"Be real with yourself. There isn't a whole building like that, what you think. I'm lookin' at who you are when you walk past me." Jeff Cannon recorded this comment amongst several others from residents of Patten Towers. They told stories about why they were there, about why they were on disability and where they came from. There were stories about rape and illness, but also chili peppers and love. Like this man said, it's easy to see Patten Towers and its residents one way. But everyone has a story to tell. All we have to do is wait and actually listen.
That's a lot harder than it sounds. As a society, or at least as a bunch of people on the Internet, we're talking more and more (or in some cases nastily arguing in the comments) about how we can listen better, be less unjust, handle what divides us with more grace. Just look at the discussion about Miley Cyrus' ridiculous VMA Awards performance. Out of one poorly executed twerk session we got discussions about slut shaming, how to talk to young men about rape culture, marginalization and commodification of black women, cultural appropriation and the death of good music.
I was heartened to see that we were discussing these tough topics that are all too often under-addressed. It's good to broach these topics and wrestle with the many responses. But discussing a half-naked, thin, wealthy white woman shaking her (literal) moneymaker isn't the same as actually listening to people's stories in a meaningful way. When we talk about cultural appropriation and racial marginalization because of Cyrus, we aren't sitting down with our black and Latino neighbors and listening to them about their culture and their thoughts on white pop stars borrowing it.
Or why don't we ask about more pressing day-to-day matters? Forget even that—why don't we just listen and find out what they would bring up? Doing just that is what made Jeff Cannon's PechaKucha presentation so powerful. It's one thing to read a paper in the story about Patten Towers burning and then debating in the comments whether we should sympathize with residents or be angry that "they get to live downtown and I don't," which was the gist of one foolish reader.
Why should our opinions matter when we're still very uninformed? It's another thing entirely to go to the residents themselves and ask to hear what they have to say. What do they think about their home and its role in the city? What are their needs, and where do they come from? What do they think is important? Those thoughts matter.
A friend of mine teaches an English class at a state prison north of here. Out of all the classes she has taught at various schools, she is most excited about this one. Everyone participates eagerly. They get excited about homework and essays. No one has ever really asked these students what they think. In a prison environment where you are constantly told to sit down and shut up, simply being asked how they responded to a William Faulkner short story is a rare chance to be told that their experiences and ideas and personal histories matter, that they are people.
Storytelling is one of humanity's oldest practices, dating back to sitting around the tribal fire. It really is a part of who we are. Yet so often only victors get to tell their stories, and the only ones we hear are from people with privilege and power. Just ask the staff at Conde Naste's offices how many of them made it there in part because of trust funds, in addition to their talent and their drive. Just look at the complaints about Lena Dunham's show "Girls" asking why we need a whole show about frustrated, privileged white Brooklynites.
It's true that it was easier for her to tell her story, which some consider more universal or relatable, than someone from a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles or Oakland. Even I can't address this topic without being a semi-hypocritical complication—I'm a privileged young white woman, and I find myself with a weekly newspaper column. I am part of the inequality I am talking about, and I write this as much to remind myself as I do to remind others. Everyone has a story to tell, even the ones you already think you know. Wait, listen.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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