Why move to da ‘hood? This question is difficult to answer. In order to move beyond a superficial explanation for my reasons, a shared understanding of the vocabulary is required. Additionally, a cursory understanding of Liberation Theology would also be helpful. Obviously, not everyone that I encounter shares these understandings, so I end up offering several explanations, each with increasing complexity.
The most basic explanation that I offer is an appreciation for diversity. I appreciate learning from others who have had vastly different experiences from my own experience. I enjoy trying to understand the way they see things. My worldview expands as I am able to understand the perspective of others whose experiences have been essentially different from my own. It’s true that I appreciate this, and this factor did play a part in me moving to Woodlawn. Therefore, I offer it as a superficial explanation. However, this is a shallow and problematic explanation for several reasons. For one, I could easily find such diversity in “better” neighborhoods or locations. Moving to Seoul would allow me to experience more diversity in a much safer environment. Moving to Woodlawn seems reckless if this is my primary motivation. Secondly, this is a rather egocentric, selfish reason to do something. This explanation has no explicit action attached to it whereby I can invest or give back to my community. It’s all about me learning, growing and expanding my worldview. With this explanation alone, my actions become an interesting experiment that I conduct to benefit myself. While those whom I encounter may learn and grow likewise through my interactions with them, this is more a byproduct of this explanation than a purpose of it. Furthermore, who is to say that my host community in this instance wants or needs these byproducts? The needs of my community are a non-factor in this explanation, and Woodlawn doesn’t need any more parasites. This isn’t just some cool social experiment for me. So this reason suffices as an elevator speech explanation, but fails much beyond a superficial introduction to the idea.
A second explanation which I offer builds and greatly expands upon the first. I moved to Woodlawn, because I think it’s ridiculous that Chicago (or anywhere in the U.S.) is so segregated and that the South Side gets the shaft. I moved there to challenge the conventional model and the status quo. This explanation goes one level deeper, not only in how radical it is, but also in how it reflects my worldview and outlook. By choosing to live in Woodlawn, I have the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the social issues that plague a neighborhood like mine. I learn by experience how issues like gangs, drugs and poverty affect a community. I am then able to contrast those experiences with my own experiences in communities where the effects of these issues were diminished or negligible.
By moving to Woodlawn, I accepted that such issues would now impact me on a personal level. They would no longer be statistics in a newspaper or topics in a book. I can now attach faces to issues. I can attach memories and experiences to them. These connections between societal issues and personal experiences will grant me deeper understanding. This understanding will enable me to speak to and criticize the dominant culture with credibility. Charity and philanthropy are almost always well-intentioned by the giver and needed by the receiver, but charity will always only ever be a band-aid. It is as Walter Bruggeman said in his book The Prophetic Imagination:
Quite clearly, the one thing the dominant culture cannot tolerate or co-opt is compassion, the ability to stand in solidarity with the victims of the present order. It can manage charity and good intentions, but it has no way to resist solidarity with pain and grief. So the structures of competence and competition stand helpless before the one who groaned the groans of those who are hurting. And in their groans they announce the end of the dominant social world.
This explanation much more accurately reflects my motives and intentions for living in Woodlawn. It’s not as selfish and parasitic as the first explanation. Nevertheless, it has some flaws (or at least potential trouble areas). While I deeply subscribe to the concepts of Liberation Theology, certain aspects of it need to be very carefully balanced. For example, there are issues associated with being labeled as oppressors or oppressed which can be problematic if not handled correctly.
As one who generally falls in the oppressor camp (white, straight, American, middle class, college-educated male), I find that it’s easy to experience White Guilt when I become aware of how I have oppressed others. Liberation Theology doesn’t always address healthy ways to deal with these complicated emotions. I would guess–although I don’t claim to know–that the oppressed would have to struggle to overcome psychological and social challenges as well.
The other aspect of Liberation Theology that is troublesomely difficult for me to balance is when the oppressor relinquishes her or his power. This is the other side of the coin to white guilt. Well-intentioned practitioners of Liberation Theology may end up viewing themselves as liberators. This mindset leads to the very hierarchies that they have struggled to shake off. For me in particular, seeing myself as a White Savior is a mental pitfall that I must struggle to avoid. Of course, Liberation Theology advocates neither of these pitfalls (white guilt or white savior), but keeping a healthy balance between the two is often difficult in practice.
Perhaps the best explanation I can give that is inclusive of all of my motivations is that I moved there out of a desire to identify with the other. This means encountering diversity. It means learning to see and understand things from someone else’s perspective. It means identifying with their struggle. It means taking on their struggle as mine and allowing them to reciprocate. It means apologizing, accepting apologies, seeking reconciliation and trying to love each other in the process. In doing these things, our moral consciousness expands. We all experience community with each other and can no longer demonize those who are different from us. This is good for all of us.
It’s the only way that I think of to fix our world. I don’t think change will come from the sidelines. I don’t think throwing lots of money at something will fix it. As Gandhi said, we must be the change we want to see in the world.