One of the things that anyone in the field of not for profit work has to do is fight the negative perceptions about those we serve or the neighborhoods we work in. The glorification of the negative by the media fuels the misperceptions that many people have. What’s the old television adage? “If it bleeds, it leads.” This is no way to get information that is factual and not tinted with the lens of hype and outrageousness. Concurrently, many in our community have not spent time with folks who are significantly different than they are. Nor do they spend time in communities where poverty and its associated problems exist. Assumptions are made based upon the stereotypes that are perpetuated by the media and our own ignorance. I say this knowing clearly that bad things happen in the communities where Beyond Housing works; but, I allege they are infrequent and not isolated to these places.
This notion of perceptions came to my mind when I saw and heard two separate things in the last week related to the work of Beyond Housing. First, I stop by the Save-A-Lot grocery we own in Pagedale about twice a week just to check on it. I have done so since the store opened in July of 2010 and will continue to do so. The store is always clean and the parking lot is well maintained. Those rare instances when they are not, I reach out to our partners and any issues are quickly resolved. This fact about our grocery store in a low income community jumped out at me when my wife and I went to the big Target store near our home in Richmond Heights. The store is in a large mall with a Bed, Bath & Beyond, Trader Joe’s, World Market, etc. The parking lot had trash strewn about including empty beer bottles, half eaten food and other miscellaneous things. When you walked in the store, the entry was also littered with trash. So, here is the upscale mall where the folks with money shop and it quite frankly looks terrible. Now I know the traffic is much higher in this mall but that is no excuse for the way it looked. Just as it would be true to say that simply because our grocery store is in a low income community it should not be a mess either.
The perception of the cleanliness of our store would largely be negative and the opposite true for the Target store. The reality of what is true in neighborhoods and families can be hard to find; but, we need to keep on open mind and keep our eyes open as well.
The second issue of perception that came to my attention was while I was attending our after school program at the Pagedale Family Support Center I was visiting, as I try to do every few weeks, to see and hear from the kids, their families and my staff. The kids were great with energy off the charts, laughing, playing and simply having fun. Our staff, as always, was caring, compassionate and set great examples for the kids. As I was leaving, a mother and her two kids were walking out at the same time. I had not spoken to the mother; but, as I walked to my car, I heard her ask her kids “what did you do to be productive today?” One of her children responded; but, I did not hear what they said. The mother once again in a cheerful way said “No, what did you do that was productive today?”
I have never asked my kids have they been productive! How was their day, sure but never were you productive. The reality of this mother’s caring and sincere participation in her children’s educational life is in stark contrast to the perception that parents in low income households do not actively help their children in school. It is so easy to allow ourselves to not challenge the stereotypes that are perpetuated about so many things, including low income communities and families. This mother, like so many others we serve, has an unwavering commitment to her children and is doing her part each and every day.
Even someone like me who has been in the field for over 25 years can slip into inaccurate perceptions if I am not careful to pay attention. Just this weekend I planned to get the oil changed in my car and go to our Save-a-Lot to buy some groceries. I knew there was a Jiffy Lube not too far from the grocery store. As I planned my trip, I thought would an oil change place somewhere else be a better choice, maybe the one near my home in Richmond Heights? What was I thinking? The guys at the Richmond Heights oil changing place were somehow better? How foolish was that? These are cookie cutter places with the same procedures and prices. So, I went to the Jiffy Lube on Hanley and Page Avenues and the staff there was polite and professional. Yes, they did offer to change all my air filters and bunch of other things that I politely said no to. It was a great lesson for me to stay aware of my own perceptions about people and places.
I urge all of us to not let the misperceptions of things we don’t know cloud our willingness to understand and experience those things. We may just find that the reality is probably much different.