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Entering into South Bend

Leila Green | Tuesday, September 18, 2012

There exists a far-away land inhabited by true humans not too far away from the glory that is Notre Dame. In this mostly uncharted region lie unheard-of spectacles: unkept lawns, crime, even such horrors as gas stations and Planned Parenthoods. In this mystical land, the median household income is approximately $32,000 and North Face jackets are much rarer. This land that I speak of is South Bend, and it exists on the outer realm of reality of most Notre Dame students. If you leave the glorious dome you are required to enter the real world and perhaps might even have to use public transportation. Beware . . .
 . . .

When I first visited Notre Dame, I inevitably had to pass through South Bend. You know? That city we live in? I will admit; I was not impressed. South Bend is not the greatest place in the world. Not even in Indiana. Not even in northwestern Indiana. This fact gave me initial apathy toward the city. However, this past summer I realized that I’ve been a terrible South Bendian, but a great Domer, and came to the conclusion that this discrepancy is morally wrong.

I find it shameful that most of us students dismiss South Bend as a wasteland riddled with “townies” when we, for all purposes, are South Bend residents. True, Notre Dame has its own zip code and power plant, but we are nevertheless embedded in the South Bend community. Once you get past the glare of the Golden Dome, you can actually make out some of the city with the naked eye.
I asked several Notre Dame students the first word that came to mind was when I said “South Bend.” Their answers?

“Drab,” one said.
“Miserable,” another said.
“Kafkaesque,” said another, clearly refined student.

The contradictory juxtaposition of a wealthy university in a struggling, small city is destined to cause friction, which is heightened by skewed perceptions of each other. While South Bend residents may shun perceivably haughty Notre Dame students, we have unequivocally prescribed them the title of “townie,” which has derogatory connotations.

Despite its imperfections, we as students should strive to be members of the South Bend community. We go to Africa, South America and India to do service and simultaneously shun the very city we live in most of the year. We should be as passionate about service in South Bend as we are about service around the world.

I am proposing a challenge to all students on this campus: leave your comfort zone, enter more fully into the South Bend community and use your gifts to improve the city.

Leaving your comfort zone does not mean eating at Taco Bell. It means doing things you wouldn’t normally do. There is true value in leaving the shell you have built around yourself and deviating from your own conventions, practices and routines. This value is learning more about yourself and the world around you. It is easy to stay closed off to the unknown, get wrapped up in our own lives and remain complacent with our privilege. This general complacency is tamed by ignorance and fear.

What is the opposite of complacency? Displacement. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, explains this theological concept as a “move or shift from the ordinary or proper place.” Displacement allows us to experience our true condition and, as Nouwen said, “leads to compassionate living because it moves us from positions of distinction to positions of sameness.” Displacement reminds us that we’re all members of the same human family. We should all strive to be displaced.

Many great students have already entered into the South Bend community. They should disregard this article. This article is for those who are afraid and don’t think leaving the Notre Dame bubble is necessary.

My challenge to you is to take action. You cannot complain about dirty dishes if there’s a sponge in your hand. It’s easy to complain about South Bend. It is honorable to do something about it. Identify something that could be improved and take action! You are capable and have the resources.

This city is filled with amazing people who are worth getting to know – people that you have more in common with than you may presume. I met a homeless man at the local soup kitchen. After talking for a while, we discovered that we spent a large part of our lives living in the same rural Mississippi town. After this discovery, I pondered the oddness of coincidences and came to the conclusion that our similarities weren’t implausible miracles, but inevitable commonalities. Voluntary displacement and recognition of the universal human condition are essential in overcoming classism and unifying as one. We are all people, after all.


Leila Green can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.