PERCEPTIONS AND REALITIES
By John Berry, Chief Executive Officer, St. Vincent de Paul of Georgia
In my last Thought Leaders column two weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that if we do not communicate we cannot understand. And if we do not understand we cannot help. Often, we allow the perceptions and prejudices that we have about people in situations of poverty, dependence, and need to cloud our judgement and impact how we try and support them.
There are, of course, parallels in this to how we use prejudice and bias in practicing racial, gender, religious, and other forms of discrimination. In all cases we take our perceptions of peoples motives, needs, understanding, intellect, and ability and we allow them to cloud our judgement of what they are capable of or what we can do to ‘fix’ their problem. In the case of discrimination based on racism, misogyny, homophobia, or cultural bias there is an evil behind those prejudices. But in the case of how we deal with the poor, these prejudices and biases are often rooted in a misguided sense of benevolence and desire to do good.
We must be especially careful of those benevolent perceptions and prejudices because they do not inherently appear to be wrong. After all, what could possibly be wrong with trying to help someone in need?
The answer is that solutions that are not rooted in an understanding of the path that that person has walked to get to the situation they are in can be demotivating, ineffective, and cruel. Two weeks ago, I cited an example of providing work to a single Mother but not providing child care options. But think of an even more personal example of how our encouragement and advice can, in fact, be counterproductive. How effective would encouragement and advice (and even incentives) to a child to stay in school be if that child had grown up in abject poverty and his or her experience in prior school environments had been an environment of constant bullying and physical abuse by fellow students because his clothes were out of fashion hand-me-downs, her teeth were bad for having never been to a dentist, or they had been unable to bath because they lived in a car and therefore carried a body odor? How impactful would setting an aspirational goal of working be to someone whose life experience had been seeing their parents toiling in backbreaking minimum wage jobs and still being unable to provide for their needs?
These are real examples of real people. They come to us every day. We need to listen to them, understand their realities, and then try and work with them to devise solutions. We need to put our perceptions aside when we commit to work with those who have not walked the same path in life that we have. Because our realities are only our realities. To try and project them on others is wrong.