Today I almost walked out of a digital technology conference. Seattle, I love us. But more and more, I’m surrounded by disparities between wealth and poverty … and nobody outside of society’s margins seems to notice.
Last night, I slept at a women’s shelter as an overnight volunteer. This morning, I listened as a well-known legal activist called Christians to action on addressing racial and economic injustice in America. And then I rushed back to the two-day tech conference I’m attending for work, and was practically bowled over by cognitive dissonance.
Tech in Seattle
Nothing about me looks out of place at this tech conference. I’m completely at ease among the well-dressed, mostly white 20- and 30-somethings downing free coffee (and later, free alcohol). We’re all taking notes on our laptops or iPads while live tweeting the conference from our iPhones. We’re learning how to use Snapchat, virtual reality, search, and social media to maximize profit for business.
Also present: Raffles for free Amazon Echos and Apple Watches, “5 Must-have Gadgets for Your Next Facebook Live Broadcast,” and panelists chatting about what Elon Musk is up to, or what they think of Josh Gad’s movie portrayal of Steve “the Woz” Wozniak.
Right now, I’m supposed to be taking notes on maximizing ROI for digital advertising. But my neck hurts from sleeping on a cot last night, and everything in me wants to be back at Bryan Stevenson‘s lecture.
Racial and Economic Injustice
Stevenson is an NYU law professor and legal activist who focuses on the lack of justice in the U.S. that stems from our nation’s racial and economic disparities. He represents teenage boys who get life sentences for crimes they didn’t commit, but who don’t have money for adequate legal counsel to prove their innocence. He’s featured in Netflix’s documentary 13th, which explores the prison-industrial complex: how corporations and government make money and gain political power and influence by systematically promoting disproportional rates of imprisonment for people of color. His book “Just Mercy” won the Carnegie Medal for nonfiction.
Speaking this morning, Stevenson quoted the Apostle Paul, and talked about how Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9-11 resonate deeply with him and the work he does. “People of faith are called to get closer to the places where suffering and injustice are found,” he told us.
So, What Am I Doing?
As a Christian who thinks a lot about social justice, I try to attend lectures like Stevenson’s when I can. But the past couple years of my life have shown me — with increasing clarity — that going to lectures and actually doing something about injustice are unfortunately really not the same thing.
The more I venture into the margins of society — places I’ve always cared about, but rarely actually taken the step of leaving my familiar neighborhoods and immediate social circles to spend time in — the more I realize how different the world is on the margins. “Justice” looks different for people on the margins. So do things like “common sense” or society’s expectations for a young person’s life.
One in three African American boys will end up in prison, Stevenson said at this morning’s talk. Hispanic and black men and women are imprisoned at much higher rates than people of other ethnicities. And, Stevenson has said, 34% of Alabama’s black male population has lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction.
Our world today has a specific narrative about communities of color, Stevenson said. “We’re called to change narratives. The Scriptures changed narratives … We have to change the narrative of race in America. We’ve been too silent.”
Silence: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot this past year.
Why am I so silent about race? I have plenty of answers: I don’t feel ready to speak yet. I am still learning about all the disparities in our world, and the systemic injustices I didn’t realize were so engrained in our history. I still have a lot more to learn. For every blind spot I identify in my own life, I know there others I don’t see yet.
But with the state our world is in — the extreme polarization, frenzied social media vitriol, and America’s seeming inability to listen to or consider perspectives outside of their own — I don’t really have the option to stay on the sidelines.
Being silent on the sidelines, in the face of injustice, is picking a side.
My inaction is picking a side. As uncomfortable as it is to think about, my inaction is helping perpetuate all kinds of America’s ingrained systemic harm.
“Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable,” Bryan Stevenson told us. Standing up for the rights of the marginalized is uncomfortable. Giving marginalized teenagers a fair trial, in a system more concerned with money than fairness, is uncomfortable.
Bryan Stevenson’s life is lived in uncomfortable spaces every day, because that is where he feels God leading him: to use his career as a lawyer to fight for people our U.S. justice system has forgotten about.
Do I actually make room for uncomfortable spaces in my life?
Last night, I ate dinner in an overflow shelter for women experiencing homelessness. Sitting around a table — over plates of homemade mac’n’cheese and kale salad — we talked about the things we usually talk about: our college degrees, our families, a hat that one woman had just finished knitting.
I’m not blind to the huge economic disparities in my city. I’ve worked in Seattle’s tech industry. Almost every morning on the way to work, I walked past people sleeping on the sidewalks downtown.
The realities of Seattle’s tech culture
When I was starting out in tech, I learned how to dress and act to fit in that world. Mentors showed me where to shop, what clothes to buy, and what to talk about so I could fit in Seattle tech culture. I’ve been to plenty of happy hours on the company dime. I know exactly which whiskeys and scotches are my favorite. I managed to assimilate pretty well into that world.
But ultimately, I felt so fed up with the incessantly profit-driven, results-obsessed, status-seeking superficiality of tech culture, that I left my job and tried to run as far as I could in the opposite direction. I left the industry and started getting involved with a local nonprofit in South Seattle.
Spending time there, I came face to face with the very real downsides of Seattle’s tech industry. I saw it’s effect on kids, teenagers, parents, and grandmas in low-income and significantly under resourced areas. To keep up with all the tech industry and it’s love of poke, artisan espresso, and craft beer, Seattle’s cost of living has skyrocketed. The Seattle Times reports Washington residents have some of the nation’s top personal income growth in 2016. I saw the impact of housing costs that won’t stop rising on Seattle’s low-income families, who can’t keep up with increasing costs.
But today, jumping back and forth between these two worlds, I felt like I had a serious case of whiplash.
I’m looking for ways to become more familiar with the realities of life in the margins. I want to better understand our world outside my immediate view, but I have so much more to learn. There’s more to read, many more POC authors, activists, and leaders to learn from, more relationships to grow. I love the path I’ve started down, but right now, so much of my life is still lived in the safety and familiarity of my comfort zone.
Whiplash is uncomfortable. Leaving our familiar neighborhoods and social circles is uncomfortable. But I need to learn how to engage in uncomfortable spaces – to listen, learn, and seek to understand, not explain or jump in and try to fix.
I need to find more ways to break out of my comfort zone. I need to find more ways to be uncomfortable. If I don’t, how will I ever get to be a part of meaningful change?