I’m 12 years old driving with my dad in a white Cadillac convertible listening to the oldies station. The trunk was full of groceries and we were headed home. I was excited to go swimming in our new pool. My father slowed the car down and made a turn to point out a woman pushing a grocery cart full of her belongings. He asked, “What do you think it feels like to be in her shoes?” I didn’t have an answer.
“Pack your bags with whatever snacks you like,” I said to Patrick, my 11-year-old, and Julia my 6-year-old, one day afterschool. “We’re going on a field trip!”
In late August, I took my son and daughter downtown to Malcom X College for one of Mayor Emanuel’s budget community meetings. They were held throughout the city for residents to tell City leaders about important things they would like to see as part of the 2016 budget.
Of course my children acted as you would expect any 11-and-6 year-old to when told they were going to a town hall budget meeting.
“Where are we going?”
“Mom, you’ve got to be kidding!”
For five years, I’ve been advocating on behalf of Kennedy Park Pool to make it more family friendly and to expand the season for many taxpayers who use the pool who are not necessarily tied to the Chicago Public Schools calendar. For taxpayers who use the pool for exercise and recreation, additional weeks means more time outside in the sunshine. Over the years, I’ve collected signatures, met with the Alderman and Park District, and written countless emails and letters. Many changes have been made, but it’s taken a lot of effort and time.
We arrived especially early to Malcolm X to get my name first on the speaking list since I thought that the kids patience would wane rather quickly. And so we sat in the auditorium-with their bag full of snacks – waiting for my name to be called.
We listened to the moderator and a 15-minute power point presentation by the budget director. Both Patrick and Julia looked over to me when the moderator explained that he would take a deep breath and calmly ask the speaker to end their comments when their time was up. As you can imagine I was quite pleased as a yoga studio owner to see deep breathing as part of a formal government meeting.
Carly Carney. I was first on the list. I walked up to the microphone with my daughter and held her small hand in mine. I asked very simply for the mayor to consider extending the pool season for select outdoor pools across the city for residents who use them for exercise and recreation. I also invited him to come swimming with us at Kennedy Park pool anytime he wanted. By the way, the mayor is an avid swimmer.
As I walked back to my seat, the woman behind me said, “Those are white girl problems.”
And as I sat down next to my son, the woman behind us said, “You’re just a rich country club girl.” Patrick looked over to me with curious eyes and a crooked smile. I gave him the look–“we’ll talk about this later.” Meanwhile, every muscle in my body tensed up.
Then one by one people came to the microphone:
The woman immediately after me said, “We don’t have those problems in our neighborhood. We don’t even have grocery stores in our neighborhood where I can even get food for my family.
The grandmother waving her finger at the mayor for not having more African American police officers, like her grandson, to keep her neighborhood safe.
The young teacher screaming her prepared speech that the reduction in funds for special needs is child abuse.
Supporters of the Dyett hunger strikers chanted at every opportunity. “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now. What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now.”
Many times I looked to Patrick and said, ready? “No.” he replied. His big blue eyes were fixated on the microphones as new people spoke criticizing, bullying, and pleading for recognition of their issue to be heard.
We stayed there for over two hours.
On the car ride back to Beverly we chuckled at the language, sayings, outfits, and hairdos. We laughed at the craziness of the night. It felt like an out of body experience.
The next day I went through online newspapers and watched video clips from the night before. I thought about the conversation on the way home with Patrick and Julia and could see much of what we laughed about were really judgments and even seeds of prejudice.
I noticed the remnants of irritation that I was judged and stereotyped as a “white country club girl” and was frustrated that many in the audience saw me only as privileged. They didn’t know that there is much more to me then they saw. I imagine that is true for everyone who came to the microphone.
That evening before bed, I asked Patrick. “What do you think it feels like to have your school closed and be sent to another neighborhood?”
“What do you think it feels like to not feel safe where you live?”
He didn’t have an answer and I really didn’t expect him to. The questions were what I felt were important, not only for him but for me too.
What does it feel like to be in someone else’s shoes in our city? Do we really ever think about that?
I’ve been contemplating this for weeks now. There was a part of me that was uncomfortable with the anger in the room. But what do I know about anger? I know that is a feeling that protects and distracts us from grief, sadness and helplessness. I imagine that there are many parents who appear to be angry, who are really quite sad and scared for their children. Parents who wish that they had a different set of circumstances. Who are doing the best that they know how with the resources they have, but it still doesn’t change their situation. And so what the public sees is anger, when really it is a reflection of deep sadness.
I thought about the teachers who were yelling at the mayor about taking away services for special needs children and who referred to their job as babysitters. To see firsthand all the needs these children have with limited resources must be heartbreaking. Underneath the yells, were heartbroken teachers who can’t do their job the way they feel is honorable for those children.
And this is MY simple story. I have a difficult time during the winter months. The pool is the symbol of relief from winter suffering. When the pool opens I know relief is on the way and when it closes, I know what’s ahead. Extending the season doesn’t take away the harsh winter, but it allows many of us around the city who enjoy being outdoors to get the most of what Mother Nature will allow us.
A common denominator with everyone who took the time to come to these budget meetings was a sense of hope and a longing to be seen and heard. For someone to notice them and decide that their story was important. They ultimately were asking for help and that showed their human vulnerability. That takes courage.
What did my dad teach me when he stopped to point out the homeless woman? Ask the question–What does it feel like to be in their shoes?
Maybe it’s a brief moment that before we speak, think or act, we ask the question, “What’s their story?”