I thought I was going to be a career teacher. But after a decade, I hit bottom. Teaching in inner-city schools, I saw the barriers my students faced and confronted my own limits caused by my vastly different experience growing up. I had some positive, uplifting experiences, but I wasn’t very resilient, and I kept losing my footing.
After I stopped teaching, I was able to take a break and not immediately get another job. This was enabled by my family’s wealth – made from a Pennsylvania industrial tube manufacturing company.
I took the space to read and talk to people, and engage with others in Resource Generation, a network of people with wealth under age 35 who organize for equitable redistribution.
I asked myself, How can I use this privilege? What am I uniquely positioned to do that the world is asking for – not in a superhero way, but in a way that benefits the world, including me. The answer for me was to be fully myself and connected with the world.
In my home in the Port neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., I’m a gentrifier. I came in with money, but I didn’t have a network here. I didn’t know who was in my neighborhood.
Over the course of many conversations with new and old neighbors, I co-founded a pay-what-you-can community meal called the Port Café, a space where neighbors come together over shared food, across differences of race and class.
Through the Port Café, I got to know my neighbors and made friends with people from very different backgrounds. Throughout the process, I was completely upfront about who I was, developing an ability to be honest in a sustained way.
And part of that honesty has been explaining to people that my life has been limited by having access to money, that I’ve missed out.
Combining Our Strengths
I used to believe that the only wealth is money. There are many types of wealth and my neighbors have non-financial wealth that I don’t have.
Many wealthy people see their privilege and believe they should be more charitable. But I realized that I’m not whole, I’m missing something. And that other people, who live without privilege, hold an essential piece of the puzzle.
I feel as though I’ve experienced poverty of the spirit. When I was teaching, I was confronted with a rough situation, and it crushed me. This was, in part, because I hadn’t built up a resilient spirit.
Similar to my work with Resource Generation, my involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement has shown me that I have experienced a poverty of intellect, the inability to see the systems of privilege and oppression that surrounded me. It is humbling to admit this, but this is what I was born into.
My upbringing as a White person means my understanding of race is constructed completely upside down, as James Baldwin pointed out. Race is a fulcrum of American delusion and illusion, a justification for maintaining power.
In both regards to race and class I know now that I’ve been fooled, used as a tool of atrocity, given goodies to keep me silent and ignorant about the oppression that happens in my name. To ignore that truth is to kill something inside myself.
I am called to do this work around white privilege and wealth advantage. I started a blog called Risk Something to explore the way forward, away from guilt and into true solidarity. I feel like I can harness and boil down some of the lessons, to offer a path to white people seeking a way out of silent complicity.
First, surrender to the fact that we are born into complicity, that it’s not our fault, but that it is our responsibility. This is not about facts or arguments. It is fundamentally spiritual work. I think our spiritual survival is hanging in the balance. Through our complicity with the violence and physical harm toward people of color, our souls are destroyed.
Surrender is a precondition for being able to do the work. On the bright side, now I get to show up with everything I have. I have inherent value. I don’t think I’m worthless because I’m an oppressor. I’m positioned to do valuable work, but first I have to surrender.
There is something striking about Abraham Lateiner, which is his piercing honesty and open-heartedness. I first met Abraham when he reached out to talk about privilege – and we’ve had many conversations.” Chuck Collins, author and senior scholar, Institute for Policy Studies
My Take Away
When I tell people about my circumstances, they are surprised or shocked by my honesty. But the positive responses outweigh any negativity. The people who have responded harshly also tend to share a privileged identity. We are most vicious to people who remind us of ourselves.
Ultimately, the only thing that allows me to be part of justice work is honesty. Honesty is scary when I show up with so much privilege. My identity, my ways of being, the way I look at the world – all of these things are potential minefields because they have been born out of supremacist mentalities.
But now honesty is the number one offering that I have.