with or for?

I was going to come back to this on Friday, but then there was, y’know, life happening…

So, to return to Sam Wells’ session on the problem of poverty… We got to the point where poverty is as much, if not more, about dislocation, isolation, and a lack of good relationships, rather than a deficit of ‘things’ – but how do we deal with this situation? How do we connect with people in a real way?

Wells identified four ways in which we tend to or can deal with poverty:

  • Working for: “We need to do something for people.”
  • Working with: “We need talk to people, to understand the problem, and to work with them to find/create solutions.”
  • Being with: “We need to spend quality time with people, without another agenda”
  • Being for: “ We need to stand for/against this.”

The problem is that he took a little tumble into one of those traps that comes when you start delineating things, which is to creat the impression that you can only be in one of these modes at any one time. And of course – this isn’t the case: human beings and human actions are complicated things full of mixed emotion and mixed motivation, and most of us trying to make the world into something we think will be a better place exist in at least two of these, if not more – and for all a lot of us might want to try and avoid being in the first item on that list, we do tend to slide into it from time to time, no matter how hard we try.

Wells’ ‘ideal’ for engaging with poverty is no. three – being with (working for removing agency and being for removing a sense of personal responsibility were undesirable). He spent a lot of time arguing against seeing poverty as a ‘problem to be solved’ – and yet, however hard he tried to get around it, isolation and a lack of strong relationships is something he seems to understand as a problem that needs to be resolved, and which we can start to resolve by deliberately and intentionally building relationship across divisions.

There’s also a problem of what happens within the relationships you build in the process of trying to be with people. Can you be in a really strong relationship with anyone – can you truly be with them – where there’s some imbalance in the way you’re able to interact with the world around you – from the ability to feed yourself, or put a roof over your head, to the ability to have equal access to jobs or to marry someone of your choosing – without, in some way being for them or working with them (or without having long, deep, complicated and important conversations about why you’re not with them so that you understand where you stand with each other). Even if you see a deficit in things as a less critical definition of poverty than a sense of dislocation in your personal relationships, there are times when a lack of things is a problem that the people you are trying to be with need addressing, and to do that you need people working with and being for – often very loudly and publicly.

Take food for example (which I’ve been thinking about recently, given the IF campaign). Sharing food with people is a huge part of building relationships with people – to celebrate what we have and to truly appreciate it. Even when what someone has is limited. But can you be with someone around food, without being aware of the fact that I may have more and they may have less, and without becoming aware of the injustice of that? And can you be with people in relationships in the long-term without addressing that by being for or working with them? Doesn’t a relationship that doesn’t incorporate or consider all of those modes become in danger of becoming one-sided? Don’t you end up in danger of patting yourself on the back for the inclusivity of your relationships without activity expressing any affection for the person you’re supposedly relating too by being actively engaged in the things that are preventing them living really full lives?

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