I am a self-declared “people person.” Empathy is my buzzword. I am a feminist, an activist, and a frequent visitor to the University Community Service Center. I have always felt that social justice work is my passion, my calling. When I changed my major from linguistics to public policy, nobody was surprised.
Yet when a homeless person approaches me on the street, I often keep walking. When presented with this small yet tangible opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, I quite literally pass it by without much thought.
In my public policy classes, we often debate how to “fix the system.” But is it enough to sit in our ivy-covered ivory towers of academia and pontificate? Are structured settings such as the University or nonprofits an adequate avenue for me to contribute to social change, or a way to avoid personally confronting the harsh realities of this hyper-segregated urban environment?
As a woman who often walks around Chicago alone, not stopping in the middle of an urban area when a stranger addresses me might just be an instinctual act of self-preservation. But it is still concerning to me that what I preach and what I practice do not always align.
For example, I avidly promote the CTA, especially the Green Line. When my peers suggest that the 63rd/Cottage Grove stop is unsafe or “sketchy,” I immediately take it upon myself to convince them otherwise. I often get frustrated at others’ negative assumptions and unwillingness to venture into Woodlawn.
But over winter break, I was riding the Green Line with my friends, and a woman approached us. She wore an oversized, stained trench coat and dragged a giant black trash bag behind her. She asked for money. We told her we didn’t have any. She mumbled something under her breath, coughed in our faces, and asked for money again. We averted our gazes, trying not to engage. The woman then proceeded to drop her pants and pee in the middle of the train, staring at us as she did so. As she swung the trash bag over her shoulders, I watched urine drip onto her jacket. She spat, coughed, and got off the train. At the next stop, my friends and I changed cars.
This experience was scary and uncomfortable, and I didn’t like it one bit. Although I was never put in any real danger, I was shaken by the interaction. Intellectually, I know that this woman is a struggling human being who deserves my respect and that structural inequalities have brought her to this place. But in the moment, she was just getting in my face.
My internal debate extends beyond whether or not I should give money to a homeless person. It is very easy to contextualize principles based on setting. I volunteer my time to nonprofits, performing my ideals in a defined, comfortable space. There, I often interact with people whose backgrounds and experiences are completely different from mine. In this situation, there is an established protocol, an unspoken set of agreements and rules between the volunteer and the client.
In daily life, however, there are no clearly defined roles. While a few hours of volunteering may fill the “quota” that proves my virtue, everyday interactions provide me with opportunities to truly uphold my ideals. It is up to me to determine the right behavior. With such a strong set of beliefs, I feel hypocritical when I am unable or unwilling to act on them. And every time I ignore a homeless man on the street in favor of preserving my own personal comfort, I am living my life with two different mindsets: one in which I am actively “making the world a better place,” and another in which I am just going about my own business.
Although it bothers me, I am not saying it is necessarily shameful to walk past a homeless person on the street or to sometimes feel tense in urban spaces. Discomfort is a natural and automatic reaction to something that breaks away from the context of our usual routine. But I do believe that our lives are the culmination of our choices: When added up, these small moments of inaction or indifference become very significant.
I don’t have answers to any of these internal debates, and they continue to trouble me. I realize that I am coming from a place of privilege; the fact that this is even an issue in my life shows how lucky I am. But with the blessings of a strong education and a stable home, it seems even more critical that I am conscious of my actions and their effects on others. At this university, we have a great amount of both individual and collective power. It is important to recognize when we feel uncomfortable and to constantly challenge our reactions to those feelings. If we do not question our actions and address our discomforts, we risk preventing ourselves from living up to our own standards.
Zelda Mayer is a second-year in the College majoring in public policy.