One of the most striking examples of the dissonance between privilege and oppression in my professional career happened while I was the Interim Executive Director for a small nonprofit in Seattle. I was invited to partner with ROOTS Young Adult Shelter while the agency managed a series of changes, including the loss of their shelter space due to urban redevelopment in the University District spurred by the University of Washington. As I struggled to find money and space for homeless youth, about 100 feet away from my office desk in an old church basement, I could see the University of Washington’s new Burke Museum go up across the street. The final cost for the construction of this one facility is estimated to reach 100 million dollars.
The dissonance was astounding, sad, and more often than not, people were far more excited about the new restaurant at the Burke Museum than the plight of homeless children across the street. My tenure at ROOTS revealed that young people who are different continue to be shunned by their communities, all of their communities. Social exile appears to be the new reality of homelessness in America. The final result of race, class, and social oppression manifest in complete social isolation and exile. It feels that the fastest-growing immigrant population is made up of the homeless people wandering our nation in the diaspora from inside to outside.
We have created a distinction between what you have and what you do not have. And from my perch on a used desk in a dusty basement, with suffering around every corner, I saw a university spend 100 million dollars on a museum. Yet, when ROOTS approached the University about support for the new homeless shelter, they were avoided and ignored. When they found a space, the University actively voiced their opposition and created barriers. Get clear. The message from the University of Washington to homeless youth was laser-focused. We have prioritized the bones of dead animals and the fossils from our past above homeless youth’s lives.
Why is this important? Because this is what I find myself up against when attempting to create social change. Huge, seriously overfunded, with far too much ego wrapped up in their value, institutions that will not release their hold on proprietary information (research), real estate, or money. While an educational system forced a homeless shelter to move so that they could create high-cost student housing, they felt no obligation to include or compensate for the displacement of the homeless shelter or the many other nonprofits that are and will be displaced. I had no other option but to accept the reality of oppression in America. It is alive and well and holding us hostage.
As I get off the soapbox and take a deep breath, I am left with sadness. When I was 15 and homeless, I lived in exile from my family and community. The existential line was drawn in the sand between my place in the community and my place outside. As leaders, we are called to face some of the most oppressive challenges of our time. Where is your line in the sand? What makes you get on a soapbox!?