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The haves and the have-nots: Two perspectives

| Tuesday, September 10, 2019

“You don’t know what you’re missing.” 

“What you don’t know won’t hurt you.”

“Those who don’t have something others have don’t know any better.” 

These are all variations on the concept of the “haves versus the have-nots.” We often think of this in terms of physical attributes such as better houses, cars, clothing, food or access to quality education. All of us are very aware of who has more in our communities. Despite this recognition, equity often appears more like a dream than something that truly can be achieved in our current situations.

This topic was the subject of a roundtable discussion at the Play Like a Champion Today (PLACT) conference held on the Notre Dame campus in June. PLACT, now in its 14th year, brings together leaders in youth and high school sports from across the country to create a community committed to developing children socially, emotionally and physically through sports. PLACT’s mission emphasizes character education and provides a value-driven model for sport, while seeking to elevate the culture of youth sport and ensuring a team for every child. This mission stems from the fact that today in the U.S., more and more children are being excluded from sport programs because of rising costs associated with high-level travel teams and competition, diminishing recreational programs, overzealous coaches and parents, specialization at an early age and average players sitting on the bench not receiving playing time.

As youth coaches, we all work with children from a variety of backgrounds and our primary objective is to build a team that shares common goals, and supports, respects and accepts each other unconditionally. A team in this way becomes a family – one that suspends judgment and has fun playing together. This is “kinship.” Kinship is the foundation and fundamental guidepost of Homeboy Industries. Thirty years ago, Father Greg Boyle arrived at Dolores Mission Church to serve as pastor in the Pico-Aliso barrio, the poorest parish in the Los Angeles archdiocese. The area also had the highest concentration of gang activity in the city. Together with the community, he built a program of businesses and services, investing in gang members’ lives and creating the Homeboy family. Homeboy has grown to become the largest gang-intervention, re-entry and rehabilitation program in the world (Tattoos on the Heart, The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Greg Boyle). Fr. Greg was awarded Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal at the 2017 commencement where he shared his message of compassion. 

Recognizing this strong connection, this year’s PLACT conference centered around the kinship initiative and included two people from Homeboy – Javier, a senior staff navigator and former gang member, and Alegria, community outreach manager. I also consider myself a part of the Homeboy family, having spent the past two years developing and implementing a running, hiking and yoga program for the trainees. 

Before the conference, we spent several days in Chicago’s North Lawndale – a neighborhood with challenges similar to those faced at Homeboy. We met community leaders and became familiar with their sport programs, each operating with Father Greg’s kinship as the core principle. Many of the program directors joined us at the conference. The next few days at Notre Dame further established these relationships and built connections and commitment to expanding our circle of compassion, to moving ourselves closer to the margins so the margins themselves would be erased. We expanded our personal jurisdictions. We remembered that we belong to each other.

As our week together came to an end, several of us took an evening stroll around the beautiful Notre Dame campus. With the students gone for the summer, the manicured grounds were quiet in the pink glow of the sunset, except for the boisterous chirping of the frogs in the reflecting pond. The flickering lights of the fireflies flashed around us. We stood for some time in the glow of the magnificent Golden Dome, with Our Lady above us, the symbol of the University’s commitment to be a “powerful means of doing good in this country” and the founder’s reminder to its stewards “to cultivate the mind but not at the expense of the heart.” Clearly Notre Dame is a place of great privilege and at that moment we all felt as though we were “the haves.”

All week I had been telling Javier and Alegria about the decadent-but-delicious Midwestern cheese curds, a traditional bar and pub appetizer of breaded, deep-fried cheese. What better way to end our time in South Bend but to celebrate with some of the local favorites. Brothers Bar and Grill just across the street in the Eddy Street Commons has some of the best so we continued our walk in that direction.

When we arrived at Brothers just after 9:30 p.m., the establishment was mostly empty, yet eight or 10 red-shirted bouncers stood near the entry door, all with their heads down buried in their cell phones. As we entered the restaurant, me first, then Alegria and lastly Javier, the bouncer at the door leaned over to Javier and spoke in his ear, “No tattoos above the neck after 9:00 p.m.,” denying his entrance. I was unsure what I had actually just heard, baffled that Alegria and I could enter but that our brother Javy was left standing outside. Not one of the bouncers looked up or made eye contact with us.

Apparently, Javier is not the first person to be denied entry based on his appearance at Brothers, a place whose tagline is, “Everyone is family at Brothers Restaurant.” 

Suddenly kinship no longer existed. Compassion for each other did not extend across the street from the place where 150 lives had just been transformed by listening to Javier tell his story. He shared a story of childhood, gang-life, prison, addiction, of being shot three times – the third time bullets entered his skull, neck and shoulder as he shielded a Homeboy trainee he was teaching to drive, caught in the crossfire. It was a story of redemption, of making choices each day to live intentionally, to be educated and to be a force for good in his community. All that mattered was that a remnant from his former life, a tattoo, labeled him as an outsider, someone to fear and keep out. 

“You don’t know Javier,” I thought. If you knew him you would never think to exclude him, you would want him at the center of your table, listening thoughtfully, sharing his insights and experiences, telling his jokes, making you one his homies. Fr. Greg says, “It is impossible to demonize someone you know.” His exclusion from Brothers created this distance, we became us and them, no longer just us.

Brothers’ policy or dress code is not advertised. It is arbitrarily, inconsistently and selectively employed but their exclusionary reputation is well-known. Bouncers at nearby O’Rourke’s Public House confirmed this when I asked if a tattoo would prevent entry into their establishment. They offered a lengthy commentary on their opinion of Brothers’ procedures and said Javier is welcome anytime. Students echoed their own similar experiences and observations. A quick survey of Yelp and Trip Advisor includes numerous comments about potential patrons feeling discriminated, profiled, humiliated and subjected to sexist comments from staff at Brothers.

An article in the South Bend Tribune from April 2015 tells a story startling similar to ours. A local resident taking some out-of-town guests out to the bar was denied entrance because of a neck tattoo, a small cross surrounded by the words “Lord watch over me.” Like us, he was extremely upset and embarrassed, felt discriminated against, and also had no problem entering O-Rourke’s down the street.

The Tribune article continued, stating that Brothers is a private business and is well within its rights to make customers follow a dress code policy. Despite this, no other establishment at Eddy Street Commons has a dress code.

Discrimination or not, based off the incident with Javier, Brothers continues to make judgment calls based on the appearance of people with no evidence that this is solving any of their crime problems. These actions foster the separation of community, further creating a divide and atmosphere of privilege based on nothing more than a visual perception. At first, I wished I had known all this about Brothers so that I could have avoided the embarrassment and emotional turmoil. But after reflection, I was grateful to feel first-hand the sting of rejection, the resulting humiliation and the burning outrage, emotions that many among us feel every day, yet invisible to others.

I tried to take my cues from Javier’s response, his calm, “OK, it’s cool, whatever, man” while shaking his head and walking away, wondering what my friend was feeling. Javier shared later how his mind processed the incident. He said he has a list of choices on a scale of 1 to 10, and his first and easiest response is always to react with the old gang mentality. But now, he willfully and consciously makes the better choice and it feels good. It was a powerful admonition that we all have a choice, as Fr. Greg says, “To close both eyes; see with the other one; to free ourselves of the burden of our persistent judgements, our ceaseless withholding, our constant exclusion.”

As students filter back to campus and football season begins again, let this be a reminder that there is much work to do to find kinship, the elusive solidarity where we stand together, the circle expanded and the margins erased. And this includes Brothers, where everyone is family.

Joanna Cote Thurman

PLACT participant

Sept. 6

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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