My journalism class decided our project for the semester would be to research poverty in DuPage County. By “decided,” I mean that 12 out of 13 students voted for that topic. I was number 13, but no one took particular notice.
It doesn’t occur to anyone, you see, that the topic might be too raw for an honors student at a private liberal arts college. Poverty doesn’t happen to smiling, church-going, drug-free Caucasian families in the rural Midwest. But it did happen to my family. And when I say “it happened,” I don’t mean just that we were poor--we were homeless. Twice. Once when I was 7, and once when I was 11.
But none of my classmates knew, and so we plowed ahead.
My job was to design and administer a survey to my fellow students to explore their awareness and perceptions about poverty. I expected to learn that my peers knew very little. I was ready for them to reinforce our hypothesis that poverty and homelessness in DuPage County were all but invisible. I wasn’t expecting to be made invisible myself.
I handed out these surveys and watched as person after person--including my classmates, my co-workers, some of my dearest friends – came across the questions, Do you personally know anyone who has experienced poverty? Do you personally know anyone who has experienced homelessness? They didn’t seem to even have to think about their answers: Most just circled “No,” “No.”
They had no idea that the young woman standing right in front of them had woken up for her first day of sixth grade in a van in a state park, gathered her notebooks and pencils and been driven to the Laundromat to wash up and brush her teeth. That she had burst into tears in the school hallway when her reading teacher asked, “How was your summer?”
So I told them. The response was often, well, you can’t have been that poor. Because you are here with us now. Because you are bright and appear to us undamaged. Your experience is void, or at least not as serious as that of the poor in India. My peers had created a hierarchy in which my experience ranked as fairly inconsequential.
On the other hand, they assigned far greater meaning—far greater prevalence, anyway—to the percentage of people in DuPage County who are homeless. The average student response was that one in ten people in DuPage was homeless, when the actual number is a lot fewer. Why did they answer that way? Is it because panhandlers seem to them to be everywhere? Or is it because they had never paid it much thought but were afraid to underestimate and look like they didn’t know, or didn’t care?
I make my peers uncomfortable because I am not invisible, because I don’t duck my head when I talk about those months my family and I spent homeless. I want them—and you—to know the truth. To tell you we weren’t what you imagine. Not just that we were white, rural, a family of six, but that my parents are both college-educated, and that when we were homeless the second time, we were holding down four steady jobs.
Have you ever been in a group that did a privilege walk exercise? Take two steps forward if you are heterosexual. Two steps forward if you are male. Two steps forward if you’ve always had health insurance. Two steps back if you have a disability. One step back if you ever couldn’t afford school supplies. It goes on and on and when it’s done you look around and nobody understands why the slim, artsy, overachieving white girl is at the back of the room.
When the moderators ask the group to shout out how they feel about where they are standing, everyone looks back in shock at the girl when she shouts out, “Fortunate!”
But I am. Do most children from families who have been homeless, who have lived paycheck-to-paycheck, have the support that I do? Get the educational experiences I have had? Sleep at night now somewhere warm and safe and paid for with money from their own pockets?
I am sitting with two people, a good friend and a young freshman I don't know. We are discussing poverty.
Making a vague gesture to encompass the campus, the freshman says, "I don't think anyone here has ever been homeless." My friend immediately responds, "I wouldn't make that assumption if I were you."
She's challenging him, but in such a way as to let me decide if I'm going to share my story. It's something big, that I get this choice. Telling my story is a privilege, not just to make others more aware, but to share the responsibility with each person who hears and sees me. To know that I can be visible, and I'm not the only one.