We've invested a lot in the concept of beautiful spaces in the last century. In pioneer days and rural America, function almost always came before form. People worked too hard to waste time on vision appeal that had no intrinsic value. What changed after World War II? I think Americans decided the war had made us safe on a new level, and pursuing the American Dream took on new meaning. Suburbs. White picket fences. Expansive lawns. Window boxes.
As our country becomes more densely populated and urban centers more predominant, we place even more value on our living space, our clothing and accessories, our curb appeal. Heck, we even built a whole industry around food plating and photography. How things look matters to us.
The flip side, of course, is that anything perceived as unsightly or bothersome must be eliminated. Some idiot ages ago decided that dandelions are unsightly, even though they have far more practical uses than grass. We bought it. We sprayed and dug and treated our yards like mad to eliminate edible, medicinal, and fragrant "weeds" to make way for ornamental manicured plants. No more unsightly weeds. Garbage? Don't want to see it -- develop municipal trash collection, create landfills, build enclosures around waste containers, and heaven forbid garbage trucks should be cruising our streets when we're out there -- get the pickups done in the wee hours so we can all pretend we don't actually have garbage.
All of this attention on appearances wasn't entirely awful until we started applying the idea to human beings.
There have always been and will always be poor people, people who take on jobs that are "lower" in our minds, dirty people, the lower class is a supposedly classless society of equal rights and equal opportunities. Pre-WWII, pre-suburbs, people were people, no matter their economic status. (Let's not argue racism here, that's a whole other issue.) People who couldn't afford commercially-produced homes were fine living in make-shift shelters. There was nothing shameful about traveling to find work, or pitching a tent alongside a stream, or even knocking on a farmhouse door and asking if there was something one could do in trade for a meal or shelter in the barn for a night or two in bad weather. People, in general, looked out for one another. Survival was at stake, after all, and allowing another person to starve or freeze or die of a curable illness was just not OK.
Now people without money are unsightly. They interfere with the artificial image of the world that we've built for ourselves. The suburbs used to be where successful people could go to live in a big house on a wide street where kids could ride their bikes to a nearby park in complete safety. Heaven forbid that anything unsightly should tarnish our fake pretty little worlds. Garbage in the street? Call the city. Under-maintained yard? Create a homeowners' association. Fast drivers? Increase traffic regulation. Do NOT mess with my fantasy world.
OK, I understand the affluent among us wanting to control their environments. What I don't get is why people aren't willing to invest as much creativity and money to solve the poverty problem as they are to solve the dandelion problem. How hard is it to invest in plots of land with water, power, and waste management that people are welcome to occupy, even if for a limited time? What would it cost to provide transit service for people who can't find a safe place to sleep to a central public services facility that had enough funding to provide basic necessities? What would it cost to allow older trailers and motor homes to park on designated public land and plant concealing shrubbery around the perimeter like we do our current trailer parks? We don't seem to mind living near poverty, as long as we don't have to look at it.
"We don't want THOSE people here" is as un-American as it gets. Not here? OK, tell me where. Create a space. Even garbage gets a designated space. You want to make America beautiful? Grow dandelions and eliminate lawns. Grow vegetables, not poisonous shrubs. Grow people and public services and the mental health industry, not prisons and detention centers and temporary shelters infested with bedbugs. Invest in portable shelters and public access to power and clean water. Most of all, KNOW where a person can go to survive and help them get there, if you really can't handle seeing their misfortune.
I posted a Facebook status the other day, suggesting that ICE roundups have a lot in common with pre-war Nazi activity. I was referring to the practice of seeking out undocumented residents and putting them into detention facilities with no charges, no explanation, and no clear plan forward. Boy, I triggered some people. I haven't even found time to read all the comments, let alone respond. The post, very specific I thought, started conversation about the entire border crisis, immigration reform, political infighting, human decency and lack of it, prison and detention center conditions, and a lot more.
That's my main gripe about Facebook -- there's no sorting or moderating to keep a debate on a specific track. That's OK. I love social media for the access to volunteers and food recovery it provides, and Facebook is among the best.
The point, though, wasn't national policy or political idealism or immigrants themselves. It's the issue of taking action without respect for the problem it's trying to solve and without a long-term goal. I understand the rationale for deporting criminals who don't have legal status. If it were that simple, I'm all in. But with the current border crisis, wouldn't ICE's resources be better spent trying to accommodate and sort out all the people clamoring at the gates?
