Inquiry versus Insult (redux)

Smoke billows from an Oldsmobile as it idles at the stop light. Rust populates the fender, the muffler is held up by a wire hanger, and the protective plastic strip along the driver’s side door is popped out. Another car pulls up. Daylight dances on the chrome and the paint glistens. In the Olds, a little kid in the backseat presses his face against the small portal hole of a window to take a closer look. With an effortless touch of a button, the shiny car’s window smoothly opens. A woman appears and begins pointing her finger at the Olds. The driver of the Olds grips his window’s handle crank and muscles it down. “Excuse me” she says.  “Did you know that your car is smoking?” Before an answer is given, the little kid turns his attention towards me. His eyes are full of fire. “You have no right!” he hisses.

With those words, my eyes popped open. I was three days into the Two Dollar Challenge. I had been limiting my income to $2 a day, sleeping in a make-shift shelter with my students for the past two nights, and adhering to a number of other rules meant to assist us in gaining a deeper understanding of the economic lives of the poor.

Over the years, I have had numerous occasions to question the appropriateness of the Two Dollar Challenge. Suyapa’s surprise visit to my classroom is the most indelible. My students and I were reviewing the rules when she opened the door. After an exchange of smiles and a hug, she took a seat and I continued on with the review. About half way through, my eyes caught her eyes. I fumbled my words at the “inappropriateness” of the situation. Suyapa was a young woman from Honduras. More than likely, someone very close to her was living on $2 a day. And, here before her sat a group of students groaning about having to boil their water before consuming it. The heat of my embarrassment made me perspire. I raced through the review to bring it all to an end.

Suyapa and I never talked about her feelings regarding the Two Dollar Challenge. Honestly, I was too scared to bring it up. Did it insult her? Did she think it was inappropriate? I thought I could run away from those questions. I was wrong.

My younger self would not allow it. His pointed comment – “You have not right!” – had just startled me from my sleep. Staring at the tarp, I thought, No more running. I laid my head back down on the cardboard floor, closed my eyes, and I drifted back to the scene at the stop light.

Without missing a beat, his piercing comments came rapidly and successively.

“Look at the professor and his students playing poverty.”

“Look at them with their lap tops, i-pods, and smart phones.”

“Wealth, privilege and power drips off of all of you.”

“How can you claim to be advocates of the poor?”

“You have no right.”

“This whole thing insults me.”

His words felt like body blows. I wanted to wake up and flee. But, instead, I engaged him.

“Are we playing poverty?” I asked. “Yes. We know it.”

“Do we present an incomplete image of poverty with our shelters made of tarps, cardboard boxes and broken furniture?” Once again, I said “Yes”.

“We create a spectacle and then proceed to blog, post and tweet about our experience. We get interviewed. We get our pictures taken. We are built up (by some) as something special.”

“I imagine that this can be insulting.”

“If you know this,” he jumped back in, “why do you continue to do it?”

“All of those things that insult you are the things that non-participants can only observe from the outside. There is so much more.”

“Inside the Two Dollar Challenge – as a participant – there is something special happening.”

“It gives us an opportunity to exercise empathy. It could be when we find ourselves in a crowded check-out line without enough money to pay for groceries. For a few moments, we have the opportunity to feel the unease of having to send items back. It could be when we come upon a sign outside of a church that reads “Could you use a fresh change of clothes? A shower? A hot meal served-family style?” For a few moments, we have the opportunity to say YES to all those questions.”

“We learn that simulated poverty is difficult enough. Real poverty…the kind of poverty that grinds away at you day-in and day-out…the kind of poverty without an expiration date…that kind of poverty, we learn is beyond our comprehension. This humbles us.”

“By creating a shared experience, by creating a shared space at the shelters, we create a community. When you complement that community with continuous discussions and readings likeIvan Illich, we learn that we are not always wanted. We learn to doubt our role in bringing global poverty to an end.”

“Why do I continue to do it?”  I asked.

“I am a teacher.”

“I know of no other educational tool that can…”

Before I could complete my sentence, the light turned green. The shiny car pulled away swiftly. The Olds jolted forward in fits and starts. The little kid gazed up at me through the rear window as I was pulled back into the realm of consciousness. I awoke not fully at ease.

I am still not fully at ease.

Is the Two Dollar Challenge appropriate? I do not know.

Does it have the ability to insult others? Yes.

Does it have the ability to give participants a necessary dose of empathy, humility and doubt? Yes.

Maybe, just maybe, being at unease with the Two Dollar Challenge is where I am suppose to be and should always be.

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)

Postscript: This post was originally published on 3/18/2013. Yet, as I write, I am currently participating in the Two Dollar Challenge with my students. And, even though this is my eighth year of joining them (fully) in this experiential learning exercise, I can still say that I am still in a place of unease.

If you liked this blog, you may like other blogs in my “Do’s and Don’ts for Do-Gooders” series.

7 Responses to “Inquiry versus Insult (redux)

  • Shawn, this is a subject full of unease. Thanks for being uneasy and bringing so many others with you on the journey.

  • Shawn,

    Thanks for the post. If we’re not feeling some sense of unease, we’re not challenging the status quote enough, or we’re not asking ourselves enough questions. This is the nature of our work…

  • Great post, Shawn. I admit that in my older age I’ve been a good deal more critical of the appropriateness of TDC than I once was, and I think anyone should be, but I still think it’s justified by both empathy and visibility. Empathy because poverty isn’t an immutable characteristic and can be simulated to some basic extent, and visibility because it draws the attention of the campus and beyond. The really insidious thing about poverty is how invisible it is in our world, and while the generally privileged demographic at UMW makes the project pretty jarring to senses of propriety, I think Shin’s absolutely right that unease is essential here. Invisibility is the status quo, and better to challenge that uncomfortably than comfortably continue on as usual.

  • I really like what you say about the discomfort you feel being part of the experience. One thing I’m working my way round to realizing is that a teaching tool is just that: a teaching tool. You’ve been doing this for many years, and you have seen its effectiveness, and I can’t argue against the results!
    I think one thing I’d be interested (in a hypothetical way… you’re on the ground actually doing this; I’m only armchair theorizing) in would be a follow-up with folks who you’ve sensitized in this way, to get them to go deeper–though that would have to be tailored to a particular place (since how poverty manifests is different in different places). By go deeper, I’m thinking about seeing how people *do* cope–not with the intention of making them feel “oh, so I don’t need to worry about them after all–they’re coping,” but with the intention of giving them a sense of respect for the ingenuity and effort of the people in the the situation, and also the strengths of the local society, in how it helps its members.
    As you said in the essay I liked so much, a kid without shoes on may just not want to wear shoes. Sometimes the things that feel like hardships to a college student in the US aren’t the things that most bother someone in X village in X community. (To take an example from a well-off, but different, country: in Tokyo in the 1990s, lots of homes didn’t have central heating, in spite of the fact that it got below freezing in the winter. You might have a kerosine space heater, or a kotatsu table (a low table with a heating unit under it and a blanket put over it–the heat collects under the blanket, and if you have your legs under there, it’s toasty warm). Lack of central heating just wasn’t seen as a hardship. So it definitely helps to pay attention to what people themselves see as the hardship in their life. I know *you* know this, but I think it’s a great next step for people who’ve become sensitized to their privilege to take.

    • BluCollarProf
      2 years ago

      Thank you. Thank you for this comment!

      “Lack of central heating just wasn’t seen as a hardship. So it definitely helps to pay attention to what people themselves see as the hardship in their life.”

      You see things and articulate things that I cannot. Thank you for making me better! – shawn

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