What we can(‘t) ignore

My summer course, Poverty in the Global Economy, started this week.

Perhaps unlike most faculty, I really like teaching in the summer. I feel like students are a little less tense about grades, maybe, in June, and the longer class periods allow us uninterrupted time to study topics in detail.

And I appreciate the opportunity to journey with students, pushing their knowledge beyond their comfort level and, more importantly, helping them to integrate these new understandings into their social work practice.

It should be another rewarding month.

One of the books that I read as I prepared this particular course was Creating Room to Read, the founder’s memoir about leaving his corporate job to start a global charity focused on increasing literacy in the developing world.

One of the reflections that struck me was this:

There are social problems–crippling, devastating, completely unjust social problems–that we don’t really even see.

Like 200 million girls not going to school, largely because they are girls (p. 21).

And that has me thinking about visibility and proximity, about why global poverty is such a literally foreign concept to my students, even when they are fairly familiar with much of the U.S. social policy context, and about what it means for our chances of combating these social ills, this fact that we don’t really perceive them.

It can’t be, I don’t believe, just an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing. Not for my students, many of whom are very concerned about homeless veterans or victims of sex trafficking, for example, even if they don’t have much personal contact with those populations.

It can’t be pure access to information, since we have more information at our disposal, about global poverty or anything else, than we can possibly comprehend.

So is it a function of the scale the problem and the scope of our potential response, and how we avert our eyes from that which we find overwhelming? Is it a willful ignorance, not because we don’t care but because we are trying to cope with limited resources and an abundance of pressing needs? Is it a self-conscious desire not to intrude upon others’ realities, in an effort to avoid harmful paternalism? Is it an emotional allegiance to those we perceive as being ‘like’ us, and a greater distancing from those we do not?

One of the foundations of this summer course is the idea of interdependence and the reality that we are affected, in ways immediately visible and distantly imagined, by these problems we studiously ignore. From terrorist attacks to infectious disease to environmental strains to shared prosperity and the promise of gender equality, what we don’t attend to elsewhere has a way of coming home.

My students and I will spend our June not ignoring those 200 million girls, or the women who die in childbirth, or the highly unfair trade rules that the United States negotiated for itself.

We’ll fix our eyes on what is often unseen, listen to voices seldom heard, and attend to action regularly left undone.

What are you doing this summer?

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3 responses to “What we can(‘t) ignore

  1. Audra Kenneson

    Hi Melinda. I’ve not been able to take the time to read your blogs and today I took the time to read this one and I’m glad I did. You know, as I ponder why we don’t know about some of these situations, I have to wonder – are we just too overwhelmed to dig for more – more disparity, more poverty, more injustice. It feels, to me, like I am often so focused on the injustices that are right in front of me – the ones on which I spend my time, energy, and soul searching to try to address – that I don’t feel like I have time to learn more about injustices in other places.

    I know that there are people who are focused on working in other areas and I think I had to come to a place where I think – if I hear someone speak about it, find an interested read about it, see it posted somewhere on the internet, I will stop and take that information in. But do I go seek that information? Not really. Why? Honestly, because sometimes it’s just too much.

    We are so often drained doing what we can for who we can, that seeking out the others who we cannot even begin to comprehend how to fix their situation, that we may feel like it’s better not to “look under that rock” because we KNOW someone else is working on it.

    Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe I’m wrong. But TODAY… that’s where my mind is on that topic. Thank you for the thoughtful topic and I will try to look in more to your blog. I forgot how it energizes me.

    • Audra, it is a DELIGHT to hear from you! I do think that our ‘burnout’–even if it doesn’t necessarily fit that clinical definition–plays a huge role in this, as does mission drift; we can’t run the risk that we take our eyes off the balls we have in the air. But I find that my spirit is more fed if I feel that I’m being at least as good a global citizen as I can be, which means, for me, engaging even in issues that aren’t my primary responsibility. I think the challenge is to build communities that sustain us so that we can overturn some rocks, and know that we’ll find not only undiscovered problems but also talented and courageous people addressing them…and to create a level of comfort with knowing that we don’t have to 100% champion everything that we do care about (which means having a framework of advocacy broad enough to encompass a variety of arenas and levels of action). And, of course, we also have to recognize when we just need a break, because otherwise nothing is going to seem doable. It is wonderful to hear from you and always terrific to get your insights. I miss you!

  2. Audra Kenneson

    Excellent point! I miss you as well!

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