I just finished my last year as President of the Big Brothers Big Sisters Board. I am so proud of where our team has taken us in the last five years. When I was asked to write an article for the Agency to be published on Thurston Talk, I tried. Everything ended up sounding like fluff, and this was the only thing I felt good about putting out there. That being said, it was a little too "strong of a voice" for the Agency take, so my friend there encouraged me to post it here. So, if you want to know how I really feel about Big Brothers Big Sisters, here you go.
This year, more than ever, it feels like our world is rooting itself in an us v. them duality. Donald Trump supporters v. Hillary Clinton supporters. Immigrants v. native born citizens. Rich v. poor. You’re either with us or you’re against us.
I have found this way of thinking typically only works when you are detached from the other side. You only demonize business owners when you do not know someone who started a business from scratch. You only demonize employees when you do not have a friend who gets up to work a graveyard shift everyday.
The socioeconomic divide in our country seems to be growing. I am not speaking of dollars and decimals, but of an us v. them way of thinking. We see both “Tax the rich.” posters and “Get a job.” rants. Many have lost interest in understanding those with different backgrounds and instead, swap shots across the bow. Big Brothers Big Sisters has done more to expand my worldview and bridge the gap between my socioeconomic background and that of another, than any Jamie Oliver or Fox News show.
When Ash and I were matched through Big Brothers Big Sisters, she was 8 years old. Her mother had recently gotten off of meth, moved into a halfway house, and regained custody of her kids. Just as Ash had never intimately known someone who had owned a home, I had never intimately known someone who was on welfare. Just as I had never been to a home where there was day old dog poop on the floor, Ash had never been to a home where a family cooked a meal and ate it together at the dining room table.
The Big Brothers Big Sisters program is designed to provide a mentor for children facing adversity. In the last 12 years as Ash’s Big Sister and as the President of the Board here in Olympia, I have seen countless examples of the difference the organization has made in permanently shifting the course of kids’ lives for the better, forever. What we do not document in our metrics is the impact our organization has on moving beyond us v. them society for ALL of us.
My family is made up of upper middle class, libertarian, business owners. When I first met Ash, she had deeply held beliefs about what that meant. She sat across from me at dinner when she was in her early teens befuddled and said, “Your family voted for Rob McKenna? But your family cares about poor people.” Her world view was such that if you voted for a republican, you did not care about poor people. When Ash first met me, she told me she was planning to be on welfare, because her mom was and that’s what she wanted to do. I silently judged her and outwardly tried to challenge her behavior with my comments. My world view was such that if you wanted to be on welfare, you were lazy and did not add value to our society.
How wrong we were. Through our relationship, Ash and I taught each other so much about our different socioeconomic backgrounds. How to navigate social workers and group homes. That most behaviors are learned and if I had been plopped into her life or she into mine, we would have learned the same things. How to complete taxes from your job. That cyclical poverty lingers in generations the same way an entrepreneurial spirit does. How to love someone unconditionally. And most importantly, that our similarities outweigh our differences.
During the holidays, it can be hard to know how to honor our privilege in a meaningful way that goes beyond the us v. them to true understanding. I hope Ash inspires you to listen to someone you have put in the “them” category and foster the connection we have captured from Big Brothers Big Sisters in your own life. If you need a gift idea, how about a donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters in Ash Hill’s name. I can’t think of a better way to start a conversation with your teenage daughter about gratitude or your Trump/Clinton supporting Uncle about kindness. And I would love telling Ash about how she inspired you. We can choose to be overwhelmed by despair and let it separate us or we can choose to come together in understanding. Ash and I choose Us AND Them.
To donate in honor of Ash Hill, click here: http://www.swwabigs.org/donate/