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Monday, October 3, 2011

The ‘us’ of America

Some of my best friends are___________!

You are part of a minority. Fill in the blank here – it could be gay, black, Mexican, hearing impaired, dyslexic, divorced, tone deaf…anything. The implication, of course, is that, while clearly you are a member of a negatively-perceived group, the speaker wants you to know that he/she thinks that you’re all right in spite of this.

Some of my best friends are poor!

Have you ever heard anyone say this? I haven’t. In fact, I think most of us would think it gauche to utter such a thing (actually, it’s gauche to utter any of the some of my best friends are… statements as well, but that’s a musing for another blog).

How, then, would we – should we – increase the acceptance of low-income individuals and families as valued and valuable members of our society? We certainly know how to demonize the poor – in television shows, on the news, in political posturing. Do we know how to un-demonize? I’d say not.

Has public opinion shifted over time with regard to Italian-Americans (mobsters), Irish-Americans (drunk cops), Gay-Americans (angry/flamboyant), Disabled-Americans (pathetic/grotesque), Immigrant-Americans (unintelligent, parasitic), Black-Americans (dangerous/unmotivated)? To some extent. Unfortunately, though, the overall answer is that those stereotypes and judgments continue to linger. We’ve made some progress, but not as much as one might hope.

If progress in changing public opinion for the better is so incremental and so painfully slow, it seems to be sadly easier to change it for the worse. Look at how our country turned on Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. Think about the Willie Horton story. Similarly, in the last 30 years, our national perception of poor Americans has shifted. General public discourse now holds that these people are undeserving, lazy, unscrupulous, and cannot be trusted to improve their own lives and those of their families.

On the whole, we seem to have bought it – hook, line and sinker. We’ve come to view workfare as preferable to welfare, since it forces those lazy welfare moms to get up, get dressed, and get a job. We’ve come to believe that subsidized childcare is better than stay-at-home parenting because poor parents should be earning their keep. We’ve come to believe that poverty is not an unfortunate and temporary situation but reflects indelible character flaws.

So how do we turn the tide of popular sentiment? How can we promote inclusion of individuals and families living in low-income situations in the “us” of America? Remember the United Colors of Benetton? Their billboards were like the Noah’s ark of retail advertising. We were drawn in by the happiness, the glow, the togetherness of the young people in those ads. We wanted to be near them, to associate ourselves with them, to be them

Individuals living in poverty and in low-income situations look, of course, like everyone looks. How would you show them in a Benetton ad? Some of the most poignant of all American photography was, of course, that of Dorothea Lange whose photographs of the Great Depression moved even the most stolid of hearts. Those images, however, elicited pity and hopelessness from viewers, rather than empathy and respect. The passive subjects were silent and unidentified, left mired in their dire situations. In fact, one quote attributed to a now-adult family member of one of Lange’s subjects asserts: “That photo may well have saved some peoples' lives, but I can tell you for certain, it didn't save ours." (Open Photography, 2011)

Here at Benevolent, we intend to put the control in the hands of those who have their own stories to tell, photos to share, and needs to meet. We believe that by providing the right medium, a respectful context, and an opportunity for people in tough situations to seek help in taking important next steps along the path out of their current situations and to greater sustainability, we can help change Americans’ impression of those whose lives are touched by need and who strive to change their circumstances.

Benevolent will make it possible for ordinary Americans to ‘meet’ people who need help. We believe that hearing the stories of individuals striving to take the next step, we can shift opinions, touch hearts, and deliver direct help to our fellow Americans – our friends -- whose stories bear telling and whose efforts deserve celebration.

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