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Urban understanding

| Thursday, March 27, 2014

I vowed never to participate in any program vaguely related to Urban Plunge, mainly because I disagree with the idea of instilling compassion by “plunging” students into “urban” life.

I disagree with the idea of throwing somebody into a community of the “other,” visiting a soup kitchen or two, then returning to the comforts of Notre Dame with a heightened appreciation that they don’t have to live below living wages in the inner-city they would never dare to drive through on their own accord. Though not everybody has this type of experience, many do.

Admittedly, I was hesitant to take part in a Center for Social Concerns service trip after adamantly being against Urban Plunge. I was cautious to participate in the Migrant Experience Seminar in Immokalee, Fla., this Spring Break, a migrant community less than an hour away from the affluent Naples.

They say these things are life-changing. I once scoffed at the idea that one service trip down South could so quickly change a person’s life. But having experienced it firsthand, it doesn’t seem so absurd anymore. I would have never expected this trip would be one that changed my life, perspective and attitude on my Notre Dame community.

The goal of our trip was to live and be in solidarity with the migrant workers with whom we would work throughout the week. We wanted to understand the migrant experience, not just pity and frown at the injustices we observed. I was skeptical of the idea that we would be able to see the situation in a way different from an isolated outsider’s perspective.

This was a collective fear. We did not want to come in feeling like saviors of the poor, bringing our precious time and efforts to volunteer at a soup kitchen for two hours. And I believe we completely avoided that.

The greatest experiences we had during our time in Florida were the ones in which we actually interacted with community members. This was when we were in the greatest solidarity. Haitian men taught us Creole before the sun came up, five-foot Latino men danced “bachatas” with us during protests in the city, we spoke Spanish and understood. Though sometimes lost in translation along the way, we tried. And that’s the important thing: trying to understand, laughing, talking and sharing donut holes in dirt-paved parking lots before sunrise.

Even greater was the fact that big things are happening in Immokalee. We came in expecting dire circumstances of the great human injustices we read so extensively about in preparation. Instead we found improvement, cooperation and so much goodwill penetrating this community, not only from inhabitants, but from surrounding cities as well. People cared, and that’s the most important part.
However, I still have an issue performing service in college. I don’t want to appear as though I am better than others because I am helping them. For many of those receiving aid, it is difficult not to question the intentions of the wealthier individuals helping at a homeless shelter or food banks.

I have heard students here state they did community service because it made them feel like a better Catholic, making their “chances of getting into heaven better.”

My greatest fear was spending the week with students who pitied the migrant workers, frowning and silently observing the other, uncomfortable and displaced in a place they had never seen or known even existed — a reaction, I’ll reiterate, voiced by some who have participated in service projects in the past.

Instead I spent the week with 10 amazing people, consisting of business majors, arts and letters majors and even a science major. Instead of being set in our own opinions and ideals around the issue, we discussed, debated and changed our views on just about everything at some point during the trip.

We came in wanting to learn, not only from the migrant community, but from each other as well. And we did. Some of us learned the greater economic implications of higher wages and the change we were trying to obtain, while others were able to bring back a greater ethical view on the business side of it all.

Even greater, I have never laughed or smiled more in my entire life (or at least within the last semester,) which says a lot considering I am almost always doing both. Sometimes during late night discussions in our cramped house shared with 30 other college students, I found myself stopping and feeling for my cheeks, numb from laughter. I am grateful for this handful of Notre Dame students who broadened my perspective on the community I sometimes find myself clashing with.

I don’t think any of us expected to enjoy our trip as much as we did. When friends ask what was so great about my trip, I struggle to find the words to describe it. But during our final meeting of the year, one boy summarized it perfectly: “We went down there to experience solidarity with these people, but we also found solidarity with ourselves.”

All hearts clear.

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

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About Katrina Linden

Katrina Linden is a sophomore English and Latino Studies major living in Lewis Hall.

Contact Katrina