Fresh out of college, I moved to Philadelphia and joined AmeriCorps. It was easily one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.
I found myself–a young, middle-class, white woman–walking through the toughest neighborhoods of Philly on my way to improve literacy rates among kids. It was daunting. I imagined all sorts of crazy scenarios, but I quickly learned that no one cared about me. No one was going to bother the white girl in her pickup truck, and the schools all had strict security protocols. Funny where your imagination can take you if you let fear guide it, but recognizing that fear and where it comes from makes all the difference.
Every day for the first couple of months, however, I came home feeling sick. The kids I worked with lived in terrible circumstances, and while I got up close and personal with their daily struggles, I got to walk away from them every day. I got to return to my quaint brick building and eat sundried-tomato hummus from my local co-op.
I wasn’t used to being around extreme poverty, and it made me ache. One of the elementary schools I visited regularly was surrounded on three sides by projects and the fourth side by derelict buildings full of squatters, as evidenced by sheets that hung in random windows. There was a high fence all the way around the building, and inside that fence, at one end, was a small playground that was nothing but blacktop.
One sunny afternoon a boy cried when he learned that it wasn’t his turn to work with me. He had told me the previous week that he watched his mother die of an overdose. He was eight. He was black. He had the sweetest heart you can imagine, but just a few years later you’d probably see him as a thug. Because that’s what happens to black boys. They hit puberty, and we decide they’re dangerous. That may as well be the end of their lives.
At Benjamin Franklin High School, the ninth-grade class I worked with read on a third-grade level, yet they all had passing grades. They weren’t being taught; they were being kept off the streets. There were three pregnant girls. One of the boys who’d done the impregnating strutted around the room while the books provided for them sat in plastic baskets in the back, books about Arthur the aardvark, little boys learning how to play baseball, and monsters eating homework.
When we worked on a project that required us to walk around the neighborhood, drug deals went down right in front of them and they didn’t bat an eye. Maybe they were busy thinking about what Arthur the aardvark might be up to.
Every Monday I spent the afternoon with a group of middle-school and high-school Latinas at a Catholic community center. It was my favorite part of the week despite always needing to go out and move my truck closer to the building before it got dark because a car down the block had been set on fire with a person in it a month before I started. One evening when I went out to move my truck, someone was stealing the car in front of mine. I just pretended I hadn’t seen anything.
The girls were lively and fun and full of ideas, but they were also full of the most heartbreaking stories. One girl told me that her uncle had molested her since she was eleven. I had this idea that two super-smart sisters could do well in school and get out of there, but then I learned that they had no concept of getting out of there. They’d never left their neighborhood. Their mom was an addict who lived and worked on the street, and they lived with their dad and his girlfriend, who was always threatening to kick them out. The older one, in eighth grade, lost her boyfriend when he was shot in the head because he had the best corner.
All of the girls wanted to be Jennifer Lopez, but other than that, they had no thought of moving beyond their neighborhood. It was what they knew. So I tried to nurture their inner JLo. I helped them write about their lives, taught them about acting, and choreographed a dance performance. Every Monday they got a little break from their daily struggle to survive; they got to laugh and sing and dance, which is what living is about.
That was fifteen years ago, and I have no idea what happened to any of those kids. I don’t know who made it, who’s dead, who’s in prison.
I think about them a lot, especially when yet another unarmed black teenager is shot by the police.
I probably didn’t do very much for those kids in the long term, but they did a lot for me. They showed me the reality of poverty and racism. They showed me how the justice system didn’t (and still doesn’t) work in communities of color, how authorities and the media have let down communities of color over and over again. Sometimes I knew about violence that didn’t make the news for some reason. Sometimes it made the news in a way that was utterly different from the story I’d heard from people who were there.
I will never stop fighting for racial and economic justice because I know the lives of kids depend on it. But sometimes it’s difficult to know what to do, especially if you’re white and middle class.
If there are demonstrations in your city, go to them. Connect with the people there to work on real change for the future.
If you work with low-income kids, find ways to nurture their creativity, which can give them solace from the difficulties in their lives and effective ways to work through those difficulties.
If you lead camps or workshops for kids, find ways to make them accessible to low-income kids. Make sure your group is diverse in terms of economic background and race/ethnicity. Get white kids accustomed to diverse environments so they question situations where everyone is white.
If you’ve got some time to volunteer, find an organization or collective that works with kids in low-income areas. Read with kids. Let them sing and dance and paint.
But don’t go in thinking you can save them. They don’t need to be saved, especially by a white person. Think of it as skill sharing or knowledge sharing. You’re going to share what you know with them, and, in turn, you’re going to learn a hell of a lot about the rest of the world.
