Experiencing others’ needs leaves instructor thankful, reflective
By Brandon Everest
NMC Social Sciences instructor
Empathy is both a deeply sown human trait and a cultivable skill. It is both a necessary condition of social life and akin to a muscle, something that must be worked to remain fit and healthy. This is especially the case in a culture like ours, which prizes individuality and individualism. With that in mind, my colleagues Lisa Blackford and Melissa Sprenkle and I worked with organizations to create events and activities that, we hoped, would pull on students’ native tendencies and strengthen them. To highlight National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, we encouraged students to participate in three activities: the SNAP Challenge; the NMCAA SleepOut for Warmth; and a Walk for Health & Housing. We believed this would provide them with a deeper connection to the issues we would research and study this semester in our sociology, social work and communications classes.
The SNAP Challenge asks participants to live for a week on the average SNAP benefit of $29. SNAP, America’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provides food support to low-income citizens. In taking the challenge, we joined the 20-25% of SNAP recipients who eat exclusively from these benefits. For the Nov. 4 SleepOut, we joined community leaders sleeping outside to raise funds for Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency’s Utilities Shut off Prevention Fund. Last winter, this fund paid out $1.6 million keep more than 1,500 Northern Michigan families warm. We imagined, if only for one night, what it might be like to be out in the cold. For the Walk for Health & Housing, we joined Ryan Hannon, Goodwill Street Outreach Coordinator, on a guided tour of TC’s downtown. Stopping at various sites, we tried to see through the eyes of unhoused people and gain insight to their challenges in our community.
Little did I know just how much this would affect me personally. Sure, I was hungry, cold and bothered. Yes, I spent a lot of mental energy considering how to strategically feed my family and having my mood affected by this. I slept on high-alert in a loud, cold, downtown space. I got a sense of what it might be like to be ticketed for sleeping downtown or otherwise pushed along for simply being there. I had some inkling of what it might be like if, in buying food, I could zero out my family budget.
But before these activities even began for me, I knew these would stop at some defined point. I knew I would go back to eating healthier foods with quality ingredients, taking warm showers and sleeping in a soft bed in the privacy of my own home, and paying bills on time with a comfortable cushion.
I felt grateful I could do so. Mostly, though, I thought about my students, about half of whom are first generation college learners. I thought about my students who are homeless. I wondered how they can achieve higher learning with minds less nourished. I worried about how they maintain physical and mental health without a stable source of healthy foods or the stability of a home. I was astonished how they make it to school every day with all the competing demands, placed upon all American families, without the means for them. I learned both about the triumphant human spirit and the grit it takes to face these challenges. I felt a deep longing for a world that provided everyone with the means to achieve their personal goals and to become fully-formed and healthy members of society.
More: Read social work instructor Lisa Blackford’s account of her SNAP challenge experience in the White Pine Press.