As an Episcopal Urban Intern in Los Angeles, I talk often with other corps members about privilege. We actually have several times where we all meet to discuss difficult topics like race, sexual orientation, and gender, among other things. These conversations can make people uncomfortable for many reasons, but I enjoy them. I acknowledge my privilege, and also recognize how in some ways I don’t have certain privileges that others have. My privilege is most easily seen in contrast to my clients at Chrysalis, where I work as an Employment Specialist.
The clients who walk through my door aren’t the ones who are going to easily get the job. I don’t see those clients. They don’t need Chrysalis. I see the clients who have significant barriers to success, such as a criminal background, lack of work experience, homelessness, and so many other reasons. Recently I’ve seen several elderly, unemployed homeless men, which has moved me greatly. They are living in their cars or sleeping in the library parking lot. Clients like these are the most vulnerable in our society. They are the ones we pass on the street and try not to make eye contact with. I’ve done that, too. It’s uncomfortable when we see this vulnerability and don’t know what to do about it.
I’ve never had much trouble getting a job. I’m white, young, and in my hometown of Pensacola I know enough people that I wouldn’t stay unemployed long. But being white, young, from a familiar family is nothing I earned. The idea that any of us are successful purely because of hard work is not realistic. It may be a part of it. It may even be a large part of it for some. But it is never the whole story.
I think Jesus talked a lot about privilege as well and it made many people really uncomfortable. Jesus was crucified for talking about privilege. I’m not trying to compare my conversations with the words of Christ, but I do think he would want us to have these conversations. It can be difficult to talk about when privilege and race are such hot topics. And to clarify, privilege isn’t just race. It can be gender, sexual orientation, or any of the things an employer promises not to discriminate against in all its paperwork.
So when you see something about your or another’s privilege that makes you uncomfortable? My suggestion would be to think deeply about your own privilege. Maybe have a conversation with someone who is different from you, and gain some knowledge from someone of another race, gender, or sexual orientation. Ignoring privilege is not going to help. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer as to what will, but a little knowledge surely cannot hurt.
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These are reflections from corps members and alumni of Jubilee's Urban Service Programs. They cover topics ranging from the sun, fun and friends in in Los Angeles to the uncensored experiences of serving vulnerable populations in our beautiful city. These are Voices of Service.