Moving beyond words
A few weeks ago, I went on a tour of St. Louis with the teacher of Community Building, Building Community, Bob Hansman. I appreciated his knowledge and experience behind his words along the leafy trail that was once a neighborhood. Hansman, if you did not know, is the source of all knowledge socioeconomic and racial in urban St. Louis. He has lived half of his life at the University and half of his life in the heart of St. Louis. He told us the plight of African Americans and racism and discrimination today. More or less, this all holds true. Yet, I take issue with the way he confronts these problems, and in turn, how Wash. U. acts to solve these problems. I find his state of mind when confronting these problems unproductive and unsettling, and I find some of Washington University’s efforts to be somewhat inept and offensive.
Hansman tells us the best we can do for the underprivileged is be there for them and ask what we can do to help. He did this for 25 years. After 25 years, what message does he have to impart? What stories does he have to tell? What glimmer of hope could he provide for those of us willing to help? He told us stories. Stories of starvation, of short lifespan, of poor education, of the deaths so excessive that he keeps a funeral suit ready every day. Do you know what Hansman tells the children in these schools? “I wonder how many of you are going to make it to adolescence.” Where are the successes? The survivors? Where are the children he saved after 25 years? He only seems to impart guilt on his students and learned helplessness on “his children” (his name for children in the ghettos). He treats the impoverished like a dying patient and believes that all we can do is hold his hand and watch him die. Of course, our great scientific advances cannot eliminate death in the same way that our social advances cannot eliminate injustice; however, there must be more efficient and more effective means to lengthen and improve life than just comforting and watching the patient or neighborhood die.
After Hansman’s tour, we went to weed a garden and paint a mural in the 24th ward for locals to meet and tend the garden together. This garden was placed across the street from the empty, suspiciously well-kept garden of the 22nd ward. Hansman says it is a small step, but a step nonetheless. Similarly, holding a book is one very small step toward opening your eyes, turning on the light, opening the book, reading its content thoroughly and applying its information appropriately. Unfortunately, we cannot read a book for others in the same way we cannot beautify St. Louis for others. We painted their wall and we prepared their garden. Why do we expect them to enjoy what we installed between their rotting houses and empty lots? Why are we expressing our sentiments and beliefs on their walls? Why are we fostering our life in their soil? Why are we the only ones who get to enjoy the satisfaction of working and creating? Where are their gardeners? Their artists? Why not ask them to design and plan these monuments to their stories and struggles and tragedies and triumphs in the neighborhood they have lived their entire lives instead of having college students paint some artless mess and rip out some weeds after seeing the place for five minutes? This would provide uniquely fulfilling work, work that brings about a satisfaction, a purpose, a happiness that no man can give. Why not ask locals to design plans for their neighborhood? Then, we could fund the people and their project while having students work alongside locals to construct their vision. Not only would this allow intimate bonds between students and citizens along with allowing money to flow into the neighborhood, but also it would allow the locals to truly appreciate what has been planted and painted. It is theirs. They planned that. They made that. They can create. They can produce. They can express themselves. They can be empowered as victors, not reduced as victims. In America, we identify ourselves not by what we are born into but by what we do. By giving them this opportunity, we would be giving them an identity, and an identity is the first full step toward equality.
Thank you for reading,