Poverty Has No Easy Answers

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robyn rapske -poverty has no easy answers-2By Robyn Rapske | Instagram

“What is the root of poverty for women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?”

I was asked this question recently, because I am an outreach worker in this Vancouver neighbourhood. I have some pretty strong feelings about being asked this. It’s similar to how I feel when I am asked these other common questions:

Why do addicts keep using drugs when they know the risk of dying from fentanyl overdose?

Why don’t women leave their abusive partners?

Why don’t people just get a job?

Sometimes I’m glad people ask these questions—it’s an act of acknowledging they don’t have the answers and are seeking them out. However, whether it’s because I’m burning out, or because I am experiencing what everyone goes through when they work in social services, below are my honest feelings when I’m asked these types of questions.

1. Exhaustion. I spend my working days trying to restore dignity, safety, and healthy relationships for the women I meet. When I go home, I read books and articles educating myself on the problems of society that might create barriers in these women’s lives. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to muster up a proper answer to this question at family reunions.

2. Frustration. It feels like people are hoping for a simple answer. If I were to turn it around and ask them a question about their own lives and the problems they’ve overcome, they’d probably attribute the solutions to a myriad of complex interconnected influences, opportunities, backslidings, barriers, and moments of clarity. So, why do they expect a simple answer to the problems of people I work with? Is it because thinking about all of the contributing factors is hard? Complicated? Scary? When I’m asked these questions, it often feels like I just took on the responsibility of figuring out the problems they didn’t want to figure out on their own.

3. A mixture of surrender and resolve. If I actually care about the women I work with, it’s also necessary to do my part in creating empathy and support in people who ask me these questions. The best solutions always come from moments of empathy and support. When a person truly understands how complicated and hard it is for another person, they are more likely to support that person, rather than judge or stereotype them. So if someone respects me enough to ask me the question, I’ll do my best to help create that empathy.

4. Regret. I often regret the way the conversations go. I analyze the way I responded, wondering if I represented the women I work with well enough. Did I give insightful answers that would actually create more empathy? Or was I too harsh?

I don’t want to dehumanize the person asking the question, because I want them to learn and be part of the solution too.

With all these conflicting emotions, I let myself go through the feelings of it all, and then I come back to these reasons to go on engaging with these conversations. If I care about someone in suffering, I should try my best to be their ally. Part of being an ally is not being quiet in contexts where they are not present and where my voice will be heard on their behalf. If someone asks, I should answer.

Next, I’ll burn out if I don’t see the best in all people, including the people who ask me these questions. Perhaps the skills of understanding and compassion which I offer women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside should also be offered to the people who ask me the questions. It will be more encouraging to hope people come from a good place when they ask these questions, or can be led closer to a good place through our conversation.

Finally, I engage because of Galatians 6:9-10, which says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.” (ESV)

These are my reasons for having more conversations like this, and to continue doing my best within them. However, I know there will be much more to learn as I hope to “do good to all people.”

One thing I already know, but remind myself of constantly, is that I must keep pushing myself towards humility.

I am only a representative of people in these moments, and not actually a member of the marginalized population. I will never understand their experience fully. Although I may read about, listen to, and know people from the populations I’m working alongside, I always must defer to them as the experts of their own lives.

I also need to avoid the desire to control the end result of these conversations. I have no control over changing people’s opinions, altering their understandings of the world, or increasing their level of empathy for others. I can only try my best to add to their current worldview, invite them to see another perspective, and hope they find themselves caring in a deeper way for the people I’m chatting with.

Jesus did most of his world-changing work within the context of relationships and conversations, and I sense that my own work should emulate that if I hope to make any impact within my corner of the globe.

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About Robyn:

Robyn RapskeRobyn Rapske and her husband live, work, and play on the unceded Coast Salish Territories of Canada, in the city of Vancouver. Her faith has transformed immensely since studying social work and becoming an outreach worker on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, known for its addiction, poverty and homelessness, but lesser known for its qualities of resiliency, community, and many stories of incredible faith. Visit her blog at www.robynrapske.com.

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