by Angela Owczarek, Washington, D.C. 15, New Orleans 14
Homelessness Outreach Coordinator, Georgetown University Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service
Fordham University 14
Talk given by Angela at the 2015 Ignatian Family Teach-In for Social Justice
Good Afternoon. My name is Angela, and last year, I spent much of my first year as a Jesuit Volunteer under the Interstate 10 in New Orleans, Louisiana, or the I-10 bridge, specifically where it cuts through the Treme neighborhood.
I was working with the Harry Tompson Center, which serves people experiencing homelessness in New Orleans. I spent a lot of my time under the I-10 bridge last year, as it stood between my bus stop and my work, and I often stopped to chat with clients there, who had the contents of their whole lives assembled around us: tents and lawn chairs, pieces of cardboard, tools for self-protection, precious photographs, books, clothes, signs of relationships and romance, bibles, and everything in between. Their lives “under the bridge” were often realities filled with violence, instability, hunger, and mental illness, and “under the bridge” is the most common answer I recorded as a place of residence in client intakes last year.
Thus, it is impossible for me to consider the experiences I’ve had thus far as a Jesuit Volunteer – for 12 months in New Orleans and for 3 months thus far in Washington, DC – without thinking about bridges – two in particular, the I-10 itself and a bridge I’ve more recently become acquainted with, the Interstate 66 connector, or the I-66, here in DC. It is also impossible for me to consider bridges, the theme of this year’s Teach-In, without thinking about the negatives of life under those bridges as known by my clients, people who experience homelessness. Three negatives about bridges as I know them strike me in a particular way as I consider the idea of bridge-building in a social justice sense at this year’s teach-in.
First, I see bridges as disruptors of life – many of my clients who lived under the I-10 last year once were housed and lived just blocks from the I-10 before it was ever built in the Treme neighborhood and divided the once-thriving enclave of jazz musicians and black families there down its center. Willie, a talkative client who often bragged about his potato salad recipe, loved to point to nearby street corners, visible in slices through the beams of the bridge from his section of sidewalk, and talk about the Oak trees that used to line the street or about the tiny restaurant his family had once owned before many businesses in the Treme closed after the I-10’s construction. The I-10 bridge had disrupted Willie’s place in the Treme, changing it from one rooted in family and tradition, lived out in stories and in homes, to one made up of relative anonymity, lived out on a cold slab of cement.
Second, I see bridges as things that hide the truth of poverty from people who sail by in cars above. As a Jesuit Volunteer with a limited budget and no driver’s license last year, I rarely found myself on the top side of the I-10, which overlooks the famous and beautiful Saint Louis cemetery, with its historic, above-ground graves, but one time I did was toward the end of the year in July when I was working to finally obtain my driver’s license. As my driving instructor Cynthia and I sailed up from street level onto our I-10 entrance, we passed some of my clients and my driving instructor commented on their laziness, dishonesty, and annoying persistence, not knowing that I knew them. Somehow, this bridge allowed Cynthia to feel separate from or in competition with my clients, even though both parties – my clients and Cynthia – shared with me similar stories of racism and economic oppression in the same city as we got to know each other.
Finally, I see bridges as large, permanent structures that do nothing to bring people closer together, and instead only keep things exactly where they are. A driver can exit off the I-10 directly to the New Orleans Superdome (where the New Orleans Saints play), and it is a more than yearly occurrence for portions under the I-10 to be cleared out of homeless encampments in anticipation of the large influx of visitors who come to New
Orleans for Saints season. The I-10 allows people to come into New Orleans, but does little to facilitate a sharing of resources beyond the most convenient of transactions. Similarly, the I-66 here in DC is not so different from the I-10, but because it sits over a large, grassy median and not a pedestrian street, no one walks under the I-66 without meaning to do so. Cars sail by on several connecting roads and highways all day long, but when outreach staff from my organization and I traipse through the grass there each week, I am fairly confident we are in the absolute minority of these thousands of daily passerby who bother to stop by and check in on the occupants of the more than ten tents that are set up there.
But, the play on words aside, do these features of physical bridges – their disruptive nature, their tendencies to obscure things from passerby, their ability to shuttle people in and out of spaces without genuine interaction – mean anything to me as I consider my own approach to bridge-building in a social justice sense? Does my uniquely complicated relationship with bridges have anything to teach me about the kind of bridges this teach-in is talking about (and I quote from yesterday’s opening remarks): “bridges between rich and poor, that establish advocacy links of mutual support?”
It’s been particularly important for me to consider this question about bridges as I have begun my second year of JVC. I now work in the Center for Social Justice at Georgetown University, coordinating homelessness outreach efforts. I focus on connecting students with one nearby drop-in center, the Georgetown Ministry Center, which provides basic services to its guests and also conducts street outreach with more service resistant clients, often found living under parts of the I-66.
As this year began, before I knew the theme of the teach-in, I often found myself explaining my job to people with the words, “I am trying to build bridges between Georgetown students and people experiencing homelessness.” But as I travel between
Georgetown’s campus and the places where the Georgetown Ministry Center reaches its clients, like under the I-66, I ask myself, “What kind of bridge building can actually benefit both Georgetown students and those living under this bridge?” I wrestle regularly with the answer to that question and with questions about what it means to transport students in and out of the spaces of those who are experiencing homelessness. In a room full of people who care about justice – about having a whole teachin for justice – I would like to ask you some of those questions.
My first question: What would it look like if my clients were at Georgetown sporting events, could use our library, or were in class alongside our students? What could this do to not only increase travel between the lives lived on Georgetown’s campus and the lives lived under the I-66 but to change the ways in which life was lived in both places? In other words – What do I teach my students when we build bridges whose traffic only flows in one direction – from our circles into ones we view as less privileged, but not back again?
My second question: What do I assume about Georgetown students when I think that a so-called bridge is needed for them to interact with people who are experiencing homelessness? Do I help to set in stone the stereotype that individuals who experience homelessness in their own lives are not on Jesuit college campuses – that these campuses are for people who want to talk about social justice, not also places for those experiencing social injustice? Whose experiences do I erase with this assumption?
A final question for now, though really just one more of the hundreds in my head deals with the idea of what services or goods I might assume that I should bring with me when I travel over bridges of social justice. At the start of this semester, I found myself advertising volunteer positions to students working at our drop-in center with the line, “Anyone with a strong listening ear is encouraged to apply!” It is true that Georgetown students will NEED to listen to the stories of those experiencing homelessness and that they will often do an amazing job at this. But it has also been my experience, that under the I-10 and the I-66, people experiencing homelessness often listen to each other’s needs with an understanding I may never be able to provide. This make me think: How can I support the community of those experiencing homelessness in supporting each other, instead of only bringing in my own ideas of what helping looks like? In other words – When do I bring things over bridges based on my assumptions about those who “live on the other side?”
I look forward to all of your insight about these questions and am grateful for the platform of this teach in and especially my participation in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps that I have the time, space, and privilege to ask these questions and to even work with my clients in the first place, whose voices are most important in determining the answers to these questions.
Without bridges, I am not sure what my JVC experience would look like – I would have to imagine a whole new landscape in which the past 15 months might have taken place, if not for under the I-10 and the I-66. But without a continued critical lens set on the kinds of bridges that I build in the work of social justice, I am not sure how quickly those very landscapes under the 1-10 and the 1-66, nor the lives of those who welcomed and still welcome me there will ever change, nor if mine will in response.