Written by Seamus Allman, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at The Food Literacy Project
I am a white cis man who grew up in a middle-class household in the United States. That means I’m armed to the teeth with privilege. I have actively chosen a path of meaningful but low-paying jobs, in part because of the greater sense of purpose, but also out of a sense of living in solidarity. The latter, of course, is a sort-of fiction. The fact is that I have access to a safety net many don’t (in some part from my own frugality).
Living on a tight budget is not foreign to me—no one goes into farming for the money. Plus, I’ve had several other years (some of them living in intentional communities) where my income was less than the standard deduction for filing taxes. If anyone wants to do some dumpster diving, I’m your man.
I’ve been involved in Louisville Standing Up for Racial Justice (LSURJ) in their support of our local Black Lives Matter chapter and other POC-led organizations fighting for justice and fairness in West Louisville. And with the near-daily reminders of the dangers involved in simply being a black man in this country, I have tried to dig deep and confront the aspects of our racist culture that I have internalized.
All that said, over the last couple of weeks, the extent of my privilege and the bubble, of sorts, that I live in, has really smacked me in the face. As part of our outreach efforts in the neighborhoods surrounding Iroquois Urban Farm, we have started canvassing, to help engage face-to-face with residents and invite them to come to the farm or attend upcoming Food Literacy Project events.
In preparation for our outreach, I had helped collect statistics about the surrounding area. However, numbers on a page do not prepare you for the stark encounter of walking down street after street where a significant percentage of houses are vacant and abandoned. For many in Hazelwood, owning a house is possibly rare, and even if one does, it may be all they can do to keep up with the payments, much less maintain or improve it as needs warrant.
Theirs is not a neighborhood where those with resources come to invest, in the sense of taking a real economic interest in an area. This is a neighborhood where predatory capitalists come to exploit the vulnerability of people who haven’t necessarily had the advantages of college educations, who watch the opioid epidemic unfold from their front porch. Who told me that they feel forgotten by the rest of Louisville, because to a great extent, they are.
Even though I’ve been earning a working-class income for many years, my cultural view is still very much middle-class. When I walk around Hazelwood, I’m, at least to start, a well-meaning tourist. This goal of VISTA service, to assemble a cohort of people willing to live on poverty wages, in order to try to lift others from a life of poverty, is noble and important. What each of us do with the opportunity to further our own personal growth is, of course, up to each of us. Grinding poverty wears people down in a way that those who don’t experience it can never fully understand. But we can try. We can push ourselves to step out of our comfort zones/bubbles, and engage with others and within in ways as honest, open, and meaningful as possible.
I’ll close with a short poem from our commonwealth’s laureate, Mr. Berry:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.