To build bridges, not walls
Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Injustice, in modern America, is a problem that is alive and well. Few in our society are ready to build relationships, to build bridges. As a community, our response is rather negative, a definite misunderstanding; our perceptions have become polarized; and our response, lazy. At the University of Notre Dame, I expected this problem to be minimized. I expected a strong, Catholic notion of the dignity of all persons to be held to the highest of standards. Unfortunately, this expectation is not what I have found, at least initially.
On a snow-covered January morning, I readied myself to walk to a local school in South Bend, known as Perley Fine Arts Academy. On my journey, I observed a campus gleaming with life: stone gothic arches, navy and green slate-tiled roofs, yellow-cream bricked buildings, landscaped quads and hundreds of energetic and talented people. But, over it all stood the 179-foot-tall dome, gilded in gold and topped with a 4,000-pound statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, the namesake of the University: Notre Dame, Our Mother.
As I continued on the salted, brick-lined sidewalks, I came to a divide: the edge of campus, the “beyond.” Across the street stood the modern, red-bricked apartments of Eddy Street Commons. With their lower-level shops and upper rental units and offices, they acted as a buffer between Notre Dame and the place where I was going: the Perley neighborhood. Passing by the refined units on Eddy Street, I was surprised that after just a block or two the ornamented and aesthetically-pleasing architecture abruptly ended. It was as if a factitious wall, a barrier meant to keep others out and to keep some in, had been tangentially placed around the campus from which I had just come from. Now, it felt as if I was in a whole new world known as South Bend, or “the other side of campus.”
Surrounded by run-down houses, neglected for care, and buzzing with traffic, I truly was in a different place. Concrete slabs and crippled sidewalks guided my trek until, at last, I came to Perley Fine Arts Academy, a place I had heard so much about, a gem in the midst of a valley of despair. From the outside, the image did not match what I had imagined. Cream-colored bricks faced a rather square-shaped buildings with windows few and far between. It was as if the school, a place meant for education and personal growth, evoked the socioeconomic and racial despair of its people offering a motif for their lives: falling apart at the seams, deconstructed as a “prison” of negative and stereotyped ideals. It was easy to see why Notre Dame had created a barrier between itself and its community, however despicable that may seem.
But, then, I asked myself, “What makes this place different?” and, “How can I help?” As I made my way back to Perley’s main entrance, I was swallowed in immense and uncontrollable colors of life. The entranceway, the difference that Perley was becoming, was decked in an extravagant and aesthetically-beautiful mural consisting of the flags of the world, Greco-Roman pillars of triumph and arches of life. Perley, from this angle, was a thing to be relished. It was a gem. But what had so drastically changed? What difference was immediately made through this act? The answer, simply put, was this: someone cared; someone saw the dignity of each individual. I set aside the biases of my University and ventured to the door.
As I entered, in front of me stood a man with scruffy facial hair and paint-splattered clothes filled with rips and tears. He looked out of place in a school. His hair was choppy around the edges and partially covered in a hat that barely fit his head. But, upon closer observance, something was radically different: his eyes gave way to the core of his being. They twinkled with interest and intrigue, passion and care, will and perseverance. After he greeted me, he told me that he was the artist responsible for the idea of the entrance mural. And, as I began to observe the interior, I realized that more projects were going on. This project, known as the Perley Project, was an artistic renewal of a failing school. But, even more, this project was designed to bring life back to a community in despair. Its focus was on a cultural renewal. And, immediately, I had become part of it. I heard the artist’s desire, his heart. I learned his convictions and his reasons; his hopes and dreams. This project was not his, but a community’s.
My role, simply, was to assist in the endeavor. I was tasked with painting the interior bricks of the school: blue and white, pink and black. I came to realize that the means of painting was more than just an art project. It was a creation of relations. That is, as a project open to the community, the focus was twofold: (1) to create a beautiful work evoking values of renewal and (2) to build relationships between the school and the community and between the community and its people. It was a project of bridges, not walls.
Why, then, was this approach not taken by the University I was so blessed to attend? How could one of the greatest schools in the world build a wall instead of a bridge? Why did it feel the need to disengage with the community and to superficially “block it off?” These were the questions that came to my mind and still remain.
We, as a community, must not be tolerant of this “forced gentrification,” but rather, we must be open to establishing relationships with our fellow people. We must respect the dignity and gift that every person’s life contains. We must not be content. We must always see our image and likeness in all those we meet and treasure the gift that is the human race. And, like Notre Dame, Our Mother, we must be open to accepting the life of another into our own. As Elie Wiesel one said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” And protest we must.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.