I sat at the table with the bums and vagrants. The smell of booze and dirty clothes mingled with the food on my plate. I was eating lunch at Beans Cafe, where I had been working for the day as a part of a sociology class. I was engaged in a comfortable conversation with a man who was a regular recipient of the services there. At one point I looked up and saw my classmates and instructor sitting together at a table near me. I felt frozen, awkward, as if I had done something wrong.
Until the moment of eye contact with my instructor, I hadn't even realized that they were all eating together, while I had taken a seat next to a man I started a conversation with upon entering the dining hall. I had just assumed that mingling was what was on the menu, but when I saw that the group that I came with was still grouped together, I questioned my actions. Furthermore, I questioned my comfort level. Why did I feel so comfortable with these bums?
I have worked in the human services arena for the better part of 18 years. During that time, I have been most comfortable working outside office settings, in the field, away from peers. I have to dig deep to attend meetings and talk shop with colleagues. I feel out of place. I much prefer to be behind the scenes, away from some of the cultural norms that make up the microsociety of professional helpers. I find the gap between theory and practice to be broad, at least as wide as the space between the tables that day.
I often find myself at odds with the system that separates the client from the helper. It is a linear system in which there is a ladder that we supposedly hold steady, from a place up above. When, and if, a person chooses to climb up to our level, then they are considered equal, and successful. I like the circular systems better, the ones where we all come together as real human beings, from all walks of life, and witness each other's tears, laughter, stories and songs. The only criteria for the circle is that it is voluntary. It doesn't matter if you walk or crawl. If it is your choice to be there; you are welcome.
It has been a long time since I sat at that table at Beans Cafe; maybe I wouldn't be so comfortable now. But I do know that some things work, and some things don't. Looking down on someone does little to lift them up. Programs that are inclusive and promote equality, such as Southcentral Foundation's Family Warriors or White Raven Center's healing workshops, have a way of drawing out the real human being in each of us
I'm glad that the system is changing, however slowly. And hopefully the tables of the future will be round... with a place for all who care to join.
Chantelle Pence is a family advocate for the Copper River Basin Child Advocacy Center, a consultant (Copper River Consulting) and a writer. She lives in Chistochina with her husband and three sons.