Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Photo © Michelle Gabel.

By JIM McKEEVER

A character in Linda Britt’s play, “American Dreams: Immigration Stories,” delivers a searing monologue challenging the sanitized view of American history, its omission of brutal European colonialism and the centuries of suffering it caused people of color who were here first or brought here as slaves.

The character, a young woman who emigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua, points out that Americans are taught their ancestors came here, worked hard and succeeded — facts of stolen land, discrimination, rape and murder are omitted.

“You never question your good fortune,” the character, Alicia, tells the audience. “You take it for granted.” She says she has had to study and work hard in America, yet is told to go back home, that she is “lucky” to be here.

Alicia concludes her monologue: “So I ask you, how did you get here? What did you do to earn what you were born with?”

Those words come to me frequently these days.

A new, part-time job takes me into neighborhoods in Syracuse that I would not otherwise visit, simply because I haven’t had to.

There, a 15-minute drive from my comfortable middle-class suburban life, I see poverty and despair that cuts across racial lines. I tell my friends and family that the living conditions for some in these neighborhoods are far worse than what I have seen in migrant shelters in Mexico — mold, bug infestations, syringes and condom wrappers in hallways, foul odors, litter.

Inside a tiny apartment strewn with trash, a young man tried to smile when he said to me, “My family is kind of broken. That’s why I am the way I am.”

A friend asked me the other day how the new job is going. I told him some of what I have encountered, the blatant disparities between my life and theirs. His response provided crystal-clear historical context.

“Laws exist so that we don’t have to care about them.” 

It is something so obvious, yet I doubt it occurs to the comfortable among us.

Yes. Laws, written and unwritten, in place for generations, have allowed many of my suburban neighbors to “not have to care” about anyone other than their own kind.

School district funding systems that ensure unequal education. Housing red-lining that keeps people of color out of white neighborhoods. Employment-based access to quality health care. Eminent domain. And so on.

These are the walls that have already been built across America, invisible barriers to “keep people in their place.” Out of sight, out of mind. 

Which brings me to another phrase that I cannot get out of my head. 

It’s from the courageous attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy” and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Ala. Stevenson says with urgency, “Be proximate.” Get to know “the other,” their struggles, their hopes and their dreams. 

Do this, and you may tap into a vein of empathy, of humanity. 

“Incredible things happen when you’re proximate to those who suffer,” Stevenson told a Syracuse audience in 2017.

Change only happens “when good people are willing to do uncomfortable things,” he said.

Stevenson’s words, for me, dovetail perfectly with those of Alicia, Linda Britt’s character from Nicaragua. 

“What did you do to earn what you were born with?” 

While that question was directed toward people born into opportunity, if not privilege, its full scope must be considered:

What about the poor person, the person of color in America, the person born into poverty and violence anywhere in the world . . . 

What did they do to earn what they were born with?

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. Editor’s note: The headline, “You have seen their faces,” is borrowed from You Have Seen Their Faces, the 1937 collaboration between Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Their book, written by Caldwell with photographs by Bourke-White, documented the plight of the poor in the depression-era south. More than 80 years after its publication, we are still looking at the face of poverty.

5 thoughts on “You have seen their faces

  1. John Grau says:

    Moving and thought-provoking piece. I remember years ago that Jim Ehmann took a brief sabbatical to travel to Central America. On his return, he wrote that American poverty does not come close to the poverty he saw there. That observation continued to be reinforced through St. James’ Church in Skaneateles, which has maintained a relationship with the Episcopal Church in El Salvador since the horrific civil war there in the 1980s. Our children traveled there on missions with St. James, and we met and hosted visitors here. Later, my daughter lived in El Salvador with the the Peace Corps and, a few years later, lived for two years in Guatemala, another violent and corrupt country in that region. Meanwhile, my experience in retirement working with substance abusers plainly showed one terrible consequence of a culture of poverty, systemic racism and the educational neglect that goes with it. I knew I was only seeing the tip of things and began to wonder about how far our society was actually being propelled by this inequality. Moreso now, with evidence lately that the threat of violence is becoming a presence in the streets. Your piece confirms my worst suspicions. I wish I had some insights to go with your witness. Except to say, keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Purely anecdotal evidence here, but in my trips to Tijuana last year, I saw hope as well as desperation. Here, I see mostly desperation. The asylum-seekers and migrants I met in Tijuana and San Diego were not giving up (although many have of late, due to repressive racist policies of this administration). In Syracuse, it seems to me a lot of people (not all, of course) have thrown in the towel. Covid and job losses have extinguished whatever glimmer of a better life they had held onto.

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  2. Jim McKeever says:

    Playwright Linda Britt said “American Dreams: Immigration Stories” is still available (now from the publisher, Leicester Bay Theatricals) royalty-free to organizations who charge no admission or who donate admission proceeds to groups that support refugees and other immigrants. I saw the play twice in Syracuse, at ArtRage and May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society, directed by Carmen Viviano-Crafts. I highly recommend it.

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  3. Katherine says:

    Having worked in human services for 30 years, I have seen some of the most deplorable living environments but have been inspired by the sense of deep hope and a resilient faith that has been inspirational. Some people have pride and won’t accept services or funding they are entitled to.
    One mother of a young man on my caseload years ago would tell me how blessed she was even though they lived in tremendous poverty with four generations under one roof. She didn’t want to take anything and would tell me there’s always someone more in need. She felt so blessed to have her family around her.
    Generational poverty and trauma has many complex pieces that can’t be fixed with money alone. I’ve moved people into better living conditions in safer environments, better jobs, but the family dynamic still remains and pulls people down into deep despair.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      It’s encouraging to hear that, Katherine. (The mother you refer to reminds me of a character in John Cheever’s “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor,” one of my favorite short stories.) There are people out there whose resilience is inspiring, but the pandemic and a pervasive sense that very few people in power care about them have pushed some folks even closer to the edge.

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