Giving

December 10, 2007 at 8:44 pm 3 comments

I’ll be posting some more suggestions for charitable donations soon, something I plan to do all year round and not just at this “special time of the year.” In the meantime, I’m mulling over an idea that has gained a lot of momentum in recent years—that this sort of giving (soup kitchens, coat drives, writing a check for $50–100) is people’s small way of assuaging their guilt for having so much while others are hungry and homeless (not to mention countryless, thanks to our disastrous foreign policy). Or that it doesn’t do a thing, at best acts like a Band-aid in the absence of real systemic change, so the only person who really benefits is the giver, psychologically.

A good analysis of this idea is Jay Michaelson’s It’s the Deep Structure, Stupid, appearing in the online magazine Zeek this month. Read it if you can, as Michaelson is an avid hair splitter and incisive writer.

dinnerspan600.jpgRecently we’ve had an interesting “test case,” for lack of a better description, in Queens: the recent “controversy” over the chicken and rice man. On November 25, the New York Times profiled Jorge Muñoz, an immigrant from Columbia who comes every night to Roosevelt Ave. and 73rd St. to give out free meals to day laborers. These are illegal immigrants who gather at this corner trying to get a few days’ work on a construction or demolition site in Long Island—essentially 10 hours of grueling labor per day in exchange for maybe $100. There isn’t enough work to go around, so most of these men spend their days waiting in quiet, hungry, and often homeless desperation,* since many of them have families in their home countries that are dependent on their remittances. As the U.S. economy has slowed, their numbers on Roosevelt and 73rd have been growing, along with the number of meals supplied by the chicken and rice man.

Once the story “broke,” it became a true cause célèbre in Jackson Heights, which has several enviable community-oriented blogs and listserves. On one such listserve, there was a vigorous debate on what to do for—and about—the day laborers. Opinions ranged and raged. On one end were people who wanted to help the chicken and rice man cook/give out food or who wanted to contribute money. On the other end were people who, while not disputing that Jorge Muñoz is an “angel,” worry about what the presence of these day laborers means for the area; crime, fear, outdoor urination, vandalism, and cat calling were some of the concerns mentioned and hashed out. In the heat of the cyber moment, accusations of being heartless, anti-immigrant, naive, and self-serving flew wildly. I can’t really do this debate justice here, but suffice it to say that it was heartfelt and sustained.

The thread, however, finally made its way to the reality check: No matter what you do for the day laborers, nothing is going to stop them from coming and agglomerating for the sake of trying to find work, because there are larger factors at play—global, systemic ones—that handing over $20, providing a center, or even gainfully employing all of these men will never solve.

Feeling helpless yet? It didn’t stop the residents of Jackson Heights from stepping forward to help Muñoz, and apparently some 50+ readers of the original Times article have come together to help him get grant money to improve his operations.

Of course the reality-thinking approach is true, but I believe that with every systemic problem—be it in a family, a business, a school—there are both micro and macro approaches to getting our hands around them. Thus every small act of kindness, every contribution, remains worth it, even though they can’t stem the inexorable tide of bad consequences that are unleashed by powers and systems well beyond our control. As for those, I pull from Jay Michaelson:

I’m truthfully not sure what individual action can do to stop huge oil development companies from exploiting regional differences to foment unrest to further their economic objectives. But I have a sense it isn’t voting these people into political power, as Americans have done for the last two presidential elections.

This is something for all of us to ponder as we head into 2008. Our giving is ultimately only as good as the framework through which we do so; otherwise, it will just be a Band-aid, but what else can you do to stop the bleeding?

*My thanks to Aaron Schock, for making available to all an excerpt of his excellent film Song of Roosevelt Ave., linked above for viewing.

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Entry filed under: community, Do Gooding, Forest Hills, timely topic, volunteering.

Thanking the Teacher(s) The Neighborhoods of Queens

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anne  |  December 11, 2007 at 10:52 am

    This is a very interesting post, tying together many of the loose threads of our tattered society. I didn’t entirely agree with the emphasis on the concept of giving as a way of assuaging guilt for having so much. While that’s part of the story (like buying carbon credits to offset less than green use), some give because they were raised well and understand that one just gives back, others, for a there but for the grace of God could have been me (like wearing garlic around your neck to keep evil at bay) and additional reasons, like remembering and honoring a loved one. An article in today’s Times Science section provides an insightful look at the psychology of giving [presents], that is not wholly en pointe, but is somewhat related.

    Reply
  • 2. Shelby Meyerhoff  |  December 12, 2007 at 10:41 am

    It sounds like “chicken and rice man” (and those who have volunteered to help him) are not merely in the food distribution business. By approaching homeless immigrants in-person, on the street, they are acknowledging the existence and worth of these immigrants. Homeless people are often treated as invisible (or worse), so it is a meaningful act for housed people to go out and build relationships with them.

    I agree that it’s not a substitute for systematic change, but I would bet that the people who have some experience working directly with the homeless (or being homeless) are also those most passionately fighting for housing reform and other programs to reduce homelessness.

    Reply
  • 3. karbeth  |  December 12, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    That was one of my thoughts, too, Shelby. Everything I hear re: the illegal immigrant debate sickens me. It can only derive from a mental categorizing of them as “the other,” and the distance created by that emboldens people to regard them as a “problem” to be dealt with. For some, it’s a human problem, for others it’s as if it’s some plague or virus. As with all people, once you understand who they are, where they come from, and why they are standing where they are standing (figuratively, here), any preconceived notions you might have are up for grabs. It behooves all of to know more about “the others” in our world.

    Reply

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