Stop Competing for Who’s Worse Off

Recently I spent the afternoon at a community conversation hosted by high school students. The students who led it and spoke were fabulous. They were insightful, wise, and spoke their truths with conviction and kindness. It was a conversation centered around their agendas and their leadership. Most of the students there are people of color.

During the conversation the students talked about what they want for their education. Their requests were reasonable and what a community should be providing – a rigorous education, safety, a decent building, transportation access, leadership opportunities, opportunities to perform and enriched through arts, opportunities to pursue a higher education, and a brighter future. As one of the students said “our school and our community are one,” we as a community need to provide a quality education to students of color.

What happens when we get tired of fighting…
The students who spoke were hopeful, they were grateful to their teachers, poised, and so glowing with youthfulness and energy. They were also real, they understood students in other parts of the city have different opportunities. They understand their neighborhood is changing and as a student said “I don’t want to come back to Seattle after college and know my neighborhood changed. … I don’t want to see my friends in Kent or Renton…” She understood the effects of gentrification and was asking the adults to help.

These students are seasoned advocates. They know how to ask, how to push, and how to be seen. They spoke about their needs and why they believe passionately in wanting better services. At one point a student said “What happens when we have no fight left? What happens when we’re tired? It’s about equity we need different solutions.” The student who said this didn’t sound bitter, tired, or jaded – he sounded real. I want to believe he knew part of his fight had to be saved for academics and for the things that high school is about – getting into college, that cool date, what to eat for lunch – but I also read into his words he is afraid to stop advocating and speaking up because if he stops other voices step into the void and take over.

Stop Dismissing Our Problems
Too often community conversations like this take place and we have to fight to be heard to keep the conversation focused on our needs. The conversation sounds like this hypothetical conversaton:

Person of Color: We need two additional counselors in our schools. Ninety-percent of our students are first generation college scholars. Many of them also don’t have internet at home, and their families often don’t speak English as well so researching how to get into college at home is a struggle.

White ally/policymaker/anyone who does this: Thank you for sharing your concerns. I want you to know I hear you and understand the problem. You should come visit my neighborhood, we have poverty there too. The school near my office only has three counselors.

Stop pitting needs against each other. We need to ensure funding and resources are reaching the most critical needs and it needs to be done with community input. Dismissing communities of color needs, or worse believing community of color needs don’t deserve to be heard, is damaging and leads to the fatigue the student spoke about.

The last time I saw this done I shook my head and thought “stop, just stop talking.” I


picture by laserbacon @ deviantart

found it dismissive and patronizing to hear an outsider, and a supposed ally, come into a community of color space and say “oh, you should see our needs.” This is a classic instance of where the acronym of W.A.I.T. should be used – Why am I talking? Why am I dismissing another person’s need? Why am I trying to overshadow and over-talk a community of color request? Do I believe my needs are more important than the speakers?

Community of color conversations are not for outsiders, ‘allies,’ or nay-sayers to impose their values and tell others what to do or think. The role of an ally in these conversations is to check their privilege at the door, listen, and to practice empathy. They don’t have to agree with what is said, but it isn’t their space to question or be dismissive, there are other spaces for that to take place. There is a time and place for priorities to be set for data to elucidate the problem, but a community conversation centered in a community of color isn’t that place.

We’re Not Competing For Who’s Worse Off
Communities of color know what they need and don’t need. We don’t need allies and outsiders to come in and compete for who’s worst off. I remember a Buddhist story of a lady who complained to a monk everyday about how she was the worst off. For a while the monk listened and showed empathy and compassion, after a few days the monk said “You do have it bad, I want you to go out and find someone who is better off than you – then I will give you what you want to make your life easier.” So she went off and eventually came back. The monk asked what happened, she said “I realized I am actually fortunate, there are others who have harder lives.” Competing for who’s worst off is futile, we will get further by supporting each other.

Posted by Erin Okuno