Each term, one participant from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Kathleen Watson was HECUA’s student blogger for the Race in America program this summer. Kathleen is a student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in American Studies. Read on for Kathleen’s final post!
Assumptions are a basic mechanism of human thought. Fast, judgmental decisions save us time when deciding what to wear in the morning, which direction to drive on the way to work, or which ice cream flavor to eat. Not every decision requires analytical thought, but there are downfalls to this kind of quick thinking. I’d like to talk about how this kind of intuitive thinking downgrades our ability to address others’ needs.
The main portion of the last two weeks on HECUA’s Race in America program was spent in a cooperative community in Jackson, MS. When we arrived in Jackson, multiple, enormous groupings of potholes signaled our turn onto the main street of the coop. Brightly painted homes lined the road and a large garden with planters shaped to spell “FOLK” anchored the corner. The sunset behind the trees had painted an illuminating rusted orange and pink watercolor across the sky. It was a quiet and peaceful night. I didn’t know that this area of Jackson currently has an unemployment rate of around 90%. I didn’t know that a few years ago neighbors only talked to each other through the police. Mosquitos buzzed in my ears.
Our class was welcomed by the organizers of the cooperative community, and they generously shared their time talking to us about and showing us around the neighborhood. They were quick to describe the community residents as living in a state of survival. Acquiring basic needs, like food, water, adequate shelter, and clothing, was a complicated reality of daily life. Let me reiterate. Getting food. Water. A roof over your head. This is what residents work to find every day. For me, those things have always been accessible. I don’t know what it would be like to be living day-to-day just trying to survive. The organizers described horrendous water and mold damage that infiltrated homes, making them unsafe and toxic to residents’ health, yet those spaces are still called “home.” Other homes were invisible from the street because of the overgrowth of trees, bushes, and grass. If you could see the building, its collapsing structure, use of temporary tarps, fractured doors and blown-out windows, it would suggest that no one lived there. This was and still is not unusual in this area of Jackson.
The family who organized the cooperative moved into one of the many vacant neighborhood properties five years ago. They’ve steadily paced models of alternative ways of living and grassroots community development by authentically building relationships with their neighbors. Learning about the needs, desires, and talents of others in the community has allowed the cooperative to establish and grow deep roots. One of the first tasks spearheaded by the community, for example, was to remove a garbage dump located on a vacant lot in the neighborhood. Residents cleared the dump themselves and subsequently used the land to establish a community-supported agriculture (CSA) herb and vegetable garden. Over the past five years, the cooperative organizers have continued to witness changes within the neighborhood. Residents are taking initiative to paint their own homes, to talk with neighbors face-to-face, and to buy up vacant houses to convert into rental properties. Here there are no “programs” with pre-determined goals or timelines. It’s the people’s neighborhood.
Earlier in our travels, our class spent time in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the neighborhood that sits adjacent to the levee that broke during Hurricane Katrina. We were fortunate to talk with residents there, many of whom lost multiple family members at the hands of Katrina. They shared stories of how the infrastructure and community that they had grown up in, invested in, and called home for their entire lives was erased in a matter of hours. What they described after Katrina was a state of survival, parallel in some respects to West Jackson residents’ daily realities. Media attention flocked to the Superdome where thousands of people didn’t know which mass of people to stand within to find someone to help them get food, water, and clothing. And yes, people did need those. But many died while waiting for their medication. Many died because they didn’t have oxygen. The aid that was given wasn’t representative of what people needed. The aid assumed their needs.
What’s so humbling about these two instances is that I have to check my own thought processes. I’m someone who assumes what people need. When I see someone who does not have what I have, I think “they probably want x, y, and z because I enjoy/have those things.” Because of my experience, imagining new housing and coffee shops sounds like a great way to bring people out of a mode of survival in the Jackson neighborhood where we stayed, but that’s because I’m only seeing the neighborhood from MY lens. In reality, do residents in this part of Jackson need a community-run restaurant or coffee shop to bring in revenue? Do they need to fix the leaking roof over their head or to paint the outside of their house? Do they have other needs like driving their mother to an appointment or finding child care? Drawing the parallel to New Orleans after Katrina, they may need clothing, food, and/or medications. How would I have ever been able to guess their needs?
These are merely examples just to emphasize the point that you don’t know the needs of others unless you’re told about them. People are totally aware of what they need, and quite frankly, it’s not up to anyone to decide for anyone else what they need. Taking the time to humbly ask questions and build meaningful relationships with people appears to be a stable, rooted foundation that leads to the development of long-standing change.