Like many people who grew up in poverty in this country, I was embarrassed and ashamed about my background. Not until after I had spent time in Nicaragua in the 1980s, where people understood poverty in a very different way, did I decide to “come out of the closet” as a poor person back home.
In the 1970s, I was trying to get an apartment in North Carolina and to do that, I had to establish that I was creditworthy. Landlords advertised that they would only rent to single men or married couples. As a single woman, even though I was earning more than my male colleagues at work, I couldn’t get a credit card. I had to ask my boss to call the apartment owner to vouch for me.
Again, I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I was upset. But as I have told these stories around this country, it has empowered many others who have experienced their own shame and embarrassment to also tell their stories.
After hearing me speak in a large auditorium at the Rhode Island College of Social Work, one student stood up and said I had inspired her to tell her fellow students that she, like me, also came from poverty and had been afraid of sharing that. One by one, students stood up and told of the amazing release it gave them to be given permission to tell their stories and of the shame that kept them from sharing who they really were.
Despite the enormous challenges we face today, there are reasons to stay positive and share with one another our life stories. We can make time for compassion.
We might not have grown up in poverty, or experienced discrimination, but we can practice compassion and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. When we truly look at and listen to one another, we can find the shared fullness of our lives. Research shows that when people are empathetic toward someone else’s experience, they are more likely to have a positive view of that person or group.
Look around. Really look. Every day individuals and groups of people are living lives based on mutuality and respect. Every day, people express concern for others, cherish family, write music, fall in love, and notice the beauty and brilliance present in themselves and those around them.
Every day, people are organizing on the Internet for peace and justice, growing food to feed their families and others, cleaning parks and schools, marching in Black Lives Matter demonstrations, challenging toxic waste dumping, fighting back against the War on Women. They are advocating for better schools and continued access to health care, defining moral and ethical leadership, making documentaries and breaking news stories. They are creating hope through public art, one-person shows and Zoom-a-thons.
What should we be doing now to fight the hate and division we see around us?
Every day, wherever we can find it, we can nurture collective visions that cultivate democracy. We can vote and hold our elected officials accountable. We can bring people together to explore and practice activism that strategically builds power while sustaining and nurturing our hearts and souls. Technology has given us new ways to do that while the pandemic has kept us at home. Rather than bemoaning our plight, let’s celebrate as new roads open up for us.
Instead of giving into despair, let’s ask ourselves how to connect and celebrate with other courageous citizens, friends and family in order to support, strengthen and amplify our stories.
Let’s find our humanity in each other.
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