Last week The Cincinnati Enquirer published an in-depth profile of the face of urban poverty by telling the story of a school and a few of its children. A very moving story, it kicked off a week of action by local agencies and private citizens. Three siblings ended up in foster care. Furniture was purchased by strangers; the school’s supply shelves are now overflowing.
Truly, this is a testament to the sincere goodwill of members of our community and the honorable desire to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable members of our society.
The question is now — do we pat ourselves on the back for our generosity and general goodness and walk away or do we do the much more difficult work of examining and adjusting the complex web of systems that brought us here in the first place?
Let’s be honest. New beds, clothes, new families – these all are fantastic, short-term fixes for the kids who were profiled in the story. Where will these kids be next year or in the next decade? What about all the kids whose stories didn’t captivate the reporters? In fairness, this was touched upon in today’s Enquirer follow up:
So you know, The Enquirer will continue telling such stories, in Millvale and elsewhere. Reporters plan to dig deeper into the forces that shape the lives of the children in and around our city so that someday they have not simply food, clothing and beds – but hope.
From my time studying the Pink Ribbon Machine, I know that feel-good campaigns come with an oft-ignored price tag. Sometimes the story becomes more about the side actors – the reporters and the donors and the foundations and the pink boa wearing walkers – while marginalizing the initial subjects. I’ve written about this here before, manifested in programs like TOMS shoes.
In the end, it comes down to this – I decide what’s right for you, then I provide it. While it all starts with good intentions, the quickest fixes are steeped in an attitude of Colonialism.
And when someone speaks up – look out.
Part of the unwritten bargain is that the donors retain the right to tell the recipient how to live. When the three children in this story were removed from the home Monday, The Enquirer published a story with open comments. One example, when people were discussing what to do with the parents:
You care [sic] forgetting ONE THING…..people like this have NO brain cellls [sic]….if they did and had any kind of understanding they would not be living like this and subjecting innocent chilldren [sic] to it all……all they know how to do is SCREW and PRODUCE….above that there is nothing else for the leeches of our society…..get real—-look around you and see and listen to what you hear……..it is an epidemic!!!!!!!!!
I don’t know the parents of these kids – maybe they are horrible people. Or maybe they have matriculated through a wilted system and into a society where a presidential candidate is cheered for saying:
[T]here are 47 percent … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. …[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Compassion is never the wrong play, in my opinion. Neither is accepting that, individually, we may not have all of the answers.
Without a doubt, people’s generosity improved these few kids’ week. And that is certainly commendable. Let’s harness all that goodwill into the hard work of creating permanent change.
Until we can move beyond the immediate needs, beyond the blame and finger pointing, and are willing to look at all the influencing factors here, we can be sure that we’ve only stopped one tiny leak in the flood walls, and that patch isn’t going to last forever.