Moving to New York City changed my life.
Not in that glamorous, “my wildest dreams came true after living in the Big Apple for six years and now I’m making bank with 5 million Instagram followers” type of way. I had moved here to pursue an acting career but what happened instead was both a surprise and utterly necessary for a young white woman hailing from privilege. While it started to feel nearly impossible for me to find an agent or manager or funding for my brightest ideas, what I did find taught me more than anything I could have learned on a film set or at an awards show.
On July 3rd, 2018, I found myself in the middle of Queens standing over the limp, lifeless body of a homeless client. Only a few days earlier, this same man had popped his head into our Subaru’s window to excitedly share that he was sober and heading off to a job interview. He was wearing a nice button-up shirt and a brown jacket with khaki pants. He looked and sounded great. He said this was the happiest he had been in awhile. He was so hopeful, and so were we. And now, identifying his body to the police, my co-worker and I cowered next to the car as the police officers laughed and joked around with the EMS workers because to them this was just another day. But to us, this was someone we had wanted to take care of. We just wanted to hear how his interview had gone.
The next day, my partner and I were driving through a different part of Queens and stopped when we recognized another client who happened to be a good friend of the man we had identified the day before. The last time we had picked up this client to take him to a homeless drop-in center, he had spoken with a powerful sense of hope about how he wanted to work in a kitchen – any kitchen – and went on to tell us who all of his favorite chefs were. But on this day, we would ask this man if he knew what had happened to his friend. He smiled and said how he had just spoken to him and how great he was doing. Then we broke the news and he turned his head to the window and it was the quickest I had ever seen laughter turn to tears. He told us how he warned those men not to sleep under the cars. He blamed himself. He said if he had been there, he would have told them to get out from under the cars. Dragged them out himself. They only slept under the cars to hide, to keep from getting mugged overnight. This man, who hadn’t been at the scene the previous day, knew exactly what had happened. Not once had he mentioned alcohol or any self-induced reason for the death that had been speculated by police. He knew the truth of who these people were and the possibility of such a terrible fate that could come from the ways they tried to protect themselves while living out on the streets. The rest of the car ride was spent in a silence blanketed with the mourning of a life lost mixed with resentment towards a system that has led to such unfair things happening to innocent people.
One year and two months earlier, I was taking off on a bike tour from Brooklyn to Virginia with a wonderful group of cyclists and activists. Along the way, we would teach free workshops about sustainability and reusable menstrual products wherever we could find a welcoming space: coffee shops, adult toy stores, feminist and radical book shops. We were ultimately biking with a mission to get to the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference in Atlanta, but our East Coast route had to work around jobs that would allow us to only take a two week trip on the road before flying down to Atlanta for the conference. At the conference were some of my personal menstrual equity heroes. The entire journey was a lesson not only in personal endurance and strength but also a big teaching moment for me in learning about what it means to be a person who menstruates on all spectrums of the scale. Rich, poor, homeless, black, white, man, woman, non-binary, living in India, Kenya or Nepal. While I spent time speaking and educating during our workshops on the bike tour, the SMCR conference was a place solely for listening.
My past six years living in New York has introduced me to some of the strongest fighters I have ever witnessed. These six years have also shown me more anger and tears than any other specific period of my lifetime. I have met homeless women who asked for menstrual supplies outside of the shelter I was delivering them to because they were afraid they would never actually see the products once they were officially donated. I have listened to homeless folks share their very specific reasoning for avoiding the shelter system and choosing instead to sleep on park benches. I have heard horror stories of transgender health care and surgeries and the most devastating first period story, because their period was just another painful reminder of a body they didn’t want to be in. I stood in solidarity with sexual abuse survivors inside the Hart Senate Building in Washington D.C. during the Kavanaugh hearings and shared nauseating grief over knowing that, while we continued to fight, our country was being led by the likes of men who had once hurt us. I have seen immigrant families being evicted from their homes, leaving their families homeless and their children silently ashamed in front of their friends. I have shared hugs with survivors of mental illness and listened through their tears and pain hopelessly wondering what I could do to help. I have witnessed the homeless community fighting to stay alive, and those who have greeted me each day with a dreary reassurance of, “I’m alive. I woke up this morning, so that’s how I’m doing.” As simple as that. With the acute awareness that no tomorrow is ever promised.
Our lives are a privilege that can so easily be taken for granted, especially when you are young and particularly when your privileges do not include a fear of being fatally harmed by the systems put in place. That freedom, that carefree ability to take a solo road trip around the country on a whim, that doesn’t exist for everyone. I can stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and not have to wonder whether or not I’ll get back in my car and drive off freely to my next destination. People said I had to be careful because I am a woman. But I am a white woman. Terrible things happen to women all the time, but there is an extra layer of safety when your skin color is white. I have heard many, many stories of white women being attacked. When I spoke with an activist from Black Lives Matter a few years ago at an event, I realized just how often Black women are left out of the narratives being told. Ignored, forgotten, brushed to the side. As though their stories are not as important as the other stories being told. Black women are dying far too frequently and people don’t know about it because they don’t hear about it. And because we’re not paying attention.
I’m not the voice that I think needs to be heard right now, but I want to share what I have learned so far because these lessons have been the most important lessons I’ve ever learned and I still have a long way to go in my self-edification. And I also don’t know what else to do with my voice other than writing this piece. There are so many stories out there that are misunderstood and pushed to the side. I have been crying and angry since November 9th, 2016. At the time, did I realize how many people have been feeling hurt and let down and belittled since the day they were born? How those feelings had been inherited and inevitably passed down to them from centuries of oppression? Are we all ready to have the uncomfortable conversations surrounding the notion of what privilege really looks like and the systemic realities behind the oppressions still existing in our world today? Are we ready to listen or will we continue to talk over each other and shout from our mountaintops that we are the only ones who are right and everyone else is wrong? A word of advice, there is no such thing as right and wrong based on the fact that everyone grows up believing in certain ideas and forming certain opinions. If everyone believes they are right, then “wrong” doesn’t actually exist. So have conversations. Listen to the other side. Ask questions. Educate yourself. Most importantly, take all of these actions from a grounded place of love and kindness. This is the place from which any shift in perspective can begin.
There was one homeless client of mine I remember particularly well because he was always hesitant to talk to me. He was an older Black man, and I was a young white woman. It took me several days of letting him know I was listening, of keeping my promise to him that I would remember to come check on him, that finally broke down the barrier that had been preventing his trust. Kindness and love and the art of listening can go a long way. I will always be learning how to be better about it, and I encourage you to practice this art as well.
Below are some resources I’ve compiled so far (this will continue to be updated) for practicing anti-racism: