Whose world is it anyway?

While out photographing today, I met Roland, a 60-something year old who told me how the Fillmore neighborhood had been decimated by urban renewal. “This neighborhood had everything”, he said, “shops, restaurants, it was a home… Then the developers came in and built new residential blocks. The last bookstore run by a black man was shut. Now the men have no jobs, they’re hustling, doing whatever it takes to get by”.

Sitting on a bench with him in front of a McDonalds, watching kids come and go, thinking about the motivations of the residents, developers, shop owners, old and new, I was reminded of a blog I wrote last year.

More from Roland soon… he’s promised me a tour of the “real” Fillmore!

[Photo cred: Gary Malec]

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It is hard to escape the inequality so visible in San Francisco. Walk down one side of Fillmore Street and you are greeted by row upon row of designer labels. Walk down the other side and you are greeted by the down and outs. The vast divide captured in less than a mile got me thinking. Have we each created two different worlds in which to live in? Let me explain.

We have a deep set of values that we are proud of. These include fairness, justice, empathy, generosity, judgment and curiosity about the unknown. We cultivate these within ourselves and support our family and friends in doing the same. Our homes are filled with love and warmth. They are well-maintained and welcoming. We encourage our children to speak their minds but also to listen carefully. We ensure that they share with those who live in and enter our homes. We build relationships with our neighbors and look after each other in times of need.

But here’s the confusing part. We are not inherently self-interested, yet support a world that rewards self-interest. We are fair by nature, yet allow an economy to exist that distributes income and opportunity unequally. We enjoy forming balanced judgments based on reasoned arguments, yet accept one-sided rhetoric from politicians and businesses. We empathize with the suffering of those nearest to us but easily walk past a homeless person on the street. We care for plants and animals at home, yet consume goods that are harmful to the planet or involve animal cruelty.

How can we simultaneously operate in one circle for our friends and family and an entirely different circle for our fellow humankind? Does this simple division drive the outcomes for society that we most want to avoid — income inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, political stasis? Perhaps it does. We divide our world into things we think we can control and those that we think we can’t. But the outer circle will eventually creep up on the inner circle. We suffer the consequences of inaction.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We can be proactive and create change for everyone. Gandhi said “whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you…recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.” If we identify our core set of values — fairness, justice, equality, sustainability — and apply them to every action that we take, then we can shift our circles so that they cross. In time, they might even merge. Our private demands would be equal to our social demands. Clean air. Decent pay for a decent day’s work. Tax justice. Effective social security support. The way to achieve change is to truly live our values.


Originally published at tellingtimes.me on June 17, 2015.

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