And then share what you’ve learned with other people. Apply it to your work. Use it to change systems that have long been mired in racism and aren’t doing anyone any good. Use it to increase diversity among decision-makers. Don’t let kids get out of third grade without meeting appropriate reading levels. Question why law enforcement is mostly white in a mostly black city and the effect that has on both police and those being policed. Use strategic creative action.
When I look at pictures of Michael Brown, the young man shot in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, I see that eight-year-old boy crying because I don’t have time for him that day. What do you see? Don’t let fear drive your creativity and overrule your empathy. Look beyond the characteristics you have been taught to fear. Imagine that little boy and how different his life could have been.
A fellow poet and friend once said to me, “For the sake of your writing, I hope you’re as miserable as I am.” This was a few years after college, and, thankfully, I had matured enough not to feel the need to spend late nights holed up in my room, smoking cigarettes and scribbling as though it would save my life. (Though writing did, and still does, contribute to my sanity.)
Indeed, when I was younger, my creative thrust seemed to come from life’s trials, which led me to glamorize the tumultuous and desperately sad lives of writers like Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and Jack Kerouac. I accepted the popular image of the writer’s life–a constant zigzag of madness, inspiration, misery, success, loneliness, and celebration. All the bad things were simply the price of creativity.
Then I grew up and realized I didn’t actually like wallowing in despair. I stared down some pretty tough things I hadn’t expected to happen and found that I only wanted to get through them and move on. And in my work and my travels, I saw a kind of poverty and despair far worse than anything I’d ever experienced, which is something I remind myself of from time to time. I’m not living in a war zone. I’m not starving. I’ve got warmth and love and organic tomatoes fresh from the garden (well, not at the moment since it’s winter, but I’ve got holly cut from the trees in the back yard). Things aren’t that bad.
Over time, I learned to write when I was happy and when I was bored and when I was just whatever. I realized I didn’t need to use writing like a drug; it could be a normal part of my life, like buying groceries or taking a shower. And still something really wonderful could come out of it.
Two weeks ago I wrote about my apartment block in Poland, which was a concrete box. What I didn’t tell you is that it was one of the nicer places to live. What I didn’t tell you is that my pay as an ESL teacher, though certainly not much in US dollars, was higher than the average Polish salary. So while I felt a bit trapped in concrete painted in soothing pastels, I didn’t mention that my life was pretty comfortable despite the lack of aesthetic.
And that got me thinking about how much creativity comes out of poverty, how if you look at the lives of people who are struggling to make ends meet, you’ll see some pretty inventive ways to get by. But how is the need to be creative different from the luxury to be creative?
I said in that post that I’ve always needed creativity. But that’s more of a mental thing than a physical thing. As I said above and have said in other posts, it has been a part of my survival strategy, but that’s about my mental health, not about trying to put food on the table or keep a roof over my head. I did spend most of my twenties living in relative poverty, however, so I know how “making do” makes you a special kind of artist. I made do for so long that I was well into reasonable comfort before I realized I could just replace the things in my house that I’d rigged to keep working.
So what’s the difference between creative solutions to one’s own poverty and masterpieces created in prosperity?
Much of the art we cherish most has come from times of struggle, but we have to refrain from glamorizing that struggle. I think we need to recognize creativity as a necessary part of life but also think about what fear does to creativity. Sometimes fear sharpens it and sometimes it erases it.
I think we need to emphasize the important role creativity can play in helping people overcome struggle. But we also need to remember that creativity doesn’t require pain. Creativity can come out of poverty, but it can also come out of pleasure. And, more importantly, it can come from somewhere in between.
On any average day. The sky’s a little cloudy, but the weather isn’t too cool. The neighbor’s dog is barking at the recycling truck. I had some work to do today, but I’ve got the rest of the day off. I’ll mop the floors later and do a load of laundry. I’m thinking about lunch, but instead of the kitchen, I head to my desk. I don’t have anything particular to say, but I’ll start writing and see what comes out.
I do this even when I don’t need to figure anything out or make a statement or feel some specific kind of release. I do it because it’s part of my day. It’s a normal part of life.
As we delve into winter and the holiday season, it’s important to remember what poverty means for so many people in the world. I think about people whose lives are full of fear instead of good things and how that affects their inner world as well as their outer world. We all need self-expression even when we are our own audience.
Even when profound art comes out of struggle, we shouldn’t let that justify poverty and pain. I’ve had good things come out of horrible experiences, but I’d still choose to keep the horrible experiences from happening in the first place. Instead, we should imagine what that artist could have achieved with everything they needed, learn the lesson they are sharing, and resolve to make things better for the next generation. Because my average day would be a blessing for many.