I had the pleasure of speaking at my daughter’s high school a couple of weeks ago in honor of the graduating seniors. I spoke to them in part about privilege. I asked each of them to look to the person to their right and then to their left. I told them that the faces of their classmates, including themselves, are the faces of privilege. Though my daughter attends a private school in which most of the families are affluent, many are not. Interestingly, most of us are fairly adept at pointing out the ways in which we feel others are more “fortunate” than we are and what they should be doing about it. But we, especially the young, are uncomfortable about discussing our own privilege. No one wants to be made to feel guilty about where they, for the most part, have landed from birth. Truth is, if you find yourself on American ground, you are more fortunate than somebody else. And so getting in touch with our own privilege is, I think, an important part of growing up.
One of the characteristics of privilege is that we often are not aware of the degree to which we enjoy our privilege. We are mostly blind to it. This is true even in our activism. Those of us who have the luxury to stand back and survey where things are going wrong, and then talk about the issues and even raise money to fix them-- we have to be aware that the ability to take a step back and then to take the time and resources to act—these are luxuries.
The folks who are without resources in time, money, contacts and influence to address the social, political and environmental issues that affect their lives, live under siege. The single mother whose job is the only income support for her family does not have the luxury to engage in the working-mother-vs.-stay-at-home-mother debate or even the work-life-balance discussion. She does not have the option to stay at home, and she does not have the time or the money to achieve the life balance (even if we could figure out what that is…)
Families caught in generational cycles of poverty and poor quality education, often lack the tools and access to take on the political and social barriers to liberate their children toward better life possibilities. Poor families who occupy the most toxic parts of the city, for example, do not just have pollution and its ill-effects to deal with. They have school drop-out issues, joblessness, nutrition and access to decent grocery outlets, crime and violence, no healthcare… The list of big picture problems and worries for the poor goes on and on. How do you maintain a congressional lettering-writing campaign or protest blog, raise money for a non-profit or march on Washington when you are constantly in crisis mode?
I am not excusing the most challenged in our society from taking action. Everyone has a responsibility to speak out, vote and defend their family’s well-being. And we have seen a rise in grassroots activism recently as conditions regarding healthcare and joblessness reach crisis proportions. But what I want this class of high school graduates and future graduates to know is that when we say, “with privilege comes great responsibility,” we mean that even though their lives are full of activity and expectation, they must use their time and influence, their resources and advantages to make the world better. They must recognize all of the advantages that they have as such, and consider them to be gifts meant for sharing. They are uniquely situated to be stewards of change for their generation.
Right now is a crucial time for young adults to step up—because our economy is teetering on the brink; because we are at war; and because national politico-socio-racial relations are strained. And because in the national psyche there is a growing emphasis on dividing the haves from the have-nots. The competitiveness for jobs and resources seem to motivate people to reassert age- old practices of attributing differential values and traits to the affluent and the poor. Wealthy folks are wealthy because they are hard-working and capable. And the poor are poor because they are lazy, immoral and welfare-minded. These perceptions are perpetuated through privilege—by the power of disparate representation and access in Washington and in the media.
Even those of us who must work hard at our livelihoods and also feel like we are barely staying above water, must recognize that we enjoy the privilege of continued employment, perhaps advanced education and generational family resources. And we must admit that often these privileges come from forces beyond our own making. When we are fully conscious of this reality, we can resist easy judgments and understand that the fate of the “least” is the fate of the all.
Clean air is one of those issues that bridges any socio-economic divide. Pollution affects everyone profoundly. And those who are fortunate to live a distance from a coal-fired power plant; who have health insurance and preventative care; who enjoy the ability to provide optimal nutrition and environmental adjustments in the home, may still suffer from increased incidence of discomfort, allergies and asthma due to toxins in the air. Even with all of these advantages, the impact of poor air quality hits close to home. Toxic mercury and its harmful effects on fetuses and the developing brains of young children impact us all. But the 400,000 newborns affected by mercury pollution every year are mostly poor. The chance of developing asthma (to which poor air quality significantly contributes) is greatly increased among the poor, black and brown people of this nation.
The actions young people decide to take on behalf of their own families, neighborhoods and communities benefit those most profoundly impacted in their cities, those largely without privilege. These people may include their work colleagues, their present and future classmates, their future wives and in-laws, their future children’s friends and classmates. It’s easy to get motivated to take action for the people we already know and love. We almost never perceive the far-reaching benefit to others who we do not yet know or encounter.
I know that this generation is aware that they can make a difference. They have so many tools to engage others—to communicate, to inform, to mobilize and to act. And so I hope that they start to question everything, even their parents, and think for themselves. I want them to deepen their community involvement beyond what it takes to get into college. I hope they will be green beyond driving a trendy hybrid car. And I pray that their concern extends to the people that work in their homes and service their families.
Recognizing our privilege should not be a cringe-inducing guilt trip. It should be a coming-of-age celebration of our important place in the world and our call to grow up and join in on some of the most important, life-affirming work of our lives.
The next time you congratulate a graduate, remind them that their lifetime of service to the world begins now!
This article is cross-posted at Mom'sCleanAirForce.com