A casual conversation with Bob Hansman

| Senior Scene Editor

“I’ve been thinking about what we were going to talk about tonight—I hope you don’t mind if I ramble,” Bob Hansman laughs jovially.

He’s agreed to have dinner with me to talk about inequality both on- and off-campus—about how to use our power as students (students? part-time St. Louisians? people?) to challenge assumptions and tackle poverty, both in discussion and in practice.

He scans the menu of Landry’s Seafood after a long day split between speaking at events in North County and Saint Louis University. His characteristic hoop earring swings slightly as he turns to the waiter. He orders a salmon dish, while I ask the waiter to bring “whatever fish tastes least like fish.”

The associate professor of architecture and one of the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement’s community engagement faculty fellows is passionately devoted to social justice, especially in the greater St. Louis area. He founded the City Faces program at Wash. U., and teaches a community building class in which students work with members of St. Louis’ 22nd Ward community.

SL: So—your work mainly involves poverty in the St. Louis area. This is a question that probably doesn’t have an answer, but I’m going to ask it anyway: How do you eliminate poverty? How do you even go about that?

BH: One of the things brought up [at a meeting I was at today] was, after 50 years, why haven’t we solved poverty? And sometimes when I talk about it, I know you can hear the anger in my voice. But the work takes time. It’s relationship-based. It’s basically walking side by side with people to understand—you can’t solve it in a couple of service projects. It takes time and depth and deep personal engagement to even get to the point where you know and understand what the issues are or people trust you enough to invite you to be part of the solution.

SL: A lot of people at Wash. U. don’t actively have to think about poverty—it just doesn’t come up in their lives. How are students connected to the greater community, and why should they care?

BH: I call it a decision to care, which is a line that I got from a student—it came up why you should care about things that you think don’t affect you. It’s funny, because some people think that the only reason you might care is out of some selfless altruism. I think there are very selfish reasons to care about other people. You can do it out of your own self-interests. It just depends on whether you’re thinking short-term or long-term. I look at students’ parents sometimes and think, you’ve raised your children in a bubble. They’re going to have a great job, maybe a nice house, but are you really doing them a favor if the world’s going up in flames? You can only run so far. So it’s in your long-term self-interest to care about these issues of justice for other people. I remember when the MetroLink extension was voted down, and there were some racist reasons—there were some people in St. Charles who didn’t want kids from the city coming in and stealing their things on the MetroLink. The other argument came from people who said things like, “We don’t use public transit—we have cars. We don’t need to pay for this.” What they don’t understand is that the people that work for them use public transit. The people that wait on them at stores and restaurants use public transit. Their lives are intimately involved with people that need these systems—your world depends on these things even if your domestic lifestyle doesn’t. This idea that we’re not all connected is an illusion.

SL: Yeah. The interconnectedness is hard to deny—even when you get slightly off campus, like onto the Loop, you’re interacting with the homeless community. And still, I’ve heard so many students’ condescending attitudes towards the “homeless problem,” so to speak. A lot of people don’t want to give homeless people money because they’re convinced that it’s going to go to drugs or alcohol.

BH: Well for one thing, a lot of them won’t use it for that—they’ll use it for shelter for the night. And if they don’t, then so what? If a cigarette or a beer will make their life a little bit less miserable, who am I to say, “Oh you can’t do that?” I went through a short homeless stint—I know what it’s like. Not to the extent that people who live it acutely do. But still, it was a—no pun intended—sobering experience. I knew what people said to me. It happened when I was battling cancer, and I’d apply for jobs and no one would hire me, because they had figured I’d be dead, like why train someone if they’re going to be dead? Not a good business decision, right? So here I am trying to do the best I can, and people would be yelling things like, “Get a job” at me, it’s like, you have no idea how messed up that is. I don’t think people realize how much guts it takes to actually ask for money. I didn’t have it. I literally just tried to find change that people dropped. I didn’t have the guts. That takes courage.

