I was working out in McKeesport yesterday for Planned Parenthood/Wolf For Governor, and realized a few things as I was talking to residents:
1. McKeesport is not Pittsburgh.
2. Half of the neighborhood consisted of abandoned structures.
3. I am privileged.
Wait. I, a 24 year old that has to regularly hustle (and hustle hard) just to make a living, am privileged? I take public transportation everywhere, I budget shop at Aldi, and I’m privileged? My bank account is so anemic that it requires iron pills to survive, and I am privileged?
Yes. This story will prove it.
I was speaking with a resident for the campaign yesterday evening about issues of import – business as usual. She said to me that she was surprised that I came “all the way” up to her house to speak with her. She wasn’t used to people caring about her opinions enough to make the long trek to see her. As a result of my persistence in climbing a steep flight of steps in McKeesport just to speak to this woman, she asked for more information on the Wolf campaign (as you can imagine, I was overjoyed!). When I left, I felt pleased at her kind words, grateful that my work was paying off, and thoughtful as to why she felt the way that she did. Then it hit me.
In our supposedly democratic system, we are governed by the assumption that everyone’s vote holds equal importance (in other words, one vote = one vote). That’s a logically sound assumption, by all accounts – but that’s not typically how the process plays out. For Planned Parenthood & the Wolf For Governor campaign, we generally make an effort to travel to many different types of neighborhoods, regardless of the socioeconomic background of the residents. However, it is readily apparent that neighborhoods like Ross Township and Shaler Township tell a different tale than, say, Homewood or McKeesport. For one, residents in these wealthier neighborhoods are used to being asked for their opinions and their money because, well, money. They are used to feeling included and like they’re important in the grand scheme of our democratic process. It is always fascinating for me, coming from a blue-collar background, to walk around these wealthier neighborhoods and look at the nice houses/cars that surround me for the four hours that I am communicating with residents.
It is equally fascinating for me to walk around less wealthy neighborhoods because it gives me pause. What actually causes this disparity in lifestyles? Is it a lack of pride by residents? Or, does that pride exist, but it is masked by a strong veneer of apathy due to the fact that residents feel consistently ignored by their elected officials and major media outlets? One thing that I’ve come to learn is that what you do is irrelevant; how people feel & how they perceive your actions is everything. And through my various positions of employment the past couple of years, I’ve come to see that residents of less wealthy areas feel slighted, and for good reason.
All I tend to know about places like Homewood & McKeesport is what most everyone else does: crime and tragedy. For this reason, I typically have a personal bias against working in certain neighborhoods; this bias is usually dissipated once I get to have conversations with residents. I’ve noticed that residents in neighborhoods of lower socioeconomic status are just like everyone else: they work hard to support their families, they want their kids to be successful in life, and they eat dinner together as a family unit. But most importantly, they want to be seen as equals by the rest of society, and that’s something that society is failing miserably at doing.
In a sense, I am admitting my own guilt in “believing the hype” that the news media puts out on a regular basis. I live in Highland Park, one of the wealthier neighborhoods in Pittsburgh (though I am nowhere close to being wealthy yet 😁😁 ). I am less than a stone’s throw away from Starbucks, Whole Foods, Target, and beautiful green spaces. Most of my friends live on this side of town; I absolutely love living on Pittsburgh’s East End. Sometimes I wish that I could curl up in my beautiful enclave and pretend that these societal imbalances do not exist. It’d be really easy for me to do so. You know, go to a nice coffee shop with WiFi or a nice brunch spot and drink orange juice from a wine glass (they do this at E2 in Highland Park).
But I can’t.
After two years of doing AmeriCorps programs and working my current campaign position, I can no longer be blissfully ignorant to the ills that exist within the broader community. I can no longer “not pay attention” just because something doesn’t affect me. One can’t unsee what one has seen, try as (s)he might. I may not come from a wealthy background, but I am privileged beyond measure for a number of reasons. The main reason is this:
I carry with me the privilege of being able to choose whether or not to pay attention to the existence of inequality.