By Allison Pinto
How inspiring it is to hear Supreme Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s “epic dissent” against the banning of affirmative action, issued last week and now circulating through social media. It is a reminder of how important expressions of dissent are in community change efforts. It is also a reminder of the hard work that goes into choosing one’s words wisely, and the courage it takes to speak them.
What follows is a brief essay I wrote and never published back in January 2012. At that time I was working in a local organization where the majority of the staff felt there was too much “sting” in the message, so it was recommended that I hold off on sharing it more broadly.
I am posting the essay now – in part because the painful realities I describe still exist today, and in part because I am beginning to see more evidence that the assets and thriving of our Central-Cocoanut neighborhood and Newtown community are being acknowledged and appreciated – both within the neighborhood and community, and beyond.
I also am sharing this essay because I want to be clear about why I have fiercely insisted on focusing on the positive– in kids and in the Central-Cocoanut neighborhood. This is not a superficially cheerful, polyanna approach to life. Instead it is a way of refusing to go along with the dominant, problem-saturated perspective that exists in Sarasota about the kids and neighborhoods of Newtown. By recognizing and affirming strengths, it is intended as an active, constructive, and ongoing dissent against the prevailing power dynamics in Sarasota. It is an effort to bring the brilliance of our community into clear focus so that we can work together, in genuine collaboration, to realize the thriving of us all.
Why I Won’t Talk about Economic (In)equality as a Neighbor…Yet
By Allison Pinto, Ph.D.
Written but not published on January 18, 2012
If you follow the posts on my home and work blogs, you know that I often share my perspective as a neighbor as one means of exploring issues relating to community well-being. Recently, as Tim Dutton has encouraged our community to start exploring the phenomenon of economic (in)equality, several co-workers have encouraged me to share my perspective on this topic as a neighbor too, and I’ve been grappling with how I might do so.
I’ve decided that I won’t – not yet.
It’s not that I don’t experience the realities of economic inequality on a daily basis – I do.
In my neighborhood, I see kids whose families don’t have cars getting up before the crack of dawn to ride the SCAT bus to school, so that they can maintain their school stability after their family moves a mere 3 blocks away and they find themselves in a new school attendance zone (a common occurrence in Newtown) – only to discover that the bus will take them to the transfer station downtown, but the transfer bus does not begin running until after the school day begins. I’ve also answered early morning knocks at the door from one kid or another who’s missed the school bus and needs to find another way to travel the 7 miles that stretch from our neighborhood to his or her school. So when do I offer to give a kid a ride? When do I offer $1.25 for the bus? When do I trouble-shoot alarm clock snafus? When do I say, “Sorry, can’t today?”
In my neighborhood, I hear kids complain that they can’t bear to eat Ramen noodles one more night, or can’t eat apples because their front teeth are silver-capped. I’ve received text messages from fellow neighbors who are moms asking for food or money for dinner for their kids. I’ve never gone a night without enough money to get some dinner for myself. So when do I invite folks over for dinner? When do I swing by Publix on my way home from work and drop off a bag of groceries? When do I pass along the 211 number? When do I say, “Sorry, can’t today?”
In my neighborhood, I brace myself when kids I’ve grown to love tell me about the ways they’ve been treated disrespectfully by adults in school settings, and when I witness kids being treated disrespectfully in shops we visit together in the broader Sarasota community. Is it just because they are kids? Or is it because they are kids who are economically challenged? Or is it because they are kids who are Black? I can’t tell – but I do know from the way my stomach clenches and my heart pounds that I am bearing witness to disrespect expressed toward kids I care about, and I’m not always sure how to respond to it in the moment.
But here’s why I’m not really going to share my perspective on economic inequality as a neighbor: Because I don’t believe that the broader community is yet sufficiently appreciative or acknowledging of the riches of my home neighborhood and Newtown community. And there are so many riches – people with so much love and strength and wisdom and creativity, places with so much beauty and history and opportunity, and resources with so much legitimate relevance when it comes to those things most needed, requested and appreciated on the block. So many capacities I aspire to develop within myself, and recognize as under-developed in my own life despite the educational, economic and professional opportunities I’ve been granted so far.
To enter into a conversation about economic inequality as a neighbor at this point risks foregrounding a continuum that places my neighborhood on the short end of the stick. This risk exists even in a conversation that intends to focus on the relationship between people / neighborhoods with high vs. low income. A focus on income (in)equality highlights one aspect of well-being where many folks in my neighborhood come up short, without simultaneously acknowledging other ways in which my neighborhood seems to experience greater riches relative to the broader community (neighborliness, resourcefulness, family rootedness and green space, to name a few.)
So until there is greater appreciation for the fact that there is more than one measuring stick of well-being, and that on many other measuring sticks neighborhoods such as my own are the “long end of the stick,” I am not going to elaborate any further on the nuances of economic suffering I witness daily.
Instead, I’ll keep pointing out the thriving that is manifesting in my neighborhood, even in the face of economic inequality, until that day when a rich diversity of others – people beyond my home neighborhood -- are talking with respect (and perhaps even a touch of wishfulness or envy) about all the good stuff in my neighborhood. From where I sit right now, that’s when I’ll know it’s time for me to chime in as a neighbor on the topic of economic inequality.
I so hope that time comes soon.
With neighborkids leading another Stand Against Racism this weekend, as part of the annual national event, local expressions of dissent seem especially timely. In Central-Cocoanut we will continue voicing and listening for fierce words for change, both on the block and through Sarasota Community Studio. We genuinely hope to hear and respond, together with fellow neighbors and community members, for the sake of a transformed community.