Ella Baker, an African-American civil rights and human rights activist, whose career spanned over five decades was noted as saying, ““Oppressed people, whatever their level of formal education, have the ability to understand and interpret the world around them, to see the world for what it is, and move to transform it.” If we accept this to be true, which most of us social justice advocates do, then why are long-term residents disenfranchised and often not consulted. Why do “preferred developers,” community redevelopment funds, and port authorities have the final say of what happens to the urban landscape?
It appears, at least to me, that the power to decide what is best for more than 48% of the city is left to the top ten percent of the population. That means even though little under half the city is living in poverty, public and private development is being managed with the upper half of society in mind. This takes the form of upscale dining, expensive boutiques, private parties on public land, and rising housing prices. Don’t even get me started on the consumption of public space by private organizations (I am looking at you outcroppings and gated off parks).
There seems to be an idea that formal education and credentials gives one-person expertise over another. We, as citizens, are lead to believe that my neighbors experience living in Over-the-Rhine for over 30 years during all the changes is not as valuable (maybe economically strategic is a better word), as a developer who saw the potential of our neighborhood during a bar crawl, pedal-wagon, beer tour, etc. From this perspective, we are short-sighted and uneducated about the value of our “home,” so it is only “logical” that we should entrust our best interest to these developers, many of them from out of state or outside the city. This is something that I see in many classrooms, meetings, and speaking engagements. There individuals who fervently study racism, social inequalities and issues of injustice to better understand its impact, and others who live it every day. When they get into discussions about solutions to systems of oppression, the conversation turns into “who knows best” contest. Should we value the individual with the resources to study the problem from the outside, or do we value the emic view, or insider’s perspective, due to their actual lived experiences with the corruptive system? This is a common question for many scholars, academics and social justice leaders.
To value someone’s perspective, we must be ready to acknowledge the things we don’t know and can’t understand. There are things you can learn in the books. And, there are things that you learn in the streets. It can also be said that in order to value the knowledge of others, we must be able to imagine walking in their shoes. Many of us call this act empathy. But, what does empathy have to do with rational, systematic thinking. Well, empathy is a tool to open your mind to other perspectives. This does not mean that you have to actually try to think like them, but consider the impact of your actions and words. In action, this looks like door to door marketing about proposed plans and remodels. This means having a safety meeting at a community school so you can engage parents who work multiple jobs. This means taking surveys at all the CRC’s to find out the rate of youth who can swim, then decide accordingly whether spray grounds will actually give kids a needed physical fitness skill. Yes, it means a lot of work. But, when you use empathy correctly, all the work is not on one person. It is shared with the community. That is how you accomplish shared interest and concern. And, I imagine that is what everyone wants out of life. Someone to share their concern and work towards finding solutions to everyday issues.