The Global Citizen is a joint project of New Voices and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Throughout the year, a group of former AJWS volunteers will offer their take on global justice, Judaism and international development. Opinions expressed by Global Citizen bloggers do not necessarily represent AJWS.
I recently saw signs posted on my apartment door from Quadrangle Housing Company, my building’s housing management company, announcing the replacement of my beautiful and historic wooden back door with a new, steel-framed, “high-security” door. Quadrangle Housing Company wants to offer security to its residents; I understand and appreciate that. But they never asked me how best to meet my needs. They never consulted, at all, with anyone in my building (the Washington University Co-op). Who is Quadrangle trying to help? Me. And where is my voice? Absent. It feels like condescension, like patronizing.
This is often the case in social justice! The first example that springs to mind is the classic mission trip. “I will travel to your community, build a house or fix up a park, and leave.” Does the missionary ask what the community is needing?
This is a common mistake of even world-class philanthropists. Think of Greg Mortenson, hero of the book Three Cups of Tea, a man who has built hundreds of new schools in Pakistan. The first community he visited was delighted to see him arrive with construction materials. “We’re ready,” they said, but not for Greg’s school. “We can finally build the bridge we’ve been dreaming about to connect our community to the nearby road.”
Sitting on the receiving end of such “help,” what an interesting insight I’m being offered! I feel powerless, weak, without a voice, in my own home. Here’s an excerpt from an editorial I am sending to the student newspaper on campus:
“Quadrangle Housing, hear my voice.
First, I demand a 25-foot wall.
Does Quadrangle think that steel doors can protect me? We live in St. Louis! We’ve won awards for being the most dangerous city in the country. Criminals from North St. Louis, East St. Louis, and South City are all after us, and the only way to truly protect ourselves is with a high-security barrier. Therefore, I demand an immediate installation of a 25-foot wall around the perimeter of our Washington University Co-op property.
Still I don’t feel safe. If someone can break through my old wooden door, the one Quadrangle saw fit to replace, then surely such a person can easily break through my windows. Oh, those windows! Even though Quadrangle has installed new security locks on the windows, any thief with a gun could shoot through without losing a drop of sweat. I demand that Quadrangle replace all of my windows with blocks of solid steel.
The way to protect ourselves from violence is by creating fences. We live in a violent, unjust city. The climate of violence in places like North St. Louis arose directly because of the violence we have inflicted through the racism and classism of the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s continuing through today, and we must protect ourselves now from the consequences of our foreparents’ actions.
Is it true, as Martin Luther King, Jr., thinks, that we will only ever truly be safe when we acknowledge our duty toward the violence of our past? Only when we learn to accept our share of responsibility for the system that created such violence? Only when we work to promote non-violence and love instead?
No. For my sake, Quadrangle, give me a steel door with a peephole. Put me in a gated community, and have the police patrol at night. Shelter me from the violence – with a high enough wall, I can pretend it has nothing to do with me! Close all the windows and shut out the light. Then I’ll feel safe. All alone, behind my steel door, shivering.”