Lessons Learned Underground

Explorations of Urban Poverty

blogger-image-230679210The New York Subway system can be defined as anything but pretty. It smells, it’s loud, it’s crowded, and most of all complicated to navigate if you have a poor sense of direction like myself.

While our usual platform conversations shift between knowing where your subway buddy is (it get’s hard trying to keep tabs of 14 people) and what stop to get off–today was different. We were introduced to the idea of gentrification and where prompted by Renee to look deeper into it’s meaning, so I did.

According to Google gentrification is defined as, “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” I took the rest of the day trying to relate this concept in other ways besides from the idea, rebuilding of communities but relate it to the way society addresses those who are in and outside of a particular community and the way people react when confronted face on with stories that pull at the heart strings.

As part of our New York experience, we had the opportunity to go see the play The Color Purple, starting Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls, 2006). With such a dynamic cast came a dynamic performance that compelled the audience to both laugh and cry. The play details the life of Celie, who was separated from her sister Nettie when she was taken to live with Mister, a farmer who mentally and physically abused her. After advice from both Sophia and Shug Avery, Celie finally stands up to Mister and leaves. This then leads to a series of good events that change her life.

Thinking about the plot of the Color Purple it is was evident that the character dealt with both external and internal renewal when she finally leaves. While the situation was meant to set her back she began to thrive once understanding her worth.

Later on the train we were confronted with a woman who told her story, I’ll call her Amy. While the subway was full of people, from where I was sitting I could not see Amy. But I could hear her. Amy’s voice trembled with every word she spoke, like nails on a chalkboard. She began to tell her story. Suffering from a stage two tumor on her face Amy was asking for donations because Medicaid will not cover the surgery. It is considered cosmetic. The help of a donation would help her reach her goal where she would then be able to get the surgery.

She said thank you and then walked around the car going to anyone compelled to give– like Kenia.

I sat there in both disbelief and disappointment. For Amy, I couldn’t believe the guts she had to tell her story. I felt like with every word she spoke she felt a little more shame and a little less human. In that moment, I couldn’t bring myself to give a donation. I also couldn’t look her in the eyes– something Mark urged us to do while here. And I still don’t know why. Looking someone in the eyes gives them the understanding that you get them. You care–little more human.

I think that what can be learned from this experience is that it is important to not see yourself as above another but as equals. When we stop thinking in such a way we step away from the idea of gentrification where others are recognized as nothing and we entitled because well, we just are.

Instead I think it is important to embrace the fact that we all bleed the same, share the same air and often walk the same paths. The only difference is the journey we decide to take.


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