Here's the thing -- undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes should be deported rather than tried in the US justice system. It just makes sense to save taxpayers the cost of prosecuting and detaining those trouble-makers. But a majority of the arrests in my area have been folks who failed to appear at a hearing. Of course we want immigrants to get to their hearings and proceed through the steps of acquiring legal status, but isn't tracking them down and deporting them a little too extreme? Many of them don't speak English or don't understand the process or don't have access to transportation or mail or a calendar. Failure to appear at a hearing is an honest mistake, not a violent crime, and not, in my opinion, deportation-worthy.
Because the detention system is so overloaded, partly due to the increase of arrests because of the political climate, people are locked up in unsafe, unhealthy, and unconstitutional conditions. Crossing the border without documentation is a misdemeanor, not a jail-able offense. Missing a hearing automatically results in an arrest warrant, no matter what the hearing is for/about. Immigrants who don't understand this are being locked up without access to adequate food, water, shelter, medical attention, or even explanation of their circumstances. They are offered no recourse. Often their families have no idea where they are, where they're being sent, or how to contact them. Children being separated from parents and then lost is a whole other problem.
My point, in posting a challenge to protect our neighbors if ICE comes for them, and in comparing that to pre-war Germany, is that the law seems secondary to the politics right now. Human rights violations are rampant. Our ability to meet the basic needs of people we detain is severely lacking, and if we can't keep them humanely, we shouldn't be picking them up in the first place.
Save the prisons and detention centers for violent offenders. Once we get those under control, we can have a conversation about whether crossing the border or missing a hearing warrants the abhorrent conditions of the current facilities.
I heated up some donated leftovers yesterday. The freezer was pretty full when I saw one of my Facebook groups asking for help providing food for a regular meal they serve every weeknight in downtown Portland. I responded, pulled out a bunch of bags that worked well together, and dumped them in foil pans. It took me maybe 10 minutes.
I often wonder whether anything I'm doing is making a difference. Is the food really needed? Isn't it harder to find drivers and servers and people with funds to buy supplies? Couldn't a large-scale food business provide meals much more efficiently? I have to remind myself that it's not about efficiency or simplicity. It's about community.
It takes at least a dozen people every day of the week to put together these meals for about 100 people in the park. The diners may or may not be homeless, hungry, discouraged, lonely. It doesn't matter -- everybody is welcome, no questions asked. We've been doing this for a few years now, and a distinct community has developed. The guests know one another and have opportunities to visit, make new friends, ask for help, share resources. These are some of the kindest and most generous people I know, even though they have very little. They recognize that the community itself has great value.
It's not just the diners who benefit. None of us could do this alone, and it's scary sometimes. We've experienced the decline of supportive communities. The more crowded our neighborhoods get, the less we know our neighbors. It's easy to feel alone among a mass of humanity. I can't lift much or stand very long and I often don't have the car. Others may not have money for gas or a container big enough or refrigerator space. But somehow, together, this meal happens, every night M-F, 6:00, rain or shine, mostly in one location but moving if that's what it takes. Whatever it takes, this group works, gathers, improvises, cares.
It happens because a few people recognized a need -- not for food so much, but for community. It started with one guy who took a pot of hot soup to an under-the-bridge camp during an ice storm. I think he got beat up that first time, but he didn't quit. A few friends were inspired, then a few hundred. Now it's a network of thousands, providing those downtown dinners and picnics in other parks and delivering food and necessities to camps throughout four counties. A few other cities have started their own groups.
It's called Free Hot Soup. Not a charity or club or business, just a Facebook group. Guidelines have developed, moderators have stepped up. One great man dedicated his whole truck to mobile beverage service to support the meals. The group's tool is food, but its product is community. In a world where almost everyone feels marginalized one way or another, where we've had to harden our hearts to protect them from despair, where we feel helpless against the need we see all around us, this group empowers. It finds solutions where there was impossibility. It lends a hand when all hands are already full. It stretches when need has already forced too much stretching.
Community can do these things, things that individuals can't, that businesses won't, things that charities fail at, because they focus on the wrong end result. It's not food. It's care. Courage. Determination. Those human qualities that inspire and change us, that push us to accomplish greatness. The human spirit is brought alive with energy, hope, love, because people witness one another in acts of stupid, impractical, illogical, magical kindness.
Humankind has reached an important turning point. As all the graphs of population, development, and waste are now showing nearly vertical growth lines, we have to take a look at our priorities. In early human history it was simple. Our purpose was to survive. We sought food, water, and shelter, we raised children, and we joined forces to defend ourselves against nature, predators, and unknown tribes.
As society became more complex, the answer to "What is our purpose?" also evolved. It's mostly qualified with "You mean besides survival?" We still acknowledge, barely, that surviving is important to us as a species, but we expect a whole lot more from ourselves and one another. This is a good thing. It inspires heroes and public servants and philosophical thought. But it also feeds our desire to do more, have more, be more, contributing to the upward slope of all those aforementioned graphs.
