The 2017 Shari Prestemon Social Justice Interns have graciously agreed to share their experiences with all of us. From time to time, we’ll be posting ‘journal entries’ from Naiomi Gonzalez and Katy Morton. Below is one of these entries.
Desperation: What Poverty and Terrorism have in Common.
The internship at Back Bay Mission is allowing Katy and me to meet numerous people from a variety of different organizations. Of course every time we meet someone new, we are expected to introduce ourselves by providing not only our name but also some quick facts about who we are and about why we decided to intern at the Mission. Most of the time I prefer Katy to talk first since her social work experience is more directly applicable to the mission of the Mission. Many times after Katy speaks a bit about her education and prior work and internship experience, people turn to me and ask, “so are you a social worker as well?” After giving an awkward laugh I then explain my how my academic interests focus non-state violence/terrorism and state violence/injustice. They often seem… puzzled. An understandable reaction. To be honest, when I first started my internship I struggled with articulating why someone with my research interests wanted to spend the summer at the Mission. My first journal entry was an attempt to explain to others (and to myself) why the Mission didn’t make a mistake in hiring me. But now that I am more than halfway through with my internship, I think I can better articulate the connection between my academic research and my experiences at the Mission.
On a daily basis I see or hear the desperation of people who are struggling with poverty or homelessness. I can’t tell you how many calls I have received where the person on the other line is frantically seeking rental assistance in order to avoid becoming homelessness. Nor can I adequately explain the fear and hopelessness that is evident in some of their voices after I tell them that not only do they need to contact a different agency, but that said agency may not be able to help them at the moment because this year’s funding cycle is nearing its end.
Other calls that tug on my heart strings are the ones where people are asking for shelter. For some reason other people and organizations in the area seem to be under the impression that Back Bay Mission is a shelter, so it is crushing to have to tell the person on the end of the line that no, we don’t provide housing and that there are only a handful of shelters we can refer them to. One call from last week vividly stands out. A woman called asking about shelters in the area. I then asked her if she was looking for shelter for a single female and she tells me no, she has a 7 year old daughter. My heart broke for her and her daughter, yet she sounded so relieved when I gave her the numbers of some shelters. But of course I was worried. What if the shelters were full? Where would she and her daughter go? Of course, in order to continue to do my job, I can’t dwell on those questions. Dwelling on the “what ifs” and wishing I could have done more to help her doesn’t do anything for the woman and her child, but it also prevents me from being there for the next person that calls or walks in. But I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to have no place to go and yet still needing to care for a child. What would I do if I were in a position where I was afraid not only for my own future, but that of my child? How would I react if the help I sought was not available or not what I expected?
I firmly believe that in order to help clients I need to at least try to see things from their perspectives. I approach my studies of terrorism in a similar way. I try to answer the following questions, why does terrorism arise? Why do some people join terrorist organizations? Why are some countries more impacted by terrorism than others, from the point of view of someone in dire straits. In many instances-terrorism is a rational, strategic choice that nonetheless is grounded on and exploits desperation. I argue that despite the numerous factors that contribute to the rise of terrorism, desperation is a vital, often overlooked factor and that in order to minimize terrorism one needs to understand and, dare I say it, empathize with said desperation while condemning the methods used to express it.
When people are desperate they can react in ways that seem counter-productive. For example, when seeking help, common sense says that yelling or antagonizing the people that you come to ask for help from, is probably a bad idea. But when you feel as if your options are limited and that the help you need or want is not being provided, then it makes sense to get angry and yell. When it feels as if you have been let down by numerous other organizations or government programs, as well as by loved ones, it makes sense to be weary and distrustful, to the point of hostile to the very people that you seek help from. Or, there are clients who are respectful, kind, etc., yet they seem to be making the same mistakes over and over again. It is tempting to be like, “ok, stop performing that same action that got you here in the first place. It is irrational and doesn’t work.” But from the point of view of the client, that action that I consider to be stupid might have been a coping strategy that helped them survive. From their point of view, that action is rational and necessary.
Similarly, terrorism, at first glance seems stupid and counterproductive. First, terrorism targets civilians and often involves killing the very people you need a measure of support from. Next, terrorism is often a reaction against forces that are much more powerful. Non-state terrorist actors can’t fight the armies of nation-states in traditional warfare. They don’t have the numbers or the technology to do so. Yet terrorism often provokes nation-states to react even more violently towards the terrorist group. Yet if terrorism is so stupid and doesn’t work why do people keep in engaging in it? The answer is because sometimes terrorism works. It might not work in the sense that it immediately fulfills whatever goals the terrorists have in mind but terrorism can point out the flaws and weaknesses of nation-states. In countries where the central government is weak, terrorism often serves to highlight how ineffectual and frail the government, allowing those who use terrorism to project an image of strength. In other cases, the government, in response to terrorist attacks, becomes even more brutal, alienating larger swath of the population allowing those using terrorism to capitalize on hatred and distrust of the government. And of course terrorism provides the illusion that one isn’t given in to hopelessness but that one is taking proactive action to make a change.
In addition to helping me empathize with those who act out in desperation, my internship at the Mission is also allowing me to see on a small scale the importance of social service work. The lack of interest in helping the poor and homeless is endemic at the local, state, and federal level. And the impact on the marginalized is clear. Families struggle to feed their kids, individuals and families are unable to find affordable housing and jobs are scarce. Lack of funding prevents organizations from being able to help as many people as effectively as we want. This lack of attention to addressing the root causes of poverty ensures that the cycle of poverty continues.
In a similar way, the refusal to address the root causes of terrorism means that it will continue to be a tactic that is used over and over again by those who are hopeless and desperate. The connection between poverty and terrorism is not direct. If it were, there would be millions of would-be terrorists as opposed to thousands who come from a variety of economic and educational backgrounds. But in the countries where terrorism is rampant, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, etc.,social services provided by the government, nonprofits, and NGOs are essentially non-existent. The military in terms of weapons and technology might be well funded, but help to minimize poverty, for schooling, health care for the majority of the population does not exist. This, combined with different political factors and desperation ensures that terrorism will continue.
Both terrorism and poverty create a desperation that makes breaking the cycle of poverty or violence that much more difficult. Additionally both terrorism and poverty require a sustained, community response that combines political action with social services. And yes, providing social services can mean empathizing with those with whom we think are undeserving. How many people divide those struggling with poverty into the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor?” Meaning one group deserves to receive assistance while the other group should just be ignored and left to their own devices. But such an approach does little to ease poverty. Likewise, dealing with terrorism cannot just happen through the barrel of a gun or via dropping bombs. Hope for an alternative society must be provided. And this alternative society must include former terrorists. Or the stage is set for violence to continue.