Stepping into the shoes of another
It was a horrible day. My grandson was hauled off to juvenile detention and my granddaughter was picked up by Child Protective Services for neglect. Wait! Before you become alarmed, I don’t actually have grandchildren, yet, but I had pretend ones on November 11, 2011 and I clearly wasn’t doing so well at raising them.
On that day, men and women of varying races from corporate America, non-profit organizations, the community, government and small businesses in metropolitan Detroit gathered together to participate in the Eleven Project, a poverty simulation sponsored by the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) to draw attention to the challenges faced by homeless and vulnerably-housed citizens of Southeast Michigan.
Upon arrival, participants were given nametags which indicated their assignments into mock families of 1-4 people. Some families were comprised of two parent households; others were headed by single parents. Still others were headed by grandparents with limited English skills. In fifteen minute increments, participants walked through four weeks in the life of their assigned families with responsibilities to pay that family’s bills, get their children to school, go to work (if employed) or look for work (if not) all while dealing with various social and other community services and unexpected life challenges.
By the end of the activity, several families had turned to a life of crime to make ends meet, others found that their family members had been jailed, that they themselves had been robbed or that their children had met with various forms of difficulty. Many involved in the simulation reported feelings of fear, frustration, shame and humiliation in dealing with various social service agencies.
The hour long exercise was followed by a debriefing and an opportunity to meet with an actual COTS resident who expressed how similar her real life experiences were with those simulated during the exercise. During the discussion that followed, many participants began to explore how the activity reminded them that so many people in various socio-economic groups are only one paycheck away from the situations that were encountered or about the importance of compassion in serving others and of the need to think through methods for creating a more seamless infrastructure of social services in our area.
As a participant in the Eleven Project, I was reminded of the African philosophy of Ubuntu which loosely translated suggests that “I am what I am because of who we all are.” This reality clearly hit home for those participating in the Eleven Project. It was evident in their comments. It was evident in their tear filled eyes. They understood the notion, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
While you may not have had the chance to participate in this year’s Eleven Project, you are no doubt a compassionate person concerned about our community and its residents. Perhaps the holiday season is the time when you think most about what you can do to make a difference in the life of someone less fortunate. While serving in a soup kitchen or donating to a charity at this time of year is good, there are people in need 365 days per year. May I encourage you to think more broadly than ever before?
Unbuntu suggests that we are all a part of the fabric of the global community and when one member is suffering we all hurt. Detroit is known for its resilience and its ability to unify and weather storms. Let us move forward boldly on behalf of our citizenry in the spirit of Unbuntu.
To find out about scheduling an Eleven Project simulation for your organization, feel free to contact Aisha Morrell-Ginyard with COTS Detroit 313.831.3777 Ext. 285.