The time has come to be honest: ‘privilege’ is a buzzword. I cannot count the instances in which I’ve thrown the term out, whether in medical school applications, in class discussions, or in casual conversations. I’ve somehow come to believe that using the word ‘privilege’ makes me seem worldly, wise beyond my years. I don’t believe that I’m unique in this, though; I think a lot of us have fallen into this trap, of seeing privilege, whether it be white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, or any of the other multitudinous forms of privileges, as an abstract, intellectual concept. In my own life, I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the only form of privilege I do not have: male privilege. This belief that I am somehow disadvantaged makes me insist on being referred to as a woman and not a girl in professional situations; it makes me question the ‘bigger picture’ when I feel unsafe on a dark street at night. This past summer though, I got to see what privilege really is: a tangible force that systematically denies otherwise deserving people the right to reach their full potential. Inequality matters at every level of privilege, but at City of Refuge in Atlanta, GA, I learned that, in underserved communities, privilege can mean the difference between life and death.
Everyday this past summer, I left my apartment to catch a bus into one of the top five most violent neighborhoods in America, a neighborhood in which 40 percent of families live below the federal poverty line. On my first day of work, my supervisors told me that I was never to go to the convenience stores in the neighborhood; I would not be safe there. I learned later that these stores will pay a resident of the neighborhood $250 for a $500 SNAP card, and then stock their shelves with food purchased with the card; this practice particularly targets those suffering from substance abuse, who are often desperate for cash. The City of Refuge campus is surrounded by fencing, with 24/7 security. City of Refuge provides a multitude of services to the community: healthcare, after-school programs, vocational training, housing programs, and a program specifically for women escaping lives of exploitation. As the Shepherd Intern on campus, I was working with the Eden Village program: emergency and transitional housing for single women and women with children.
My tasks varied from day to day: I helped women work on resumes in the computer lab, I shadowed case managers, I led orientation for new clients, and I rode along on the shuttle that transports residents into downtown. In hindsight, I am incredibly thankful for a commitment I made to myself: a day-by-day photo journal. Time has dulled many of the emotions I felt in Atlanta, and as I sit on my family’s couch in Oklahoma, typing away, it is difficult to invoke the same intense thinking I experienced this summer. Some entries in this journal were funny and lighthearted, but many were not. I will share a couple of these entries now:
Day 50 (July 24): At the time of this posting, I have told 52 women via phone and even more over email that we do not have open spaces for them. Many of them tell me that they have already called a number of shelters, and then try to explain to me that they truly have nowhere to go, as if I don’t believe that they are homeless. A woman just begged me to let her and her kids sleep in our lobby. A 19-year-old girl called crying because she has a 14-month-old and they have been sleeping in a car. There are not enough beds in Atlanta.
Day 43 (July 17): I have put off posting today. I keep thinking that if I just wait a little longer, I will have something wise to say about today. My heart has felt like a rock for approximately 9 hours, and the usual remedies have not worked. Today could be filed under several headings: aggressively horrible day, the only time I’ve wanted to cry at work (the only time I have cried about work), testing the limits of compartmentalization, or simply: sadness. This morning I sat in on an abuse survivor support group. Women recounted the kidnappings of children by their fathers, sexual assaults in front of children, childhood abuse at the hands of family members, and the financial traps that so often led them to stay in abusive relationships, in hopes of providing for their children and in fear of what would happen to them on the streets. My heart and my body weep for these women. I am thinking about the notion of blurred lines that permeates so much of college life: what happens to consent when people are drinking, when mixed signals are sent, when memories are fickle? I am privileged enough to forget that sometimes lines could not be more clear and less blurry; I am privileged enough to be floored by these stories, while many of the women in the room simply nodded along.
Washington and Lee’s Poverty and Human Capability Studies Program has done a thorough job of helping me understand what privilege is and where it intersects my own life; my SHECP internship showed me where privilege becomes a life or death matter. Being privileged means that you will never make the following choices: Is it better to live in a physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive home or to have no home at all? Will your children suffer more from growing up in a dangerous home or from bouncing between shelters? In preparing a presentation for the SHECP closing conference, I learned that, according to the Family and Youth Services Bureau, more than 80% of homeless mothers have experienced domestic violence. In fact, depending on the study, between 22% and 57% of all homeless women are homeless primarily because of domestic violence.
While in Atlanta, some of the other SHECP interns and I attended a panel discussion on homelessness in Atlanta; at the panel, I heard something that really stuck with me. A speaker on the panel (who was also a Shepherd supervisor) said, “To become homeless, you have to lose all of your money, but you also have to lose all of your friends.” She went on to explain that this is an under-recognized consequence of racial structural inequality; when the black Atlanta community, as a whole, has less resources and less financial success, the community is less able to support people experiencing a financial crisis. When a community is underserved, its members are less likely to have friends that can help out, that can give them and their children a temporary place to stay.
So, the privilege dynamic I witnessed in Atlanta is two-fold: being a woman puts a person at risk of becoming trapped in a dangerous relationship, being black puts her at risk of having nowhere to go.
I have been asked to describe my summer in one word, and I think the answer surprises people. My summer in Atlanta, working at City of Refuge, was, above all, reassuring. In the sea of poverty and inequality and social justice, it’s easy to feel hopeless, to feel like it’s all too much and solutions are too far away and that we are all fighting a losing battle. This isn’t a losing battle, and I learned that this summer. The people at City of Refuge are fighting every day to make their community a little better, and they’re succeeding, little by little. With every job placement and every permanent housing solution, the community gets a little safer and a little more successful. As I went back to Washington and Lee this fall, I knew that City of Refuge was still humming along, and I know now, at this exact moment, that it’s still humming along, helping the residents of the neighborhood come closer to their potential each and every day.
So, here I am, reassured by the most heartbreaking eight weeks of my life, because I know what lies ahead. Structural inequality and social injustice aren’t going to go away overnight; nor is one person going to solve these problems on her own. But there are so many good people in the world, such as the team at City of Refuge, that are devoting their lives to making the community around them just a little bit better. And that’s what the Shepherd Program has given me the tools to do: make the community around me just a little bit better. I’m headed to medical school next year, to pursue a dual degree MD/Masters of Public Health. I want to be an OB-GYN in an underserved area, and my time in the Shepherd Program, particularly my time as an intern at City of Refuge, has given me knowledge that I would not have received otherwise. Because of SHECP, I have an understanding of how privilege intersects inequality and social injustice, and I have the conviction that I can do something to help.