I guess I just don’t know why people don’t listen more. We do listen, but we only listen to certain people. One of the things that I talk about with my students is that, hey, you’re listening to me now, because I’m standing in front of you and I have this title. You walked in the room and assumed that I’m the professor and I know something. What if the first time you met me had been on the sidewalk? Would you have even looked me in the eye?

SL: How well do you think Wash. U. is doing in terms of addressing poverty and socioeconomic diversity, both on and off campus?

BH: There are pockets of Wash. U. that do very well. The issue is that there are certain things [regarding inequality] that every student should be exposed to—you could pack a curriculum with just that. It’s frightening to me that some students can just totally avoid all of this information and then become adults without having to think about the impact their life has on other people. Understanding the ability to contextualize your own life is important to understand what your choices might have to do with people that can’t make those choices. It’s not an ideological thing—you just have to think about it.

SL: Even with student groups that focus on social justice and go on service trips, there’s always the question of a) am I really making a difference in this community and b) what if I’m making this worse instead of better? How do you properly enter a community without being imposing?

BH: I always say you need to enter a community like a lover, not like a sociologist or anything else—but a lover. It used to be that I could tell students, when you go out to the real world, you’re really entering people’s homes. Sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. You don’t go in taking measurements. There’s also the flip side where students are cautious where they think that their mere presence in a neighborhood can be traumatic. And that’s a little too far in the other direction. You don’t want to talk yourself into inaction. If you ask members of a given community, they’d likely say, “We want you. We just want you in the right way. You have resources we don’t have, that we need—we can’t do this by ourselves.” They will tell you that historically, these neighborhoods have been completely devastated and abandoned by people that don’t care about them. If you do stay away, and you think your reasons for staying away are better—staying away because you might do harm is not the answer. Thinking, “I think I shouldn’t cause people discomfort, I shouldn’t violate these boundaries, I don’t want to traumatize anyone, so I’ll stay away” is a way of using respect to hide fear.

SL: It seems like with service projects specifically, students go in with good intent—they genuinely want to help the community. But sometimes, it seems like the payoff is bigger for the student than the community. It’s just…a weird middle ground. How do you reconcile this?

BH: There’ s nothing wrong doing things for other people knowing it’ll benefit you. In fact, if you don’t recognize that, you’re disempowering the other people. You’re saying, “You have nothing to offer me.” They have a lot to offer you. People that have survived 65 years of poverty can probably teach a 20-year-old Wash. U. student quite a bit. But you also have something to offer. You have resources, privileges given to you, networks, probably financial connections—you have a way of thinking about things because you’ve had time to think about them. When you’re so busy dealing with one disaster after another, you can’t even think about tomorrow.

SL: How connected is the issue of socioeconomic diversity on campus with the discussion of the larger community?

BH: Anyone that talks about increasing socioeconomic diversity without dealing with the larger community is kidding themselves. It’s an empty gesture—it’s going to do very little.

SL: What can the average student in a position of privilege do to be productive in this conversation, especially when they don’t know how to enter it?

BH: Having an understanding, an awareness of inequality is a very important step. There are things that people of privilege can bring. They shouldn’t feel guilty about having privilege. Just do something useful with it. The question becomes also, you probably can’t “fix” St. Louis during your four years as a student, but you can still develop helpful rather than harmful relationships. You can still be a sensible person in the community. If you need to get a meal or haircut you can think about where you go to do that, who you’re employing, you know? If you think about where you spend your money, you could make a huge impact. Instead of going online to save two dollars, most of us can afford to spend two dollars extra and keep a local business going. People always complain when small businesses close, but it’s like, “How many times did you go there?”

SL: Especially after the Ferguson protests last year, the chancellor has been criticized for not being vocal enough on social justice issues. Is this valid, or is there some missing information here?

BH: The chancellor does care. What people don’t realize is that he’s in a funny middle position—he has a board of trustees above him and the deans of each school below him, and together they have more power than he does. When people think the chancellor alone can do everything, that’s just naive. They don’t know how the university works.

SL: What do you think is important for students to remember?

BH: This applies to the privileged, even though it’s something people say to the poor: It’s not about where you started—it’s about where you end up. That’s in your power.

  • Good interview which raises some difficult questions for students and for the university.