iPads in the Laundromat

March 2, 2014  • Posted in Uncategorized  •  0 Comments

Nick Gottschall, University of Washington, Department of International Studies There’s a laundromat on Bellevue Avenue, near my Capitol Hill apartment, which I walk by almost daily. More than once I’ve been startled to notice the flashy screens of iPads and Android phones in the hands of waiting patrons inside. What are these toys, extravagant symbols of middle class consumerism that they are, doing in such a dingy setting? Surely they don’t belong amongst the tattered sweatpants, haggard faces and bored children, those universal fixtures of laundromats everywhere. My reactionary confusion about the seemingly jarring juxtaposition of the laundromat iPads arises from assumptions about poor people, their habits and characteristics. Of course to assume that these laundromat patrons are poor in the first place is problematic. In fact I likely hold in my mind a sort of false dichotomy between this neighborhood’s middle class twenty-something students, service and tech workers on the one hand, and older working-class people on the other. iPads and smart phones “belong” more to one of these groups than the other. Confronting these assumptions represents an effort towards something UC Berkeley professor Ananya Roy calls “unknowing poverty.” In her TED Talk entitled “(Un)Knowing Poverty,” Roy argues that “to unknow poverty is to make a shift from asking how we can help the poor, to asking how poverty is produced; to asking how wealth, power and privilege are maintained.” Roy’s statement resonates with one of the relational poverty seminar’s primary aims, to radically reorganize poverty priorities. This transformation is a call to relocate our obsession with “poor people,” those who experience poverty, in order to interrogate the workings of “powerful others,” or those who produce poverty. This new gaze entails an analytical shift: from the dependency of the welfare mom to the dependency of big business; from the transgressions of the urban addict to the crimes of capitalism; from the idiosyncrasies of rural lifestyles to the uninhibited march of “economic development;” from the misfortunes of the masses to the preferences of the privileged. “To unknow poverty,” asserts Roy, “is to make a shift from tinkering with charity that can do good to transforming the policies that enable wealth but impoverish poverty.” This question of charity and development in a globalized world is fraught. Roy calls particular attention to the ambivalence confronting those idealistic students who “belong to a can-do generation of socially-conscious millennials who want to catalyze change.” Despite their noble “ethics of global citizenship,” Roy points out that her students “want to volunteer in the slums of India, but they squirm at their encounter with the homeless panhandler on the streets of the liberal city of Berkeley. In other words, while poverty in the third world seems familiar, poverty at home, in proximity, seems strange, unknowable.” The “familiarity” of poverty in the developing world highlights particular shades of meaning within the word “poor.” Not only are Indian slum-dwellers, to use Roy’s example, “poor” due to their acute lack—of income, opportunities, healthcare, and so on. In the international imagination these people are also “poor” in the sense that they are pitiable, wretched, abject, and as such deserving of our sympathy and charity. However, this latter interpretation finds no purchase with the visible American poor, emblematized by Roy as “the homeless panhandler,” even in “the liberal city of Berkeley.” This millennial confrontation with the familiar-distant-poor/scary-proximate-poor conundrum is evident on the streets of Seattle’s University District. Here droves of young students contend for sidewalk space with panhandlers, street hawkers and loitering masses, any number of whom may be a member of King County’s 3,117 shelterless homeless, as recently reported by One Night Count. On campus it is common to hear tales, narrated with the appropriate balance of shock and self-aggrandizement, of shady characters or unfortunate incidents encountered on The Ave. The University’s safety notification emails, with their weekly litany of assaults and petty thefts, further reinforce an us-versus-them mentality, a sort of clash of cultures between the University’s educated elite and the neighborhood’s violent, conspicuous poor. Roy tells the story of Ranjan, a Kolkata slum resident who expresses puzzlement at the persistence of homelessness in the U.S. “How is this the case?” Ranjan asks. “Why doesn’t the government simply allow them to take over vacant land like we have? Aren’t they citizens? Don’t they have rights?” According to Roy, Ranjan “asks a third world question of the first world;” she implores us to do the same. What would such a question look like in the case of the University District? What is at stake when we seek to see proximate poverty as “familiar,” while at the same time striving to “unknow” it? The task at hand is undoubtedly a difficult one. To unknow poverty, Roy contends, is to find “the impossible space between two extremes: on the one hand, the hubris of benevolence…and on the other hand, the paralysis of cynicism.” In the University District, the coalition of nonprofit organizations forming the University District Service Providers Alliance is one manifestation of the attempt to wed service provision to civil rights education; individual care to policy advocacy. Poverty scholars speak of “contact zones,” or “mutable sites/moments of interaction in which differences are made explicit and can lead to new negotiations of identity, privilege, political responsibility and alliance” (Vicky Lawson and Sarah Elwood, “Encountering Poverty: Space, Class and Poverty Politics,” forthcoming). The opportunities for contact zones on campus, in the street, or within these nonprofits, are numerous. One challenge social service organizations face is breaking down traditional volunteer-client relationships of power. Yet, with issues like economic inequality, public transportation and gentrification gaining urgency across social classes, the interests of the poor and the non-poor become increasingly aligned. In fact, in pockets of Seattle, the line between poor and non-poor actors is already blurry. Newcomers to a U-District homeless shelter for young adults often remark that they can’t tell who is a volunteer and who is a homeless guest. It is almost a mark of pride for the community there that such boundaries are continually being redrawn, at least on the level of outward appearance. It’s a lesson I would do well to remember the next time I see the iPads in the laundromat.

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