The Power of Assumptions

We all have assumptions and they affect every aspect of our lives.  Here’s a great video that highlights how our assumptions can lead to prejudices and impact the way we view the world.  

What do you do when you see a homeless person?

It’s hard to know how to respond when you see a homeless person.  Do you ignore them and just keep walking (they probably aren’t really homeless in the first place and just trying to scam you)? Do you buy them some food, cause you don’t want them to buy drugs or alcohol? Do you give them money? Do you stop and chat?  

I don’t think there is ever really a clear cut answer as to how to respond.  People will disagree as to what the right thing to do is.  At Urban Seed we try and challenge people to think about it from a different point of view.  Do we really know what it is like to be homeless and what you might need if you are homeless?  Would it matter if we gave them money and they went and bought drugs or alcohol?  What do we buy with our money?  Does anyone tell us how we are to spend our money?  What would it mean if we acknowledged the homeless person? If we smiled at them? Talked to them about their day? 

Roman Krznaric (a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living.  A founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, who advises organisations including Oxfam and the United Nations on using empathy and conversation to create social change), believes that empathy and empathic thinking can create social change.  He says that empathy is more than just sympathy.  It is the ability to powerfully imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of another.  In a recent  blog post he challenges us to empathise with the telesales caller.  He suggests that by merely imagining what the job might be like for them (made easier for him as he once was a telesales caller himself) and engaging in conversation with them will powerful revolutionise the world.  

“So while part of me wants to immediately press the red button and end the call, I do my best to focus on the caller and treat them with decency. In an effort to make a personal connection, I sometimes find out their name and where they are phoning from, which can lead to surprising – if usually short – conversations about their lives, and my own. I nearly always tell them that I know what their job is like, because I’ve done it too, and I wish them well with the rest of their calls. Imagining myself into their lives and showing a little respect is the least I can do to bridge our faceless digital divide.

Such brief encounters with strangers may, at first glance, seem trivial affairs. But I believe they are the beginnings of a revolution that can weave the world together into an invisible tapestry of human connection.”

 

What would it mean if were to apply this same thinking and acting when we see a homeless person?  Maybe next time you think just acknowledging or smiling at a homeless person is pointless act, you might think twice.  

Roman Krznaric challenges us in our response to the homeless people we see:

It is important to understand what empathy is and is not. If you see a homeless person living under a bridge you may feel sorry for him and give him some money as you pass by. That is pity or sympathy, not empathy. If, on the other hand, you make an effort to look at the world through his eyes, to consider what life is really like for him, and perhaps have a conversation that transforms him from a faceless stranger into a unique individual, then you are empathising. 

 

Maeve’s Work Experience

At the start of 2013 when my Career Pathways teacher started telling us about the compulsory week of work experience I was both excited and nervous. When I think of work experience, I think of trying out a job that you like and that you may end up doing for the rest of your life – which seems like a big choice to be making at age 16. We were given examples of previous student’s choices: girls who had gone to law firms, hospitals, schools and vets. These all seemed really great, but none of these were in the job area that I was looking for. I would like to work within an organisation that is community-based and that aims to empower people; this is what I saw that Urban Seed did, and what attracted me to apply. So, at the start of December 2013, I was lucky enough to be accepted for a week of work experience at Urban Seed.

When finding my way up Collins Street on the first morning of the week, I passed the regular high end boutiques that include Chanel and Dolce & Gabana. The city workers walked quickly by me while looking at their phones and drinking their coffee. It was an atmosphere that all felt quite lonely. But once I walked through the doors of the Credo Café there was warmth, community and welcome – and this is what I received every day.

For most days of the week, I was on cooking and cleaning duty at Credo. This was a fun experience that enabled me to meet some of the staff, volunteers, Residents and regulars that are apart of Urban Seed’s community. It also gave me the opportunity to understand how non-government organisations, like Urban Seed, run their operations. Prayer and lunch time were my favourite parts of Credo. It was great to see the many ways that people were able to show their appreciation and thanks to God. Lighting candles, singing and playing musical instruments were all great things to be a part of.  

I love food, but this was not the only great thing for me about being at lunch. There were many different people who came each day, from many different situations, all whom I would have never had the opportunity to talk if it wasn’t for the community at Urban Seed. The conversations I had with some of the regulars ranged from what European countries we had travelled to, to why there was conflict in the world. They were all fantastic people to talk to and share a meal with.

I was fortunate enough on my last day of work experience to be invited to come along to the final Women’s Group meeting of the year. It also turned out that we were travelling to Brunswick Savers to celebrate this, which is one of my favourite places to shop. So not only was I excited to meet the women who are a part of Urban Seed’s community but I was also looking forward to finding a bargain. I was able to do both!

My overall experience at Urban Seed was a great one and I would like to thank everyone one who made it so great. If I was to work at a place like Urban Seed in the future, I wouldn’t be nervous anymore – I would be excited. 

Stereotypes and the single story.

Stereotypes; good, bad or indifferent? We think a lot about stereotypes at Urban Seed; wanting to breakdown the stereotypes of how we view homeless people.

