I don’t know all of the things Bonnie does at the Mansion, but I know she works hard and helps keep the place running. She is important.
She works out of the Mansion office, and one of her many admirers came up to me one day recently and said the chairs in the office were old and sagging and uncomfortable. Bonnie’s old chair would literally sick down when she sat in it. Others creaked and groaned.
Would I consider getting Bonnie a special chair and two other chairs to replace the chairs in the office? Of course, I would, I did. I searched for three good office chairs and had them shipped to the Mansion.
Bonnie is too important to be uncomfortable, and she works too hard. So do the other aides that inhabit that space.
This is one of the ways we help to ease some of the rough spots in a Medicaid assisted care facility. And it works for me because, I realize, the Mansion is open to me.
It’s a simple idea, but it explains the depth and range of my work there, and I have the same feeling at Bishop Maginn.
I am writing this because I often wonder why some places – the Mansion, the Bishop Maginn High School – welcome me and encourage to do what I do. And some haven’t.
A chair is not a big deal, but if you are sitting in it for 10 hours a day and it sags and creaks and wobbles, it’s a very big deal. A facility like the Mansion is an ecosystem, lots of different parts need to work together for all of it work. And the Mansion works very well.
But I’ve learned that some institutions are closed. I can’t take openness for granted. I’ve brought dogs to many assisted care facilities, none are as open as the Mansion, for which I am grateful.
I am an open place kind of person, that is my faith and philosophy. I am direct, allergic to rudeness, bureaucracy and hostility. I seek authenticity and transparency, in all things. I make a lot of people nervous that way.
I say what is on my mind, and have little patience for rudeness, hostility, arrogance, red tape, or paranoid people.
So the bulb went off in my head over the past few days. I’ve been a bit blind.
Why did I have such a hard time working at RISSE, the immigrant and support center in Albany, and such an easy time working in all of the other places I work with Red and the Army Of Good doing volunteer and therapy work?
This is something I have been thinking hard about.
This week, working closely with the Mansion staff to buy office chairs, get a new popcorn machine, conduct a Commitment Ceremony for Ruth and Wayne, it began to hit me.
I can’t handle xenophobia. I am not at ease in closed worlds.
And there is a lot of xenophobia in our world, in our country.
Merriam-Webster defines xenophobia as a fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners or anything that is strange or foreign.
I was stunned at how wary the refugee organizations were when I recently invited them to ask their most gifted students to apply to some excellent private schools with free tuition. They just wouldn’t do it, they wouldn’t talk about it, and we had to go out and find them on our own, through the public school system.
We’ve gotten three children into private schools with full tuition support from the schools. I’m so sorry some of the wonderful young women I met at RISSE never even got to apply.
The odd thing is, that after hearing so many refugees tell the story of their suffering, it is easy to understand why xenophobia thrives in some environments.
It is probably no accident that these institutions I am easy with are staffed and run mostly by white people born in America, not refugees. We did not grow up with the things that shaped their lives. It is easy to forget that sometimes. I’m not into knee-jerk or politically correct thinking, but identity matters in America, just ask any woman or person of color.
And isn’t that the wonderful thing about America? We are not historically a xenophobic culture, at least not until recently. We are the nation of outsiders. I am doing this refugee work because that is what I am fighting to preserve.
It is ironic in my work with refugees that people who suffered from hateful strangers, are sometimes hateful to strangers and frightened of them when they appear. Can anyone blame them?
The Mansion is an open place. They permit me to take photographs (with permission.) They permit me to be transparent and tell people – and show them – what life in the Mansion is really like, where their money is going, something of critical importance to me, a matter of trust and responsibility.
Like me, they have nothing to hide, and they hide nothing. They trust me to guard privacy and stay out of policy.
They told me last week they are naming the Activity Center in the new Memory Care annex after the Army Of Good, in honor of all the support you have provided. That means a lot to me.
RISSE has never once mentioned the Army of Good, which poured tens of thousands of dollars into their program and their school and soccer team, let alone thanked them.
That did gall me a bit. There are lots of good people out there in the country who stuff $5 and $10 bills into envelopes to try to keep the American Dream alive for these refugee children and their families. Bishop-Maginn teachers and staff have thanked the Army Of Good about 100 times a day.
