Race issues at speak up

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Like the surrounding community, homeless people are not exempt from racist experiences and tendencies.

Many times I’ve heard folks say, “I don’t want to go to [that place] because they bully people like me. There are a lot of [other race] people there, and they don’t like [my race] people.”

The homeless population reflects society at large, and many of the same afflictions are present, though often more vividly and explicitly seen.

However, within our smaller Speak Up community of people who write and sell the magazine, it has been a different story: racial animus has been mostly absent. The group of people we serve is just as diverse as the surrounding community, and over the years there have been thousands of interactions between hundreds of magazine vendors with one another, and with dozens of volunteers.

I spoke with some of our longest-serving volunteers about this topic, and we could think of no instances of observed or reported racial dishonor. Nor have we seen evidence of race-based subgroups forming within the the larger vendor community. (This does not include interactions that they have with the public—I’m just talking about within our community.)

This absence of racialized conflict and grouping is not the result of a specific anti-racist policy or practice, but rather of other factors that have shaped the environment.

Here are two of the things that I believe account for it:

1. A positive aspirational goal that unifies people across cultural divisions.

The opportunity offered at Speak Up to homeless people—to write your story, see it become a magazine, and then sell that magazine for income—is clear, hopeful, and positive.

The success of one participant amplifies the success of another participant, and there’s no need to buy into the lie that advancement can only happen by pushing past another.

Working toward a common noble cause unites people, regardless of personal history, culture, or race. It breaks down barriers and establishes trust. That shared purpose turns isolated individuals into teammates, who care about one another’s successes as well as their own.

2. A proactive culture of honor toward all.

The homeless magazine model inherently gives dignity and the possibility of identity-reshaping (“from beggar to business owner”), but we take it a step further.

The verb “honor” means to “hold in great respect, to hold in esteem, to have a high regard for.”

We intentionally live out and model that at Speak Up. Toward everyone.

It doesn’t matter if they come with or without baggage, if they have an arrest record, or addiction troubles, no family or a big family, are homeless or not, their race, past misdeeds, or any other factor: they are going to get the same treatment.

When someone comes in the door for the first time or the 100th time, they’ll be treated like a revered guest—valued, listened to, respected, celebrated. I want that individual to feel like they just showed up to their birthday party—that they are treasured, have something rich to offer, and things are better now that they’re here.

(I should note in full honesty that we’re never perfect with this culture of honor. I personally can become preoccupied, or hurried, or overly mission-driven, or not listen fully. It can at times be inconvenient and tiring. But while we don’t nail it every time, a decade-long overview does show we are moving in the right direction.)

I can remember a funny conversation with one guy facing homelessness, who sidled up to me because he was confused about who was homeless and who wasn’t. He quietly asked me which individuals were volunteers which were clients in need of services. He really needed to know! The warm interactions and mutual honor were a contrast to the stark “us and them” divide he’d seen elsewhere, so he wanted my help to populate his people grid. (That kind of confusion is not a bad problem to have!)

An environment like this doesn’t occur by accident. “Not being dishonorable” isn’t the same as “being honorable.” (Not doing something bad isn’t the same as doing something good—just like “not being racist” isn’t the same as “being against racism.”) Honoring one another daily is an intentional decision. It must be done uniformly for all, and consistently modeled, celebrated, and repeated. (And just as honoring one another is celebrated, dishonoring one another cannot be tolerated.)

The result of these principles—positive unifying goal and an intentional culture of honor—is truly beautiful to behold.

What gives me hope is the belief that these ideas work in any context, not just in smaller environments like at Speak Up. Put them into practice—one person at a time—and they have the power to unify your community, restore a fragmented society, and heal a wounded nation.

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