Monday, August 12, 2013

That time I forgot the title of my blog

The other day I mentioned my blog to someone. They said, “Oh, you mean 'Urban Restoration'?"  It took me a minute to register what they were saying. I had forgotten the name of my blog.

Okay, “forgotten” might not be the exact word I’m looking for, but neither is “remembered.” It was somewhere in the subconscious, so familiar that I didn't notice it anymore. In the moment the other person said it, though, all I could think was how presumptuous it sounded.

It was at least three years ago when I started blogging about our move back to the city. We were committed to the ideals of anti-racism, social justice, and some vague concept of solidarity. I had dreams of little projects with the neighborhood kids. “Urban Restoration” had a nice, self-congratulatory ring to it.

Three years later, we barely know any of our neighbors. The houses are being bought up one by one by young, wealthy entrepreneurs, and renovated to the point that the original occupants of the neighborhood can no longer afford to live there.

And I’ve been growing and learning about the topics of "race," racism, White privilege, and solidarity. I came into the neighborhood believing that I would be the one to restore it. The more I learn, the more I am convinced that my “renovations” had as much potential to bring harm as they did good.

More than that, I began to realize that it was me who needs restoration.

I don't say that flippantly or as a false attempt at humility. I absolutely believe that I am deficient. My experience of White privilege all my life, my middle-class, sheltered socioeconomic status, and my lack of diverse friendships have all left me culturally and spiritually bereft. My ability to view the world is suppressed and stilted. In other words, I don’t even have a good grasp on reality or my own identity. Further, I don't know what the neighborhood needs because I haven't done the long hard work of solidarity.

I looked up the word "restoration" in the dictionary and have included the first three definitions here.

a. bringing back to a former position or condition
b. restitution, a making good of or giving an equivalent for some injury
c. a restoring to an unimpaired or improved condition

The first definition feels consistent with the ideology of the developers, entrepreneurs and young, White hipsters who have moved into our neighborhood. They are trying to preserve the past, capturing something nostalgic about a time gone by on Cherokee Street. You might even tack on the third definition, and that would include my husband and me as we tackle renovation projects on our house.

However, the second definition, that of restitution, is the one that I think resonates with me the most at this point. It’s also an ideal that I hear from non-profit and social justice ministries around the city. The idea is that things are not right, there are blatant injustices, and "we" have to do something about it.

This last group is made up of well-meaning people, mostly middle-class White folks, including myself, who come in to the neighborhood on a mission. "We" adopt a mostly traditional missionary role and set out to help “these people.” At face value it seems like a good thing. I might be tempted to think, “What’s the harm in it?”

The answer is, “A lot.” The feedback I hear from Black brothers and sisters is that within these “missions,” White privilege is reproduced. Subtle, unconscious racism is enacted. Some people are helped. Some people are harmed. But in the end, the SYSTEM is not changed. Social inequality and the status quo are maintained.

For example, many organizations have tutoring ministries. These are much needed, but in the end there are not enough tutors to go around. Many children fall through the cracks. In the meantime, none of these “missionaries” will even put their own children in the public schools. They make comments about what they think is wrong with the schools, but in reality, they don't actually know. They just watched some documentary and decide they have the problem figured out.

These social justice ministries become spaces where White people contend to be the White person who "gets it." I myself am implicated in this foolishness, and not only in the past, if I am honest with myself.

The truth is, I don't "get it" and I never will. 

I will always need to rely on the voices of the marginalized to help me see clearly. I will never know what the neighborhood needs. I will always have to draw from the funds of knowledge of others who have lived "in the neighborhood."  They have the clear vantage point that I do not have. My capacity to listen and learn is the only thing that can grow in order to prevent me from reproducing injustice.

What I have to bring to the neighborhood is a pipeline. When resources come my way, I direct them and put them in the hands of the people in the neighborhood. I don't insist that I remain in charge of these resources, because remember, I don't have the knowledge to know where these resources should go. I don't know better than the people in the neighborhood. They know what they need.

My question is when will "we" really throw in our lot with our neighbors and their children? We must stop working outside the system, when the system is what perpetuates injustice. We must stop running the show and trying to save people, when we should be coming along side people, allowing that they are capable to know what they need. After all, “we” are implicated in this very system. We are the ones in need of restoration.

This is pretty hard-hitting, so I would love to hear from folks.  Please feel free to comment. 


  1. Thanks for your honesty in this post. It is the exact opposite of the savior complex that i have seen folks bring into the neighborhood. Through vulnerability, you describe yourself as needing restoration true reconciliation and solidarity. This leaves me feeling hopeful for the church!

    To push your epistemological thoughts on what white people can or cannot see a bit more, I actually do not agree that you can never know what is needed in the community. I would say that through perseverance and 'stickwithitness' in reconciled solidarity with those on the margins, I think people's eyes themselves are restored over time. However, I understand that you are pushing back against people coming from dominant culture that are thinking they "get it" while still operating from a posture of privilege that has not submmitted to the community to learn, grow, and be "restored" over a long sustained period of time. So I guess your emphasis is appropriate, given that context. Keep walking alongside marginalized and oppressed people and hearing their stories, and it will continue to transform you and your eyes.

    Anyway, I really love what you have written here and what you are doing overall on your blog. Your contributions are vital, so keep speaking the truth.

    1. Haha! I wrote my comment before I saw Drew's. But as usual, we're on the same page. You're awesome, Lauren!

  2. I absolutely tend towards critical without much hope, at the moment. Thank you for the push to continue to look for restoration. I'm learning to believe that it is truly possible. If not by God's grace, then how? Another way I insist, as a dear friend did in his sermon this Sunday, if we have made a claim that we follow Christ, we must be different somehow.

  3. In terms of absolute experiential understanding, though, I can be compassionate or empathetic, but still never quite have a particular experience. Most people who have not lived in poverty, regardless of racial identity, will not have had the experience of going hungry, for example. I can fast. I can live simply. But I will never truly experience not knowing where my next meal will come from.

    Or in terms of racial identity, I can empathize about discriminatory treatment because I am a woman, and have experienced bias in that regard. But I will never actually have the experience of going through the world as a person of color.

    I might say the same for men, who might sympathize with women, and yet still not actually have that experience. Etc.

  4. Lauren, this is beautifully honest! I appreciate your words and your heart for all of God's goodness in your neighborhood -- not the privileged version of God's goodness.

    I want to affirm you, commend you and say with certainty that you've "gotten it." Privileged folks' version of "getting it" means acknowledging that "I will always need to rely on the voices of the marginalized to help me see clearly." The commitment to lifelong humble interdependence is the game-changer and the evidence that we're finally ready to participate in this great work.

    I'll also add that you bring a unique and valuable perspective as a white woman from a middle class background who is made in the image of God. You're an image bearer too. Don't ever forget that; we must honor the image of God in ourselves in order to honor the image of God in others.

    Love this piece! Grateful for you.

    1. I appreciate your feedback and encouragement. I hear you--I am learning to value who I am, as well as who others are. Thank you again for your work.


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