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.
No Lone Wolves. The Importance and Necessity of Community.
In my academic studies, one term that I particularly dislike but hear over and over again is the term, “Lone wolf terrorism.” Lone wolf terrorism refers to individuals who commit acts of political violence without having any obvious ties or relationship to established terrorist groups. The problem with this phrase is that its disproportionate focus on the individual ignores the larger ramifications of political violence and the ways in which society at large often fosters an environment where individuals feel as if terrorism is an appropriate way to respond to their frustrations with society.
In a similar vein, when it comes to issues of poverty and homelessness, terms and phrases such as “personal responsibility” and “picking oneself up by one’s bootstraps” are often thrown about. Poverty and homelessness are portrayed as individual problems with individual solutions. “If only that person could quite gambling.” Or “If only that person made better choices then they wouldn’t be poor.” Of course, in many cases personal responsibility does play a role in causing and alleviating poverty and homelessness. Even though I grew up in poverty – living in public housings, with my family relying on Social Security and Medicaid to make ends meet – I still find myself wondering how other people in similar situations can make what I believe to be bad decisions. I absolutely believe in empowering individuals to make it out of poverty and in fostering better decision making; but poverty and homelessness are not simply a matter of poor individual decision making or individual free will. The systematic nature of poverty and homelessness matters because dealing with these issues requires a concentrated effort by numerous people and organizations. Working at Back Bay Mission has opened my eyes to how poverty and homelessness are issues that affect not only individuals but whole communities and dealing with those issues adequately requires a community response.
This past week was filled with meeting after meeting after meeting. The meetings more often than not involved a wide aware of businesses, other nonprofits, and community members. We attended meetings that dealt specifically with a narrow definition of homelessness-those who were living outside. Other meetings took a more expansive definition of homelessness that includes unstable housing situations. Other meetings focused on how the participants could more effectively work together and organize themselves in order to better serve their community. Still other meetings focused on promoting health and wellness to those with very little access to information on healthy living and eating. And others focused specifically on Back Bay Mission and how to ensure that it has the resources-financial and otherwise to continue providing its much needs services. In some of the meetings one individual presented information, while the others listened. In other meetings, multiple people spoke and shared with the larger group what they (and/or their organization) have been working on and they questioned, and offered critiques and suggestions to one another. The meetings, which often dealt with different aspects of poverty and/or homelessness, and provided different insights into the work of nonprofits all reinforced one thing: the fact homelessness and poverty are not just individual issues and as a result they cannot be dealt with by one individual or even by one organization.
It appears as if many organizations and individuals are under the impression that Back Bay Mission is an all-purpose nonprofit-meaning that it basically provides help and services for the myriad of physical, mental, and material issues that come with struggling with poverty and homelessness. However, while Back Bay Mission offers a lot of different programs and does a lot of good work, it does not do so alone. It works with other organizations not just because it wants to but because in order to provide effective solutions it needs to seek out and collaborate with other organizations. Just like no individual can be good at everything, no one organization can provide all types of services for all people. As mentioned earlier, homelessness and poverty do have individual components-sometimes people make things harder for themselves, but there are larger systematic issues that make it easy for people to slip into poverty and homelessness and difficult to get out. It is the complexity of the issues and its systematic components that make it necessary to work with others in order to lessen or idealistically, eventually element the problems caused by poverty and homelessness.
The importance of community was stressed, albeit it in a different way, in New Orleans. Katy and I unintentionally visited during Pride. Pride is a nationwide event in which members of the LGBTQA+ community and their allies get together and participate in numerous events. The purpose of Pride differs depending on location- with some cities focusing on unity and celebration, while others took on a more protest like atmosphere, but in essence Pride is about community. In a world where people are still viewed as less then human because of their skin color, sexual/gender orientation, and religious beliefs (or lack thereof) places like Pride provide an assurance that no matter how bad things may get-there are always others one can turn to for support.
Communities provide support but also a measure of accountability. When it comes to dealing with social justice issues-whether terrorism, poverty/homelessness, or discrimination based on gender/sexual orientation, the only way to move forward and challenge injustice is through community involvement and support.