Monday, February 18, 2013

Bridging Gaps

About 9 months ago, I took a new job that was a big change for me.  Before the move, I worked in an office where the lowest-paid employees were the admin assistants.  Even the entry-level employees made at least $35k a year plus benefits, wore slacks to work, and kept up the "corporate" feel.  The new job was a pay raise for me, but it brought me a new perspective to the workforce.

The biggest difference in my new work environment was having my floor full of mostly office workers, but the first floor full of mostly field workers.  Around me were engineers, CAD designers, managers and directors.  It felt very "corporate" like the old job.  But when you went downstairs, it was to visit the people who fix the water pipes, or the guys who maintain the parks, or the ones who fill potholes.  Excluding a few who bridged the gap, these were two separate worlds.

My job is one of the unique positions that naturally bridges this gap.  I work with several departments, so I'm in direct contact with several of the managers and supervisors, and in some departments have opportunities to built relationships with the front-line field workers.  And I enjoy this part, because I also see how people upstairs (sometimes very directly) demean these guys just because of what they do for a living.  Getting to know the field workers helps me to defend them.

It shows me not only that they deserve respect as much as any person, but I get to hear about the supervisor who dealt with his wife's recovery from surgery, the sewer worker who has 3 little girls at home who he would do anything for, and the guys who have hobbies just like mine.  I get to be reminded constantly that regardless of the car they drive, the clothes they wear, or the numbers on their paycheck, that they are just like everyone who works upstairs.  But they probably deserve more credit, because while they live the same lives as everyone else, they manage to make due with fewer resources.

Do you want to know the flip side?  There are "upstairs" workers who won't hear of equating the two groups.  This was a particular incident just before Christmas.

A group of water an sewer workers were sitting in a training room upstairs for most of a morning.  The training happened to coincide with a day that an upstairs employee brought doughnuts for the office, and one of the trainees found out.  He grabbed a couple pastries (after asking for permission), but one of the upstairs employees found out.  It wasn't 5 minutes before the sewer manager received a text message asking him to "tell his guys to keep their nasty hands off our food" (to the best of my memory, this is a direct quote).  This came from the same person who blocks downstairs workers from participating in any pot-luck lunches upstairs, but also the same person who is found downstairs every time the field workers provide lunch.

Is it me, or does this sound exactly like the radical racism this experienced not 50 years ago?  Has it somehow wrong to target someone because of their race, but OK to target them because of their profession?  If this is true, have we moved forward at all?  Even now we stand in the middle of a nation-wide push for social reform surrounding homosexuality, with outspoken, opinionated individuals on both sides.

Honestly, I think the above situation is rare.  People don't often say such direct, offensive things to people who haven't wronged them some way.  The real problem is the response to these offensive comments.  How often is the person left to defend themselves?  How often does everyone try to ignore it, leaving no opposition to what we all thing is wrong?  How often do we just avoid contact with a person because we "don't want to say the wrong thing," and leave them feeling alone and unsupported?

This is called Unconscious Racism (or Sexism, or Agism, etc.), and I know I carry some guilt from it.  But I've also learned a lot about prejudice in the last year.  From getting to know these field workers and the people who dislike them, to reading a book written by a single white woman who adopted a little black girl, I've been given a whole new perspective on prejudice.  Even moreso since Katie and I have realized how happy we would be to take home a baby whose skin tone doesn't match ours, or whose racial heritage is different from ours.  We've had long discussions about what we would do to make "our" birth mother comfortable in our home, even though society might expect her to feel inferior to us in some strange way.

It has become about bridging gaps, whether racial, financial, religious, or any other.  It has made me realize that everyone deserves love and respect.  It has driven me to make new friends and resurrect old friendships.  It has brought me back to the words of Jesus:

'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV)

Today, I choose to love.

Always moving forward,


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