Does that matter? Yes, it does. But it ought not matter too much. If we do this work, there are no strings attached. Nobody owes us a thing.
At RISSE, the staff was discouraged from talking with me, or working with me. People questioned my motives all the time, they could not fathom the idea of a blog raising money or an Army Of Good, all strangers, more people to to be feared.
I was the almost prototypical stranger, thus feared and mistrusted.
Maria often suggested I quit working with them. But I don’t quit.
I want to learn from this problems, not wallow in them, and I am learning that I misread the cultural differences between me and other people.
I aways run everything I’m doing – everything – by someone in authority at the Mansion or Bishop Maginn. I honor the boundaries there. I never share medical information, take pictures, or write anything of a personal nature without permission.
I never inject myself into the day-to-day decisions made by the management there.
Yet I always feel welcome there, and heard. They get me, there has never been a moment’s friction.
Why did none of that happen at RISSE, the very place I most wanted to help?
The best ideas come from the staff at these institutions. You have to work to get their trust. When the staff is discouraged from speaking to, ideas wither, people suffer.
Bonnie had the great idea of buying a carnival like popcorn machine. Most of the residents love popcorn, and it is a relatively healthy and easy-to-provide snack. She had no qualms about approaching me with the idea.
Only one person at RISSE ever approached me with an idea like that, and he got into trouble for it. And it never came to fruition.
When I bought the popcorn machine, I let Kassi, the Mansion Director, know what I was doing and ordered the machine, which arrived on Tuesday. She was grateful, no drama or confusion.
Yet at RISSE, the absolute opposite was true.
They warned the staff not to talk to me, didn’t want me to visit, were opposed to take photos, didn’t wish to explain where donations from my readers went, wondered what my true motives were, never answered my phone calls – there were one or two exceptions – never showed any signs of appreciation in anyway.
And they never contacted me.
It was hard not to take this personally. I knew if I didn’t visit the children or take pictures, then donations and interest would dry up.
RISSE was the only place in my do-gooding life that didn’t want Red to come. That was a first. Lots of people don’t like me, everybody likes Red.
Bishop Maginn begged me to bring Red every time. I would be afraid to even walk into the Mansion without Red.
In recent weeks, working with Bishop Maginn, taking the Mansion work to a different level, I came to see what the problem was, why the RISSE experience – which should have made them very happy – made them hostile and suspicious.
When I think back on the many institutions I’ve worked with, I’ve had trouble with all of the “closed places,” none with those that are open.Wow, that’s a big idea for me. I’ve wondered for some time about what is wrong with me? It hurt. I invested a lot in this refugee work, and I really hated the feeling that I failed.
Of course immigrant and refugee administrators are xenophobic. They have good reason to be. They have suffered genocide, expulsion, flight from their homes, the losses of friends and family, years in refugee camps, and a frightening and brutal adjustment to a new, and sometimes hostile, country.
Strangers are to be feared and avoided.
I was approaching them as if they were much like me. But we didn’t come from the same place, and this is what people mean when they talk of privilege.
To be privileged is to have a life of advantages, favors, immunities. Knowing many refugees now and speaking to them often, I see much more clearly what the problem was. It was as much mine as theirs.
I’m not excusing their behavior, it was, in many cases, simply outrageous and even self-destructive. A functioning Board of Directors would have stopped it.
But I am beginning to understand it as a fundamental part of the refugee experience. The people running the Mansion and Bishop Maginn don’t come from the hellish cauldrons that some of the refugees and immigrants have been through.
How could they have learned to be as open as many Americans have traditionally been? We were raised to feel safe and entitled, wasn’t that why we were here?
I can’t expect people to be comfortable with me just because I say so – and many people aren’t. But some people are, and I think the common denominator, the lesson for me is to look for the same openness that I demand of myself and my own work.
And when I can’t find it, to look beyond xenophobia and keep on talking. There is always common ground.
It isn’t that one place is good and the other is bad. All of these places do very important work, and good work.
But some are open places and some are places that are closed to new experiences and transparency. Some people fear transparency, some people, like me, realize it is liberating. I love having no secrets.
I need to consider where I go to do my work.
I need open places.