This essay also appears on Huffington Post.
On Saturday night I dreamed I was in the elegant living room of an older wealthy woman. I stood next to her delivering an emphatic, tearful plea, insisting, “When you are born into privilege it is your responsibility to help others less fortunate than you.” Man, I was really crying. The scene was so vivid and visceral—from the walnut paneled-walls and red leather Chesterfield armchair to the woman’s gray hair in a neatly trimmed bob, to the dramatic and forceful delivery of my statement—that, unlike most dreams, I remembered every detail of it when I woke up.
|"Pay your civic rent" with a gift card with |
the request it be regifted to someone in need.
Oh, snap! His comments were my dream verbatim. In Rochman’s case, he renovates historic properties into affordable housing. “We have a land with vast resources and a people capable of anything. Our advantages are used of the good of the planet and all its creatures—all people, all living things,” he said, before adding a sobering caveat. “Currently, Americans are divided from one another. We do not do everything in our power to house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the cold, educate the poor and support each other with the goal of the betterment of everyone—even though it is within our reach.”
He is certainly right about that!
In addition to creating low-income housing, Rochman volunteers for New Roots, a nonprofit food justice organization that brings farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to food insecure communities. Essentially, it’s an affordable farmers market created because, according to the New Roots website, “Just like air and water, everyone has a right to fresh food” in order to be healthy and happy.
Then, in the business section of the paper, in between the outrage over the GOP tax bill and the Great Recession’s impact on economic disparity between urban and rural areas, there was an article about Suku Radia, the CEO of Bankers Trust, who is retiring. Based in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Radia is an Indian who was born and raised in Uganda and came to the U.S. as a young immigrant. While attending Iowa State University, his family fled Uganda after Idi Amin’s coup d’état leaving Radia with no home to return to. He stayed in Iowa, completed his education, and worked his way up to the C suite, achieving the status of “privileged.” The article was a tribute to how he used that privilege to help others. “Pay your civic rent,” Radia said, but not by simply writing a check. A philanthropist long before he had money, he understood the value of volunteering and, in 1976, began giving his time to help United Way. From there, “my feelings of duty, compassion and gratitude have only spiraled,” he said. As a board member in 2010, he visited 51 local agencies that received funding from United Way, with some of those visits causing him to weep in his car after seeing the vulnerable populations first-hand. He is quoted saying, “How can I be so lucky? I’m sitting there in a Lexus and my car’s probably worth more than the building in which the agency is housed. It was very difficult. Your heart just goes out to these folks.” Radia doesn’t only support United Way, he fundraises for numerous nonprofits—from Habitat for Humanity to the American Diabetes Association—and mentors 40 individuals to help them achieve their goals, and to pass along his message about the importance of giving back to the community, particularly to those in need.
It felt a little eerie to read two articles in a row about using privilege to help others less fortunate—living examples portraying the exact sentiment of my dream immediately upon waking. Was it some kind of psychic message? A call to action? Or was it the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon—also known as frequency illusion—when, say, you buy a silver Volkswagen and suddenly you see silver Volkswagens everywhere you look?
The examples kept coming. Later in the day I stumbled upon an article online about a Korean couple in Salem, Oregon, who own a restaurant called Happy BiBim Bap House. Hillary Park and her husband close early on Mondays to cook for the homeless, paying for the ingredients themselves. They load their van with vats of prepared food, set up a buffet line underneath a concrete bridge, and serve hot meals of curry, yakisoba noodles, and corn dogs to up to 200 hungry people. Every week.
Another example showed up—in my own house.
I had been in a quandary over holiday gifts for my boyfriend’s family. They always have something wrapped up for us and I feel obligated to reciprocate in kind. Doug, my boyfriend, insists, “I don’t want to spend money on things they don’t need. I always give $500 to Camp Courageous in my family’s name. That’s my gift.” (Camp Courageous is a year-round camp with recreational activities and respite care for the disabled of all ages.)
“I know,” I replied, “but it’s awkward to not have any presents for them to open.”
While I scoured the internet for gift ideas, Doug came up with a solution. “You’re going to Aldi for groceries today, right? Here’s $100. Buy four $25 gift certificates. We’ll give them each one.” I wasn’t sold on the idea until he added, “We’ll tell them to give it to someone else in need. To pay their civic rent.” He smiled, acknowledging that he, too, had read the Sunday paper.
The words of my dream have stuck with me. When you are born into privilege it is your responsibility to help others less fortunate than you. I don’t earn much money, but I recognize my abundance of privilege—my college education, my comfortable home, my well-stocked refrigerator, my closet full of warm clothes, my lack of debt, and yes, my skin color. As we go forward into a new year, let’s all check our privilege by counting our blessings—and then share them. Let’s make a single resolution to take responsibility for helping others less fortunate and look for ways to give back, to improve our communities and our relationships within them. If we all do our part, we can begin to repair some of our divisions in the process. Like Gregg Rochman said, “We are privileged to live in this country. We are capable of anything.” There are positive examples to follow everywhere; all you have to do is look.