I recently asked one of my roommates, “If you could travel to every country in the world and ask a US citizen in each one the same question, what would it be?” He had an interesting response, “To whom do you owe a duty?” Beside the perfect prepositional usage, it made me think about all the people to whom I owe a duty: family, friends, school, work, society, etc.
I know enough about the world to know that the privilege I have in life is immense. As someone who studies global poverty in my current Masters program, it can really be quite overwhelming to think about. I’m white, male, and a US citizen. On top of that, I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle—one of the richest and most well educated cities in the world. I have two bachelors degrees, one in Economics and the other in International Studies, and thankfully I have never needed student loans to pay for them. I have traveled to almost thirty different countries and lived across three different continents. All this compared to the lives of two billion people who struggle to survive on not much more than a dollar a day (as simplistic as this measure might be). For me, grappling with this disparity is a struggle.
When I first moved to Washington, DC almost two years ago, I started a job at the World Bank just a few blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, and it only added fuel to the fire. I decided to return to school to study International Development as a way to try wrapping my head around these issues. I’m now studying on a full-ride scholarship at American University’s School of International Service— currently ranked the 8th best international relations schools in the world, and founded by Dwight Eisenhower to “wage peace” around the world.
A solution that would keep me grounded while in school has been to volunteer regularly with people who don’t have the same kind of privileges I do. Sadly, in our nation’s capital I don’t have to go far. Each weekend, I do my best to take the short metro ride to southeast D.C. to help work at a drop-in office for homeless youth. Before I could start volunteering, I had to attend an orientation required by the non-profit, which helps prepare you by explaining the background of the homeless youth that they serve. The numbers can be quite shocking: 75% don’t go to school, 50% have been physically abused, 20% sexual abused by someone in their family, 20-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and a full two thirds are never reported missing by their parents. These numbers are all rough estimates because it is difficult to effectively survey homeless kids, but they help give you a sense of the interactions you will have with the kids.
I remember when I first started volunteering, a group of kids stumbled into the already full room to rummage through the snacks, hygiene packs, and extra clothes we supply. One preteen sat down across from me with a troubled look on his face, and so I started asking him some basic questions about his day.
Something about my mannerisms and my long hair must have tipped him off, and he surprised me by asking point blank, “Are you gay?”
“No.” I responded reflexively. Though true, I immediately wished my response had been more nuanced.
I could see the confusion on his face, and, before I could think of the best way keep him talking, he was swept back into a conversation with his friends, and I had to help someone else that had a question. I have no idea what became of that child, but I do know that he is only one amongst many.
Besides staffing the drop-in office, another volunteer role is walking the streets in the neighborhood to encourage homeless youth to come in to the office. Sadly, walking around the streets of southeast DC reminds me a lot of cities in Central America. However, one is the capital of the richest country on the planet, and the other is one of the poorest regions in the world. As a policy student, I think it really doesn’t take a genius to understand how US politics maintain the status quo in both cases, and I can’t help but think how rotten our society is to allow such depravity to continue.
In conclusion, volunteering in DC has taught me a few things. The first is that you do not need to go to the other side of the world to find violence and extreme poverty. Second, if you think this country is developed, you live in a bubble. Lastly, there are an amazingly large amount of people who are passionately committed to making this country and the world a better place.
My question I would then pose to the reader is: “To whom do you owe a duty and how do you live that out?”
Next week, I am excited to introduce a new contributor to our blog—our Director of Communications Timothy Kurek! He will be introducing his background and his goal in Developing America of stepping into the shoes of the other.
Developing America is testing the boundaries of the status quo, and calling into question the way we view our identities as American and Global citizens. This is its blog.