The thing about stereotypes is that they are not necessarily wrong, just incomplete. You see to a certain extent stereotypes can be helpful, as they help us make sense of the world. When we see someone in a school uniform we know they go to school. When we see someone in a hard hat and steel cap boots with a fluro vest we know they are a builder. The issue becomes when we take this stereotype further and end up making a judgment or prejudice from this.

As Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says:

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

In her powerful Ted talk she warns us about the danger of a single story. When we only have a single story we end up with an incomplete picture and therefore end up judging.

What single story have we heard about homeless people?  Do we need to hear another one?

Homeless Veteran Timelapse Transformation

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=6a6VVncgHcY
Although this video is highlighting the transformation of a homeless man from an on the  surface to a deeper level. To me this video is about stereotypes.  About how we judge and treat someone based on what they look like.  As shallow as this sounds, if we take a look into our own lives we wont have to look hard to find examples.

We tell a story at Urban  Seed, and although it is an old one, and has almost entered the realm of myth.  It holds a profound truth about stereotypes. It goes something like this:

—-

There was once a man who worked on the top of end of Collins St in Melbourne.  He was a successful business man, looked the part and fit in very well in the city.

He was invited to a fancy dress party at the Old Melbourne Goal.  Not wanting to dress the same as everyone else he decided he would go as a homeless man.  He thought he was being rather clever, given that the Old Melbourne Gaol was known for the likes of Ned Kelly and prisoners. He thought a homeless man was a good modern twist of the outsider in society.

Wanting to look the part and have the best costume he deiced to grow his beard out.  He went to the op shop and found dirty hole-ly trousers. A slipper and an un-matching shoe to go with.  About 3 overcoats.  And he stuffed plastic bags full of rags.  We wore fingerless gloves and a beanie.  And even made a cardboard sign asking for money and put a bottle in a brown paper bag.

This fancy dress party happened to be after work.  So the man decided to get changed at walk and then walk to the party.  So he took off his nice suit and put on his ‘hobo’ costume.  Then hit the streets of Melbourne at peak hour on his way to the party.

As he walked up the busy streets to the party something strange happened.  He had this  feeling that everyone was looking at him, but no one was looking him.  Instead of having to push his way through the crowds like he normally would after work, he had all this space around him.  And one person even crossed the street as he got close.  This started to disturb him.  Did people think he was homeless?

His suspicions were confirmed when he went to get some cigarettes to complete his outfit.      As he went to go in the 7-11, the man serving from behind the counter came out and stood in the doorway stopping him from entering, and said, “you can’t come in here!”

The man was taken a back.  He just wanted to get some smokes.  He’d never been knocked back from a shop before.  Thinking on his feet, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out his wallet, and said “what makes you think I can’t pay?”

Immediately the shop keeper, stepped aside and let him in.

—–

This story makes us question whether we really know who someone is.  I think we all would have assumed this man was homeless had we seen him that day walking the streets.

It also highlights how we include or exclude people based on they way they look.  As I feel this video is highlighting.

And finally it makes a sad point about money, and how it talks and changes everything.

Are we going to see homeless people?

One of the things we do at Urban Seed is run city walks where talk about homelessness and the work Urban Seed does.
Something we often get asked is, are we going to ‘see’ homeless people?”  This is always an interesting question.

Firstly how do we know what a homeless person looks like? Secondly if you could always tell what they looked like, would it be a good idea to go and look for them?    

We also regularly get requests to hear from people who are homeless themselves and have them share their stories in person on our walks, which sometimes does happen.

For us this is really tricky territory to navigate.

The power of story to us at Urban Seed is core to who we are. We believe that we can learn more from a story than from facts & figures.  This is because when we hear a story we engage with it and it moves us emotionally.  Hearing a story about someone’s life from the person themselves is truly powerfully.  It has the ability to allow us to get to know the person and understand complex issues more.  Therefore helping to breakdown stereotyping and  judging.

But having said that we also need to be careful how we honour and tell those stories.  Because of the impact and power in a story we need to be careful that we don’t just ‘use’ the person so as to tell a good story.

For us at Urban Seed we exist to honour and be with those have been marginalised and ignored from wider society.  Part of this means we get to hear stories about people lives that are sad, powerful, moving and beautiful.  Graciously many of these people are willing to have their stories shared by us on a walk.  And sometimes they are happy to be there to share their stories in person.  We tread a fine line between allowing those who want to share their story a space to do so, and exploitation of that person for the sake of a good story.  At Urban Seed we want to honour  and repsect the most vulnerable first.  

And so it is for this reason, that more often than not, we do not always have homeless people come on our walks or there to share their own stories.  Rather we advocate on their behalf.

 

Think About it…

http://vimeo.com/lizarcus/juliathinkaboutitproject
A bunch of young people share their stories. The eight attitudes associated with the Riddle scale of homophobia are drawn upon as the young people’s voices ‘emerge’, sharing their real life experiences in the hope that the broader community will experience these short films, and then ‘think about it’.