I was challenged by these words from Patricia Elzie’s excellent newsletter, Enthusiastic Encouragement & Dubious Advice:
I think a lot of us, myself included, need to be better about bearing witness to the humanity of others, whether we know them or not. We need to think about if our actions around interrupting harm being done to others are because we see the humanity in others, or merely actions made in haste to relieve our own discomfort.
It is a privilege to be able to turn away.
The whole issue is worth a read, and then a re-read. It hit me hard today after a week filled with work on our city’s homelessness response. I volunteered to lead this effort, and yet I still query my reasons for doing so. Is it because I believe in the inherent dignity and humanity of all people, or is it because I don’t let myself think too deeply about how easily some human beings can be disregarded and discarded by our modern society, especially the part I play in the latter?
Thirteen years ago I was working at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library in a job I know now was a delimiter of “before” and “after” in my life. The library’s social worker and I had just had a conversation about a regular patron who was experiencing homelessness as well as mental health issues. I was stymied by the patron’s refusal to be connected with services. The social worker explained to me – so patiently, I now see in hindsight – that the patron was afraid of what might happen to them in a shelter because not everyone has trust in institutions because of trauma they have experienced at the hands of these institutions, even institutions like homeless shelters. Even institutions like public libraries.
As I listened to the social worker, I felt dizzy. My set of assumptions about the inherent goodness of librarianship collapsed. I began to see the ways in which library workers (myself included) interacted with patrons experiencing homelessness: with pitying looks and patronizing voices, and sometimes refusing to make eye contact or even ignoring them completely. I began to see the ways that we wrote incident reports, grouping people into categories of “clean” or “smelly”, “relatively lucid” or “zoned out”, “docile” or “aggressive”. Acceptable or unacceptable.
I began to see all of the ways I was part of the problem, as a white woman with privilege who has lived on thinner margins than one might expect but who has never experienced housing insecurity firsthand. What was the public library to me, a person who could easily afford a computer and books and rent and food, and what was it to a person who could not?
Several years later, I would read Fobazi Ettarh’s brilliant analysis of vocational awe which, by naming some of the institution’s flaws, allowed me to rebuild some of the collateral damage that collapse had caused. But I can’t even visit the “before” part of my life again, knowing what I now know. It’s like playing a game that you know is rigged: Even if you win, what have you won?