“Knowing about” vs. “engaging with” people with different income levels

The Washington Post released an article this weekend about “super zips”–zip codes with very high median incomes and education levels–with a particular focus on super zips in the D.C. area.

Having grown up in an affluent and very well-educated community myself (though not near D.C.), this read provided an interesting description of the perspective of people (including kids) living in such areas.  According to the map in the article, the zip code I grew up in is a few percentile points below the threshold for being termed a “super zip.”

While categorizing entire zip codes each as a single entity may remove some of the precision about individual communities from these findings, there are still some valuable descriptions of people’s lives in the more affluent (on average) zip codes.

In particular, I appreciate the attempts by people in such communities to expose kids to “the other 95%.”  A church sponsors mission trips to “impoverished places such as Appalachia.” Kids report doing home repairs and encountering people living in “flimsy house trailers and converted chicken coops.”

These trips are great–I have participated in or led (secular) service trips to various places throughout the country several times. Trips such as these provide a great opportunity to explore unfamiliar parts of the country, unfamiliar cultures, and unfamiliar lifestyles, all while trying to do some good while you are there.

However, while experiences such as these lay great foundations for further exploration, reflection, and service, they are not themselves sufficient in truly educating people about what it means to live in non-affluence.

My fear is this: a high school senior is quoted as saying, “I don’t usually encounter people who aren’t like us.” If these trips are a one-time opportunity (maybe repeated a few times) for students to interact with people at other income levels, I worry about what students start to think about “those people.” Are they just unfortunates who need to be helped? Are they just living in faraway places? Is fixing up their houses really the best way to support them? Are people living in trailers in Appalachia really the only other people besides those in super-zips (what about people with moderate incomes, or in other situations of poverty that look very different)? Why do we keep saying “they?”

I hope the trips can be used as a stepping stone towards actually engaging with people who are different, not just “going to help the poor people.” If the students can channel the learning from these trips into forming lasting relationships, as equals, with people who aren’t exactly like them, maybe in their very own community, only then will they be sufficiently out of their super zip bubble.

 

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