key things:

  1. Equity is not the same as equality, nor is it the same as diversity or having the skills to talk across cultural lines. Equity lies where the social structure affects daily lives. It looks squarely at how the system restricts access to resources for some, while benefiting the dominant group.
  2. To look for equity and inequity in my own daily life. Recognizing how it plays out will change my understanding of how our society works. It’ll help me see —
  3. How my role in the system can contribute to or help break down a system of oppression.
  4. By understanding my role, I can answer why my work with and outside SVP is important – not just for others or for the greater good, but for me. It’s not enough to cheer from the shoreline. I have to get in the boat and row — because my future is at stake also.

Looking back on my time in Baltimore, I see a clear connection between the story I was sent to cover and a system that benefits the dominant class and race by restricting resources to the struggling masses. But I not only lacked the knowledge necessary to see that connection, I was also completely ignorant of my role in social change.

I neglected to ask myself why I cared or what it meant to me.

I attended rallies, took photos, kept up with social media on the events unraveling in Baltimore while simultaneously covering my original story. I was acting as an “objective reporter” — if such a thing could ever exist — attempting to string all the dots together without allowing myself to become fully part of the emotional chaos of the time.

Did I get shaken up, choked up when I heard people screaming in the street that it was time to see justice for Freddie Gray and all people who have suffered like him? Absolutely. But I never asked myself why I felt that way. Instead, I told myself that my job was to amplify the voices of the people and share the conversation with the rest of the country. I told myself, I’m here to help. I didn’t see where I was sharing in their struggle, which made me, in many ways, part of the problem. And I didn’t know it until long after I spoke to Tanika, Tanae, Lakisha and Kadedra.

Walking out of those sessions in Arizona, I realize that as a person with privilege in many ways, it’s critical that I constantly ask myself why this work includes me. What am I losing in a system of oppression?

The answer: I should live in a world where my neighbor has the same opportunity to thrive. But because you weren’t given the same resources as me, I’m missing the opportunity to know you, work beside you, live with you as my peer. Because you weren’t given the same resources as me, our society will continue to be shaped by others who overlook your needs. Because you weren’t given the same resources as me, I’ll continue to live in a society wrought with people fighting to give their families a better starting line when the odds are against them. I’ll continue to live in a world that doesn’t include you.

I no longer want to fumble and accidentally fall into deeper understanding half the time. I want to walk into every story with the doctrine that I’m here to find deeper understanding 100 percent of the time.

My objective is to listen with compassion and selfishness. I’m here because I share in your trials, not to “help you” or to empower you, because helping and empowering is not the same as being an ally. An ally sticks around when things get tough.

As a communicator and writer, a changed understanding of my actual place in the social narrative directly affects how I share the work of our Investees and what SVP is doing to slowly chisel away at the age-long norms that consistently hold people down. But it’s no different for any other aspect of SVP, whether it be our grant committees, communities of practice, site visits, education sessions or strategic planning.

If we ever want to make real systems change, it’s important to recognize how the system works against people every day and ask ourselves why that affects us too.

Cecilia Garza_smallCecilia Garza is SVP’s staff writer. In her free time, she enjoys sailing the Puget Sound by way of her small yet comfortable Coronado 25’ and romping the beach with her 10-pound Italian Greyhound.

Learn more about Cecilia and read more of her work here.