14 May 2009

Class, Dismissed

I do not understand any other class than my own.

I don't understand why anyone would pursue matching Nike's and painted pointed studded nails, let alone chandeliers and convertibles. I can't imagine another set of rules where a patient, obedient, polite demeanor can't get you exactly what you're going for.

I used to think Maslow's "Survival Needs" category held a pool of universally understood resources, but I started to question that when I realized that a well-placed punch to the face didn't fall under mine.

The budget where I work is dwindling--no surprise there--and we need to figure out how to serve the people around us in the most responsible and helpful way with what we have. The problem is, the answer to the question changes drastically depending on who you're asking. If you ask us (the white ladies, born and bred middle class and well versed in the language of our own culture), we'll assume that medication co-pays and government-issued identification are going to be top priorities for anyone, and so if someone comes to us for assistance with that need, we can safely say that if they don't have money to pay for these things (after taking care of their housing costs), they don't have the money. Our problem (my problem) is that we are placing the class that we predominantly serve (the lower class) under the values of the class we participate in. We readily project the "what would I do in this situation" onto everyone we meet, thinking that humanity is humanity.

If we ever suspect that those we serve have spent a hundred dollars on a purse, we call them foolish, we call them irresponsible, lazy, manipulative, and tell them they should have thought of their asthma inhaler when they bought the purse.

I am learning. They are not foolish: they know where they are. They are not irresponsible: they are making sacrifices. They are not lazy: they are living. In a culture completely different than my own, completely foreign to me, it is more important to have a brand named bag than an inhaler. I don't understand this, because where I live, status symbols take the form of interesting conversation sooner than they take the form of a certain material or print. Let's face it, no one forgets they have asthma. Somewhere else, a purse means belonging--a more basic need than breathing.

This is the same reason that kids in poor families in America ask for donated Ipods while kids in poor families in Ghana ask for school uniforms. We all want the gift of participating in the communities we live in.

So, as we evaluate how to put guidelines on our services, we have to figure out how to help across class, which means completely challenging the way I look at service, at necessity, at a world that I have only seen through middle-class logic. I want to learn to love what I don't know.

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