Mel Shuaipi (’15)
Naples, Florida/Tirana, Albania
Poor people. Poor is the adjective describing “people”, the noun. This is what we refer to “them”. There is an “us”, the privileged, and then there is “them”, the poor, oppressed and discriminated people.
The first three weeks of bank meetings with Esperanza’s loan officers I felt like a tourist in the communities. I was visiting these places, taking pictures, talking to people, watching their children run around without clothes, playing with makeshift toys. I noticed how they cooked with fire because there was no electricity, how a family of as many as 8 lived in a house the size of a college dorm, how many were built with wood or scraps of tin, how the communities were in the middle of sugarcane fields or mountains at least 45 minutes away by car from a main road. I listened, I watched, I observed, I spoke, I took pictures, I discussed with my family what I had seen, and shared with friends that work in similar environments. I felt anger, guilt, sympathy, horror, pity, sadness, and privilege. I felt like there were great injustices here. I thought, “my life is so different, I have never experienced this”. There is me, and here is them. I have so much privilege. I will never suffer like this. I felt extremely awkward to come to bank meetings and ask associates to talk to me about their business, the impact of the loans on their business, their family, their community, or if they had experienced any problems. Some were shy, suspicious, and a little hesitant to answer questions from someone so foreign. I explained the questions were so I could write a story to show the progress and the incredible entrepreneurial spirit they had. I was doing these interviews to get information to write a story Esperanza could use to show everyone they are connected with the fantastic people the organization serves. It was to show that even “poor” people could accomplish incredible things if they have a fraction of support the rest of us overachievers have had access to. It was a world divided into poor people and privileged people. I thought of the people that live in the communities we visit as poor people because they didn’t have money, they didn’t have the opportunities I had. The Haitian population especially is heavily discriminated. I did not see myself as any higher or worth more in any sense. I felt guilty for winning the lottery of being born a white female in Europe to middle class parents with professional careers. I attend a private university in the United States and have access to some of the most powerful resources to make myself successful. Poverty was unfamiliar to me. It was exotic.
The summer before my first year of college I realized I could not do anything with my life that did not involve fighting for people who suffer. I cannot give meaning to having passion for a job, or a career where I am not fighting against injustice. Since that summer my goal has been to use my academic environment as a platform to prepare and equip myself as much as possible to be able to fight for people who are suffering; “fight forpeople who are suffering”. The impulse to feel this way has many cultural and historical implications.
One afternoon I came home from a day in the El Seibo branch office feeling lively and light. The bank meetings we had that day were fantastic. The meeting in La Gina batey was especially great as we passed the last ten minutes laughing uncontrollably. I was with loan officer Aneury that day. Aneury sometimes allows me to help him fill out the associates’ libretas, the small booklets where were information about the loan is written. In the last ten minutes of the meeting at La Gina batey, Aneury was still filling out libretas. I took a chair, sat close to the associates and said, “You know, I can fill out these libretas faster than Aneury. Esperanza should fire him and hire me to work instead! You guys would like me more than Aneury right?” They all chuckled and said, “Well we like him a lot but you would also be great.” The associates didn’t need much more. After my comment they continued with jokes and for the next ten minutes we were thirty people in a bank meeting holding our stomachs and throwing our heads back in laughter. Later, when we were getting ready to leave I thought, “I cannot wait to come back here again, they are hilarious”. I walked back to the car and felt I had experienced something so familiar. I had said “see you in two weeks” in genuine excitement to come back in two weeks not to conduct more interviews with poor people but to make jokes again, to laugh with them, and to ask “Hey! How are you?” This feeling triggered me to think about a chain of assumptions, perceptions and images I had of the world. I spend the entire afternoon thinking and critiquing myself.
The following statements are my conclusions.
Where we are born is a lottery. People are not born poor, nor do they want to grow up poor, remain poor, or like being poor people. They are people born into areas of poverty. They are people who suffer from the artificial and socially created phenomenon of poverty. The areas in the world today where poverty exists the most are a result of a combination and sequence of historical events and political decisions, of structures such as imperialism and capitalism, and of social phenomenon like discrimination and racism, all created by humans. The result today is severe poverty in specific regions and extreme affluence in others. Poverty is not created by nature. It is created by oppression, greed, racism, sexism, discrimination, oppression, and other elements generated by humans and perpetuated by our societies and the institutions we have built.
I cannot call them poor people. I cannot appropriate an adjective to a group of people describing a state of being they did not chose, they were not born with, they do not like, and that they fight against. The associates of Esperanza are not poor people; they are people living in poverty and suffering from it.
I no longer think of myself as “fighting for other people”. I am not fighting for them because they are extremely capable of fighting for themselves and already do. My internship at Esperanza pushed me to realize this. All of our associates are fighting poverty. They fight from a disadvantaged position, an uphill battle, because to suffer from poverty means fight in a society that constructed their suffering. I will not be fighting for people. I will fight with them. To do this I cannot simply see poverty. It cannot be an exotic experience to visit communities and be a tourist in what is a reality for people who suffer. It is true I have not lived in poverty, I have not suffered from institutional racism, and I will most likely not suffer as much in my life. Poverty is not my reality. The way I can internalize fighting with people against a reality I have not experienced is to think of us as the same people with different conditions. The fight is against those conditions.
In conclusion, I write the stories of Esperanza associates to reflect the struggle and the fight against poverty and the astonishing accomplishments they have obtained with a bit of support. I will reflect that by taking out microloans associates directly fight against a banking institution that says, “You are not worthy of a loan because you do not have collateral. You are not like the others.” They fight by having businesses, by making a profit, by progressing, by learning, and by innovating. They fight by being entrepreneurs. They have challenges, as any other person may and I will write about the challenges because that is their life. Their stories are not ones of flawless progress or immediate development. It would be unfair to write them as such. Their stories are about overcoming struggle and winning battles against institutional oppression.
It is these stories people need to read.