Is it time to do less, have less, be less? Maybe. At least it's time to accept that many people are choosing that direction, and that's a valid choice. Many more are forced into simpler goals by lack of access to fundamental needs. In America, one of every eight people is food insecure, meaning they have to choose which fundamentals of survival to fight for. Do they work overtime to pay rent? Buy food and lose electricity? Search for free food and financial aid, cutting into time available for work? They certainly aren't pursuing higher education, entering politics, starting new businesses, or evaluating their purpose. They're surviving.
Why do we look down on people who are surviving? Knowing there are limited resources, who are we to think that those who have more are better? If we're willing to look a little deeper, we'll find a massive subculture of hard-working, generous, intelligent people who have chosen not to participate in the more-is-better game. People who give away what they don't need, who abhor waste, who walk gently among us and on our planet.
I admire people who live with less, whether by choice or circumstances. These people are connected to the true sources of life, happiness, and meaning. Each day presents an opportunity to meet their own and their neighbors' needs. There's no greed or ego or power games. There's cooperation, understanding, courage.
Those of us who still over-consume, over-achieve, over-spend and over-waste can learn a lot from the poor among us. All we have to do is meet their eyes and start a conversation.
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I have a relative who's between a rock and a hard place right now. Her husband is in prison, and bad as that is, it's not as life-changing as losing the income he contributed to their household. She now has 1/3 of the money she's used to, with all the debt. She can't possibly make ends meet. Because she's part of a large and supportive extended family, she's going to be OK. Some people can give her a little money. Others can help get debts forgiven. Some can call and visit and help her through the stress and emotional pain of her situation.
What if she wasn't part of our family? She'd be like most people in the world when trouble hits -- broke, hungry, lonely, probably homeless, potentially resorting to some substance or other to dull the pain. It's very nearly the same impact that people suffer when they're shunned by their community. I know groups that believe shunning protects the rest of the group by getting rid of those indulging in bad behavior. One can't think too much about the shun-ee, because the inhumanity of this practice is tough to justify. Isn't that what we're doing, though, as a greater society? Shunning, ostracizing, marginalizing -- call it what you will. There are people we don't approve of, or don't understand, or are afraid of, so we choose to ignore their existence.
When I moved to a conservative suburban community after I divorced, believing it to be a good environment for my kids, I was shocked to learn that some neighbors wouldn't allow their children to play with mine, because I was divorced. I don't know what they thought was wrong with that -- was I a troublemaker? Needy? Bad at relationships? A victim who would suck others into my problems? I have no idea, but we definitely weren't part of those people's definition of the neighborhood.
Steering clear of people or situations we don't understand is a common practice and has been for hundreds of years. But the more urbanized our culture becomes, the more cost there is to avoidance. We need to know and care about the people near us. Everybody needs a hand once in a while. If we don't care, if we don't participate in the whole spectrum of our society, we're eventually going to have so many broken, hopeless, scarred neighbors that society as a whole will crumble. The few can't support the many.
Maybe you're scared. Maybe someone married to a man in prison is uncomfortable for you. Maybe someone who suffered an injury and was over-prescribed pain medication seems weak or irresponsible. It doesn't really matter why people strike us as different. The important thing is that we overcome those differences. We need to talk to the stranger, feed the hungry, warm the un-sheltered. We don't have to put ourselves in danger, but we do have to care. If we cease to care, what are we?
dMy son-in-law keeps fish. He's nuts about them. I think we have seven tanks going right now, with lots more parts and plans and ideas floating about. The big tank holds 150 gallons and is home to a few varieties, but mostly goldfish. They're showy creatures, and if you watch long enough, you start to see behavior patterns, even attitudes. There's a definite pecking order. There's a deep sense of entitlement, especially with regard to food. They've learned to swarm in the corner where food gets placed, to indicate that they want some. They are beautiful and entertaining.
One night I was dozing back there, keeping an eye on the baby while the kids were out. I woke up in the wee hours and looked toward the crib to make sure my grandson was still asleep, and I saw a fish in the tank beyond the crib that scared the bejeezes out of me. I had no idea such a critter existed, let alone lived among us. He's a plecostomus named Morpheus. Apparently he's nocturnal, and he eats the algae off the glass, keeping the tank ecology balanced. Now that I know what he is, I'm fascinated.
