How to Differentiate Between Us and Them
It is a lot easier to compartmentalize people into “us” and “them” categories than it is to find the unifying theme that we are all in this together.
A Story about Us
Ms. Owens was the first homeless person that I knew.
I did not know that Ms. Owens was homeless at the time. As a nine year-old kid I was told that Ms. Owens lived with her adult daughter and grandchildren on an old dilapidated school bus that was parked in the front yard of her property. The grass had grown up around it and it did not look like it was going anywhere anytime soon.
To me this was a home, albeit an unorthodox one. The actual house that sat on the lot had suffered a fire years ago, leaving it uninhabitable. I think that the house had never had an indoor bathroom so the family continued to use the outhouse in the back. I wondered where they got their water to cook or brush their teeth.
Ms. Owens lived down the road from my grandparents’ farm and I guess you could say that she was self-employed. She walked along the rural highways and through the drainage ditches collecting bottles and cans for redemption. I am not sure if there was any other resources coming into her household or if this was the entirety of her income. I don’t know if her adult daughter was employed. I never saw her grandchildren.
I came to know Ms. Owens because my grandmother would set aside her bottles and cans for Ms. Owens to collect when she turned off the rural highway where my grandparents lived to walk back to her school bus home. I would be at the farm for summer vacations. With the doors and windows open to let the breeze in, my grandmother would sometimes look out and notice Ms. Owens walking toward the house to collect her wares. She would go out on the back porch to say hello to Ms. Owens and I would eagerly follow, always up for a social call.
Ms. Owens was quiet and polite and always acted deferential towards my grandmother. Miss Jewell, as she was called, was a former school teacher at the two-room school in Eli and garnered a great deal of love and respect from her community. The two women would exchange pleasantries and share any news about the folks who lived nearby.
What I remember most about these interactions was that my grandmother always treated Ms. Owens with a recognition of her inherent worth and humanity. She was my grandmother’s neighbor and therefore she was one of us. And as a kid who was growing up 1,000 miles away from this rural farming community where my father’s ancestors had lived for 200 years, in a relatively modern suburb where my neighbors all seemed to know or be related to one another, my daily reality did not include feeling like an “us.”
A story about them
Last week I attended a conference downtown in a well-known office building full of smart hardworking people. We were all there to talk about new and innovative ways to serve financially disenfranchised households. At one point in the meeting one of the presenters made a comment that went something like, “You must realize that the people that you are trying to serve are nothing like you.”
So, if the logic follows, the people in business attire who were sitting in the conference room of this well-known office building were the “us,” while the hardworking people across America who were working to support their households on meager wages – the very people we work to serve – were the “them”? That comment did not square with me.
What if there were no them?
I am going to suggest a thought experiment, so bare with me: What if we thought of everyone – neighbors and clients and people in office buildings – as “us”? How would that change our thoughts and behaviors? How would that change how we do our work?
This by no means implies that I think that I have a full understanding of everyone else’s life experiences. Nor do I attest to know what their hopes and dreams are for themselves and their families. In order to know this I need to ask them, and I need to really listen to what they tell me. What I hear might jive with my own life experience, or it might not. But it will be really interesting to learn. And it might make my work more effective.
By suggesting that we try to think of everyone we meet as “us” is to constantly remind ourselves that we are all in this together. We are living our lives and going to our jobs and supporting our households and managing our money. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got and we are trying to do better. And we can support one another in that pursuit.