For many months over my desk in my office in the Tri-Main building, I had a picture of a painting by the radical British street artist, Banksy. A little girl is holding a bouquet of balloons that is lifting her up into the air, as if she is flying. The image itself might seem cutesy or trite, but what’s striking is where Banksy spray-painted it: on the “security wall” of the West Bank, between Palestinian and Israeli territory. We don’t have a “security wall” in Buffalo, but we have many invisible walls between neighborhoods, classes, gender, race and the mentally or physically disabled.
For the past couple of years, I have worked with a program called Comprehensive Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (CAPP), run through a human services agency called the Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers. My job was to work with local youth, educating them about sexuality and general life skills, with the goal of reducing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
A little while ago, I was giving directions to our office to some high school seniors on the East Side. They wanted to get information on STDs and free condoms. I was proud to see that through CAPP, they had become motivated to take care of themselves, their partners and their community.
As I was telling them the quickest route to our building, however, they let me know it would not be safe for them to walk through that neighborhood, which is a few blocks away from their own. If they did choose to walk those streets, they risked being assaulted or worse, because they would be crossing into gang territory.
It would never have occurred to me that coming to my office would be so dangerous for a certain segment of Buffalo’s youth, and that the danger would be defined by the neighborhood in which they live.
I learned a similar lesson last year when I was running a boys’ group in a Buffalo public school. This class of special-needs students was not on track to graduate; the boys had all been slotted in general education classes, which they were uniformly failing. Though they were in trouble academically, they were some of the nicest students I’ve had the pleasure to teach. One week we started talking about the prison system and I learned that all but one of them had already been to jail.
The walls of race, class, gender, sexuality, mental illness, physical disability and gang territories are omnipresent facts of our society, but they are not impenetrable. His holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.”
Recently at CAPP we handed out gift baskets with basic toiletries to a group of at-risk girls in a shelter. Their gratitude for such basic necessities was overwhelming. It was not because of the soap or the dollar wash cloths, but because these small gifts showed that people care about them as human beings. Those were not toiletries we were handing out, they were balloons. The balloons that will help these young girls float out of the confines of their individual walled spaces.
The radical idea of showing care for others is the only way we will eventually tear down all of the walls built in our society over decades of focusing on our differences instead of our commonalities.