“You have a driver’s license”: On the limits of empathy

Social workers talk a lot about ‘meeting clients where they are’. And, as a community organizer and a social worker who believes in the transformative power of radical solidarity alongside those with whom we have the honor to work, I talk with students and colleagues a lot about the importance of staying rooted in the lives of those whom we serve, about shaping policy with an understanding of their realities, about navigating the differences that divide us from those with whom we work, about elevating their voices in the political process.

And, yet, sometimes I’m reminded, poignantly, of the limits of these efforts to bring our professional selves into a fuller understanding of the realities of our clients’ lives, realities that, for them, are not ‘grassroots’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘compelling’, but just ‘life’–hard, sometimes sad, sometimes joyful, often complex, life.

I read Jacqueline Novogratz’s book The Blue Sweater last fall. (I recommend it; she tells a very moving and very human story about how we often fail our way to succeeding in working well with vulnerable populations very different than we are, and I appreciated her honesty and courage and vision in telling this story and in building the social enterprise that she has created to address poverty around the world). She has a couple of kind of ‘punched in the gut’ paragraphs relating to this idea of the impossibility of really “getting it” in terms of working in solidarity with people in poverty, particularly in the developing world.

One is when she’s reading about the erupting genocide in Rwanda, a place where she lived for several years. Reading the headlines from the safety of her subway train in New York City, she remembers a conversation with a Rwandan woman who commented on how expatriates come and never stay. I can imagine her smiling knowingly at Jacqueline’s protestations about the commitment of foreign aid workers (like herself) to the country. Yes, she would think, but you have the safety of those foreign passports. You’re here by choice. And you’ll never really know.

She deals with a similar moral quandry when buying food for a celebration; her friend selects two $60 bottles of champagne and Jacqueline hesitates, since that’s more than most Rwandans earned in a year at that time. She comes to realize, though, that she can’t deny the privilege that is a part of her mere existence, and that consumer decisions are only a superficial part of that. “Most precious of all were our passports that would allow us to leave the country whenever we wanted and our sense of empowerment that led us to believe we could accomplish the impossible. The challenge wasn’t whether to buy a couple of bottles of champagne; it was instead not to take our privilege for granted…” (p. 102)–for the record, I wouldn’t have bought the champagne!, but she makes an important point about the real work, which is confronting our own nature as outsiders, and figuring out how to be truly helpful to those we intend, from this vantage point outside, to help.

All of that reminded me of one of my own moments of realization. I was engaged in a fairly hot debate with immigrant leaders and some other advocates about whether or not to accept a proposal for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants if they would be in some way distinguishable from the licenses available to U.S. citizens. In my indignation over this affront to the basic dignity of the community with which I work, and my legitimate fear about the profiling and harrassment that could stem from such a labeling, I was arguing fairly forcefully for a political response that would reject ‘second-class citizenship’ and insist on full rights to identification.

We went back and forth, all of us, talking about the alternatives and the strategies for moving forward, and I’d like to think that I made some impassioned pleas for solidarity and building a movement for social justice, and not settling for a non-solution.

And then.

One of the undocumented immigrant women leaders with whom I had worked closely for a few years already at that point put her arm very gently on my shoulder. She leaned in so that she could speak quietly. And she said,

“Melinda, ya tienes tu licencia.” Melinda, you already have a driver’s license.

That’s all she said. And she smiled, very slightly, when she said it, as if to say, “hija, I know that you mean well. But this is not your fight. You can’t walk our walk. And you can’t pretend to know what we know. So it’s not. your. call.”

That exchange (you can’t even call it a conversation; I was pretty much silenced immediately as I sat chastising myself) has stuck with me. It led me to take some positions, as an advocate, that I found strategically (although not ethically) objectionable or unwise. It led me to make some very politically unpopular statements and even to alienate some people in power whom I had previously considered friends. Because every time I felt a bit entitled, because, you know, I was sacrificing a lot of my time, and my personal life, and even my mental health at times, to fight these fights, and even though I was roundly embraced by the community as though I was one of them, ya tenía mi licencia.

And so I couldn’t really say.

Here’s to never forgetting what we don’t know.

3 responses to ““You have a driver’s license”: On the limits of empathy

  1. Thanks for the “kick in the you-know-what.” While we social workers often present ourselves as being empathetic, and believing in self-determination, starting where the client/consumer is, I am guilty of thinking I know and can “feel” what I do not or cannot possibly know or feel.

    I am often reminded of what Socrates discovered while questioning everyone he could find to determine why the Oracle of Delphi had dubbed him the wisest man in Athens. No one could give him a satisfactory answer, but, instead, they all pretended to know something they clearly did not.

    And, thus, Socrates realized he was the wisest man in Athens because he alone was prepared to admit his own ignorance rather than pretend to know something he did not.

    • Thanks, Cookie. I value your insights so much, because I have so much respect for you as a person and a social worker. There is SO much that we don’t know, and perhaps almost as much that we can’t, and, you’re right–recognizing that is the key to conveying to those with whom we have the honor to work the sincerity of our intent to walk authentically beside them, always with the understanding that we can’t really be in their shoes.

  2. Pingback: Anniversary Week: My favorites! | Classroom to Capitol

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