I didn't get a photo, but my first view was his belly, as he hung from the glass by his large round mouth. Seriously large. Of course he was all black in the night, a dramatic contrast to the shiny goldfish gently glowing in the dim light. He's also about ten times the size of the largest goldfish. I swear I thought I was looking at a monster or alien or some unknown invading creature. Or maybe I was dreaming. I was seriously creeped out.
The plecostomus has a chameleon-like camouflage ability that helps it stay hidden in the shadows. When he's out at night, alone, fairly sure that his tank-mates are asleep, he changes from a near-solid black to an intricate scale-like pattern that blends with the rocks and gravel. He doesn't want to be seen. He may believe he's homely and a social misfit. Even when food is provided, he waits, in the dark, in the quiet shadows. The bright goldfish eat everything. When they finish their flakes, they go after the plants -- leaves, roots, everything. They pick at the rocks looking for specks that might have been missed. They compete with one another and race to grab food before the next guy can get to it. Still, Morpheus waits.
Not until long after everyone else has settled down for the night does he slowly emerge. He's very careful to stay away from the others, even though they're asleep. He carefully places himself against a wall or a rock and extends his lips. These are serious fish lips. Wait, let me find a picture...
He eats only what the others leave behind. He doesn't compete. He doesn't hurt anybody. He doesn't need the fresh, best food. He doesn't need attention. All he needs is to be allowed to live among the others, unobtrusive, only taking enough to survive.
Why, do you think, does this fish community remind me of Portland?
My son and his girlfriend have been living in a small one-bedroom apartment with their cat for the past year. I basically kicked them out of our house when my daughter announced her pregnancy, since living space is the one asset we have that could help our grandson get off to a good start in life. Bill and Simone have been struggling and making do, and hopefully they're learning more of what it takes to make it in this not-user-friendly society we've created.
It's Bill's birthday today, and I just saw him briefly. They have new roommates, he says. A couple with a dog and a cat. A pregnant cat, it turned out, so now also seven kittens. I assume the newcomers are settled in the living room, since the bedroom is occupied and the kitchen is tiny. He sounds good about all this, though. There's more help with expenses and always somebody to hang out with, and they all love animals.
This is a typical living situation for their generation. Kids born in the 90s just missed the booming economy of the 80s and the affordable college of last century. We lost our nest egg in 2001, when Bill was 11. Overcrowded schools, an ADD diagnosis, a propensity toward anxiety, and a gentle spirit don't provide much support for a young teen. Three college attempts resulted in quite a few non-transferable units and a good chunk of student loan debt. Jobs? Yeah, good luck with that. Even those with master's degrees are working in call centers and driving buses.
It's not just this particular decade. Baby boomers who were patriotic enough to serve in the military are now experiencing poverty and over-extended veteran's programs. We take leftover donuts to them and just that small kindness makes their day. Veterans commit suicide at nearly 40 times the rate that soldiers die in combat. It's estimated that at least half of the homeless people in America are veterans, mostly over 60 years old.
Happy birthday, Bill. Here's the bright future we promised you. We hope you enjoy the used clothes, hand-me-down car, and cheap food. In a country that was built on cooperation, community, opportunity, and vision, we haven't done much to protect and maintain those values. Watch your backs, retirees. There's a spirit of revolution brewing.
I spent a very informative hour with some extremely hard-working people at Portland Public School District's offices. I initiated contact with them at the request of a group of parents who are working to reduce waste and improve recycling programs in schools throughout Oregon.
Did you know that nutrition services is not part of the school district? It's a contracted program. This is a good thing, because it allows the district to demand outstanding service from the provider, rather than having to stretch district resources ever farther to provide nutrition as well as all the other needs our kids have.
The single biggest thing we can do to improve our children's education (besides reading with them) is to vote for them. We don't only vote with our election ballots, although those are important. We vote with how we spend our money and how we use our time. Every parent who can should be volunteering in their child's school on a regular basis. Those who can't because they work should be contributing a few of those earned dollars. Teachers need all the parents to check in, ask what they can do or provide. Parent/teacher clubs are often pitiful little groups that try to run a cookie sale to pay for field trip buses. They used to be the hub of the community! Everyone should be involved, should know what programs are struggling and where to lend a hand. These institutions were never meant to be a gift to the public. They're only gathering places. What makes a school successful is the commitment it receives from the community.
We need to stop, as a society, criticizing our institutions while contributing nothing to them. Oregon citizens hate tax increases, and you can tell from the state of our infrastructure. Families think the schools are there to provide everything their children need, from education to meals, from challenging their minds to providing daycare. It's OUR responsibility, parents, to educate our kids. The schools are there to provide structure and guidelines, to introduce material and nudge kids along, but it's up to families to inspire them, to share their dreams, to walk alongside them as they learn and grow and think and imagine.
