I am only one month into an internship with a mental healthcare agency serving South Los Angeles communities such as Lynwood and Compton, and as I heard a political speech in which the impoverished individuals in this nation were referred to as undignified “takers,” I am here to decompose and shed myself of that toxic paradigm.
I was having a discussion with my supervisor yesterday about how the media often portrays South Los Angeles as being full of gangs, violence, poverty and corruption. Although it is true that within these areas there is a greater percentage of homelessness, poverty, and criminal activity, those aspects should not define it. There are grandparents, parents, children, students, optimists, pessimists, realists, writers, and artists. There are athletes, teachers, business owners and people who love to cook. I am discovering how South Los Angeles is made up of an incredibly vast array of humanity. There is a great deal of attraction towards viewing the area through the lens of the media, however the majority of people who are Caucasian and/or have a higher economic status, will often only experience these areas behind a movie and television screen. If I am to be honest with myself, I must admit that this portrayal was partially why I wanted to intern in the area. I found the idea exciting. Through exposure to these different communities, instead of viewing them just through the lens of the media, I am gaining a more realistic perspective.
As I go out into the field to visit clients, my exposure and experiences have been very eye opening. It also raises a lot of questions such as: why are these areas predominantly black and Hispanic and how has racism shaped the communities? I think about the idea of the “American dream,” and how there is a glass ceiling that doesn’t allow everyone to achieve this dream. Before the Great Depression in 1929, it was religious institutions that deemed who were the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor of receiving social services. If you were physically capable of working, sometimes just by inquiring, you would be thrown in jail. After the Great Depression hit, and everyone was in the same boat, that sort of thinking changed. In our current society, you often hear of who is worthy and unworthy of receiving assistance, and the idea that you need to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and get it together. I am discovering that there are many oppressive elements that make it incredibly challenging. As a very individualistic society, there is a mentality that can be found in this country that believes certain groups of people are dispensable. I think about the notion that the United States is a democratic nation, yet we aren’t always congruent with these ideals. A professor of mine once talked about how to truly be a democratic nation, there must be a level playing field, which does not exist within our country. I do not take for granted the freedom, opportunities and blessings that I have as a citizen of the United States, but as a “truth seeker”, I believe that these questions and realities must be faced and understood. I have realized that racism is so embedded in society that you have to dive in and explore these realities to truly understand what racism is. So far, I have only scratched the surface.
As I look into the eyes of the South Los Angeles community members, I do not see undignified “takers.” I see the profound impact of the toxic ideology that our society has had in oppressing and pigeonholing the less fortunate members of our community. It is in these moments, when societal barriers are down and I can truly see another individual, that I feel the most connected to myself. Whether it is with our clients who struggle with mental health, our diverse group of staff members, or the communities at large, I know that the moment I can no longer see a part of myself in another human being, I am not looking deep enough.