It’s the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, and we do a lot of programming at our school to help our community understand each of these issues. This includes one student group who sleep outside for the week–giving up their rooms as a demonstration to remind others that some people don’t have that choice.
Simulations and experiential learning opportunities are a common approach–we sometimes have our students sleep overnight at a mission on Skid Row; I know of youth groups who have done 24 hour poverty simulations; World Vision has their “Step into Africa” exhibit; and when I was in college, a student took a semester off to “be homeless.”
These attempts to better understand poverty, hunger, or homelessness are not all equally well done. We are often reluctant to question, let alone criticize, any well-meaning effort at learning or doing good, especially by young people. But the single biggest factor that differentiates the good ones from the mediocre or poorly done ones is this:
a simulation or experiential learning opportunity must acknowledge what can and cannot be accomplished.
You can be challenged to think critically about complex issues in ways that you might not have otherwise.
You can develop greater empathy for the way other people live who do not have the same opportunities you have.
You can change habits and patterns in your life permanently as a response to what you experience.
But, not matter how much you learn, or in what what ways you change or are changed, you cannot “know what it’s like to be…” that thing.
You cannot know what it’s like to be homeless,
…to live in extreme poverty,
…to be food insecure.
You cannot, because you are not. And no matter what kind of simulation you do, you cannot not be who you are. You cannot not have the level of education you do. You cannot not have your mental health, physical health, network of relationships, and personal history. You cannot not be your race or gender. You cannot not be you, in a simulation.
And whatever it’s like to be you in a simulation is not what it’s like to truely be ____________. Poor. Homeless. Mentally ill. Isolated. Working poor. Undocumented. Oppressed. Overlooked.
If we are not aware of this fact, we insult the very people we are seeking to better understand. It’s true of all attempts at empathy; acknowledging the gap between us actually closes it.