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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Self-Responsibility, Caring, and Responses

I haven't seen the movie Precious yet, but I have read reviews and media coverage. I feel I should go see it, but it seems so depressing. Do I really want to spend two hours watching in full color what I already know exists? Has anyone else seen it? I stumbled upon a discussion board at IMDB about the movie and the thread was a discussion of whether the protagonist, Precious, had properly acknowledged her obesity and many commenters questioned why she didn't add getting healthy and thin to her litany of improvements. Some stated they didn't feel sympathy for the character because she was so fat - that she was unworthy of their concern because she wasn't concerned for herself.

I have an acquaintance on FaceBook that posted an op-ed piece written by the President of Rockhurst University in Kansas City detailing his response to the tragic killing that took place just oustside the campus at 54th and Troost. A 17 year old kid got off a city bus and was shot to death. He was black and he had a college application in his pocket. The piece details that the head of Rockhurst now has a picture of this young man on his desk to remind him every day of the senseless tragedy. He goes on to state, "We will not rest on rhetoric around this tragedy but rather will choose to make a difference by calling our neighbors, faculty, staff, alumni and friends to work with us to find solutions to end these senseless tragedies."

I juxtapose these two stories of young people of color in the inner city to try to wrestle with my own reactions to the events and to others' comments. The last time I criticized white do-gooders I got an earful from Dan Ryan at Gone Mild. Today I commented on the FaceBook posting about Rockhurst and was basically told I was a cynic.

It's easy to be sympathetic to the young man gunned down in KC. He was doing everything he could to bring himself up - applying to college, etc. Apparently he was just a victim of circumstance. The good Rev. Curran of Rockhurst is displaying his sympathy openly and unequivocally. To be sure, Rockhurst U. is community minded, a good neighbor on Troost for the most part, and does not have its institutional head in the sand. So bravo for getting involved. But it is a fairly low risk strategy for a low risk victim - nice kid who wanted to go to college, not a 'hood rat.

It is hard to be sympathetic to a young woman of color in a movie who was a victim of circumstance in her own home and was an illiterate, obese, mother of 2 at 16. Apparently the movie is about her struggle to get beyond her circumstances, with the exception of getting beyond her obesity as the commenters note. One of those posts was honest and said, would I have felt more sorry for her if she were thinner and lighter? Apparently for some of the viewers it was too risky to be all in for this character and they hedged their sympathy for one reason or another.

Young people in urban places are victims every day of violence that finds them or lives with them. Every day. Not just the ones in movies and not just the college-bound bootstrappers. Kids of every kind in urban places are victims every day. Some of those kids are perpetrators and it goes down badly for them. Some of those kids are victims of circumstance at the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of those kids are held in a spider web of violence from which they can't escape and some see the exit door but have no clue as to how to walk through it. There are more than enough kids in trouble to rally our attention. We don't need to wait for a movie to create a cause celebre. We don't need to wait for a "good kid" to get gunned down to move us to action.

For the Precious's out there, they are to pull themselves up and take advantage of the help that's waiting for them. For the Nelson's out there who have taken that help and want to go to college, they will get the President of a University to carry their torch.

If these kids are the bookends of the spectrum, then what about all the kids inbetween? What do we do as institutions, as people, as neighbors, as teachers to answer the needs of these kids? What are we doing to help them put the guns down, get an education, and get a job? What are we doing to overcome the unlevel playing field that Rev. Curran identifies as an obstacle? Calling a meeting to find solutions is a start, but not an end.

I honestly believe that action is necessary and that most of us are free riders. We wait for someone else to "do something" or we do something that is essentially low risk to demonstrate our commitment. KC has 480,000 people. The majority of them have never set foot anywhere near the locus of urban problems because that would be risky. You can't be empathetic, raise money, and volunteer, while keeping everything at arms length. But neither does sitting foursquare in the midst of the inner city entitle you to say you are doing something except being there. I look at this situation and feel absolutely impotent. I don't know how not to be a free rider and I don't know what to do to prevent the next Precious or to make it safe for the next Nelson. I volunteer, I advocate, I am engaged, and yet it makes so little difference in the grand scheme of things. I can help 10 kids or a 100 kids, but there are millions that are at risk.

I have helped to shape this country by being a citizen. And I have helped to shape a system that is way out of balance and allows conditions to exist that create a Precious or a Nelson and all the kids in between. I, as one person, cannot put it right because I, as one person, did not put it out of balance. We each contributed in our own way to tilting the playing field. We each have to contribute to leveling it. There is no risk in doing the tilting because it often serves our own interest. There is great risk in leveling it and it will take more than a meeting to call people to do so. Here's hoping that Rev. Curran can find the courage he needs at that meeting.

Meanwhile, do you have suggestions for solutions? Or is this so overwhelming that you will leave this and click on something else whilst shaking your head?


Sandy Price said...

what you are doing with airick, school board candidate school, is a good move. you are leveraging the power to make change into the community. what you are doing on this blog is good. you are making us think, and realization is a necessary step on the way to changed perceptions and action. teaching what and how you teach is good. you open minds, plant seeds for future growth. you are only one person, but you do a hell of a lot - more than most. and much of what you do leverages what you know and who you are into the community in ways that will, hopefully, repeat again through the leveraging of others. will it ever be enough? of course not. but does each life you touch matter immensely? yes. just keep moving forward...

Dan said...

Robyne -

I hope you understood that the "earful" I gave you was given with sincere respect, and it was born of the same frustration that runs through this post.

Nothing we do is good enough. Attending an expensive fundraiser places us at an elegant distance from whatever problem we are attempting to address (but we need the money). Volunteering on Saturdays and going home after our shift makes us mere missionaries (but we need the help). Living in the urban core doesn't change enough unless you're there to jump in front of a 17 year old "good kid" (in quotation marks solely to emphasize that the phrase places me in position to judge who is "good", and, presumably, who is not) and take the bullet for him.

Frankly, I don't accept the call to be constantly "all in" and high risk all the time. Sometimes, calling (or attending) a meeting is the step you can take from where you are, and it is a step in the right direction. Of course it is not enough, but complaining of its insufficiency is remarkably analogous to complaining that Precious didn't eat celery.

Why should we lovingly accept Precious with her limitations, but cynically question whether Fr. Curran is doing enough? Can't we lovingly accept the fact that we are all flawed human beings, whether we are "hood rats" or "do-gooders", and applaud those who are doing something?

Changing the world is only changing the world, but it's something. Truly fixing the world is an illusion.