Thank you to those who have supported my efforts to reduce food waste in Portland Public Schools. I'll continue to work with them and help every way I can. But let's not stop there. Let's provide what the schools, and our kids, really need. Let's invest ourselves in the schools. Imagine what we can create together!
PS: An important department of PPS is the sustainability team, officially called Resource Conservation, a division of Facilities & Asset Management. The "team" is one staff person, Nancy Bond, and one Americorps intern. And Nancy will be retiring at the end of this year. If you really feel there's waste in Portland schools, I suggest you check in with Nancy and ask how YOU can help. If we want sustainability in our schools, we're going to have to fund it, build it, and support it.
Thank you, Nancy, for your hard work over the years. Your commitment to getting the most for our kids out of limited resources is vastly under-acknowledged. I look forward to learning from you in this final semester of your career.
I grew up with privilege. Even before our current societal awareness of white privilege, I knew I had significant and rare advantages. Not money or great schools or opportunities. I had family.
My mom's siblings have always been a tight-knit, supportive group, including all their spouses. Even after my dad died, my mom reconnected with a friend from childhood, who had been part of the social crowd when they were all teens. Well, mostly teens. Mom remembers being the left-out little kid when her all-older siblings, along with my stepdad and his brothers, were dating and entering college and starting their adult lives in the late 1940s.
Through the years they all stayed connected. I have wonderful memories of holidays with my cousins, while Mom's brothers and sisters hosted the Morehouse clan. When Mom married into the Pierce family, a whole second chapter of close siblings and all their kids were added to the mix. My mom & dad's "immediate" family exceeded fifty people.
Dad is six years older than Mom, and Mom's eldest sibling is nine years older. Their support and wisdom saved her many times in her young years. But Mom is in her 80s now. Dad had a heart monitor put in the other day. Mom's two middle siblings, Hap and Shirley, both died in the last year. Eldest sister Margie is in the hospital, as is Shirley's widower, Kirk. This is a hard time for my mom.
These people shaped us into who we are. Each of them is a part of me, and I'm so much better, wiser, stronger, and more capable because of their influence. I can't imagine how much more they are a part of my mom, but I know they are in her mind and heart and spirit. She's generous because they gave to her. She's kind because they cared. She's wise because they taught, and brave because they shared their courage.
Every day, I meet people who are alone because their family all died, or left, or gave up on them, and I am reminded how privileged I am. Even as my mom's heart breaks while her generation's lives reach their end, none of us are ever alone. We all live in one another, and as I watch my daughter become more like my mother, I am grateful for the family that came before, for the legacy they gave us. Most especially, I'm grateful for my mother, for her commitment to family, for the sacrifices she continues to make without a second thought, because family is her purpose, her strength, her gift.
Several articles have come out this year about power causing brain damage (cited below for your convenience). No big surprise there. The more power an individual has, the less he/she needs to empathize with others, the less he/she has to understand or care, the less he/she is motivated to take on helping anybody else. In a very broad, general sense, of course. Most super-wealthy people give generously to charity.
So power, in and of itself, broadens the divide between the rich and the poor, and contributes to the decline of our middle class. But I don't think power, or even wealthy people, can be blamed for our failing democracy. As we watch the power of the people wane and see a modern feudal system developing, in which giant business interests can pay below-poverty wages, We The People have to take some responsibility.
The blanket statement that money is power is treason in a democracy. It's giving up. It's allowing oneself to become a victim, thereby increasing the truth of the statement. The power of the people isn't something that comes naturally in this world, and our forefathers worked very hard to create a power-of-the-people society that bucks tradition and history. We want to rise above petty competition and labeling people and classes/castes and slavery and bowing to anyone as if they were better than us. We want to hold our heads high, no matter our income, and speak out for truth and justice. If money is power and power damages the brain, our duty as ordinary citizens is even more important than we realized.
The only thing allowing money to corrupt, allowing power to disengage from compassion, is our failure to speak up. Each and every citizen in a democracy has a responsibility to be educated, aware, and to praise the parts that are working, expose the damaging bits, and be willing to carry a share of the weight to make everything work, with or without money. I don't have money, but I have a voice.
The United States is on a collision course to failure. Mankind is on a collision course to extinction. We can change these paths, but we can't do it sitting around musing over the mess. We have to take some steps, or make a call, or write a check, or join a team. We have to serve a meal, share a room, complain about excessive packaging. It doesn't really matter what action any one of us takes -- if we all do SOMETHING, we can change the world.
Susie Snortum is passionate about improving society's compassion for meeting basic human needs -- food, shelter, clean water, and dignity.