The life expectancy of one community is 83 years. The life expectancy of another is ten years less. One community has high levels of educational attainment, subsequently high incomes and no child poverty. Another has a high percentage of adults without qualifications, low incomes and high rates of child poverty.
You would imagine that I was talking about global inequality – Europe vs Africa say. But I’m talking about a place where rich and poor live much closer together. So close, in fact, that the better off community built a wall to segregate itself from the more deprived community, and urged teachers to keep their children separate in school.
So maybe it’s somewhere like Palestine? Or perhaps apartheid South Africa? Actually, it’s my own home town of Oxford. Lovely, leafy, Labour-dominated Oxford. Ah, but yes… Oxford, suddenly we remember when the dreaming spires echoed with the sound of screaming tyres. The Oxford Haves still shudder at the mention of Blackbird Leys and assume that the comparatively low life expectancy there is because they are all murdering one other, high on crack cocaine, rather than because of a web of social and economic factors – including low income and low educational attainment – each of which exacerbates the other. With demise of the car industry and the prevalence of high brow jobs in Oxford, people are trapped in this web. On the other hand they have a much stronger sense of community and identity, than most of the Have neighbourhoods. And just like the Haves they are mostly just families getting on with their lives, bringing up their kids, enjoying the odd evening in the pub, and hoping to grow old peacefully and comfortably. It is even the home of an award-winning choir.
Late one night recently, at a Cowley Road bus stop – one of the areas of Oxford where the Haves and the Have Nots live cheek by jowl, a thin young woman came up to me and said in lilting Irish traveler tones, “Excuse me, miss.” I waited for the inevitable request for spare change to get to the night shelter. But instead she said “Can I interest you in a poem?” Pleasantly surprised, I said I would love one and she sat herself down beside me on the wall, opened an exercise book and read out loud, in clear, measured, confident voice, what turned out to be a pretty good poem about the Easter story. I felt it was well worth the two quid I paid her. She immediately crossed the road to the chip shop, with head held high.
Maybe she knew that a fellow traveller on the rather arty Cowley road was likely to be a fellow poetry enthusiast. Whatever the reason, by reading me her poetry she made me empathise with her rather than feel sympathy for her. Sympathy is an emotion which, when acted upon, provides a warm glow of satisfaction for the person feeling it, but can be demeaning for the person who is forced, through lack of alternatives, to receive it. While empathy implies a level of understanding, of identifying with their predicament. Sympathy is something you do to someone. Empathy is something you do with them.
Donating to charity, for example, is prompted by sympathy, and most donors expect to be thanked (and even admired) for their generosity. But buying fair trade is motivated by empathy and buyers presumably do not expect gratitude for paying the fair price for their purchase.
Oxford’s Cutteslowe wall demonstrates that even if their immediate neighbours are Have Nots, Haves may not be moved to feel empathy for them. How much more difficult, then, for them to feel it for people on the other side of the world. Thankfully, increasing numbers of people are choosing fair trade – so many that fair trade sales are bucking the depressing trend of the rest of the retail sector. So maybe there is hope that instead of Haves and Have Nots, we will all become Have A Bit Mores and Have A Bit Less But Enough.
Yr encounter with the poet is a lovely story. Reminds me our our visit to Easterhouse in 1994. Shocked people that we cd live there. We discovered on subsequent visits that the sense of community was what kept unemployed people on estates going. Everyone was helped by family or friends when they needed a plumber, electrician most jobs that wd cost the earth otherwise. Visiting with an adivasi group we’ve encountered real warmth, friendship and solidarity and hospitality in Marsh Farm too.
Thank you Sabita for these insights and the point abt empathy vs sympathy,
Also interesting that, according to urban anthropologist, Henricke Donner (http://bit.ly/IiIfV7) middle class people living next door to slums in Kolkata are reluctant to act on their upwardly mobile inclinations to move into new apartment blocks because they feel safer with their current, poor neighbours, with whom they have a symbiotic relationship through domestic work, trade etc.
I sooo agree with the sentiment/ argument – empathy not sympathy leads us to a much more equal relationshp, one where we regognise that there, but for the grace of god, go I… but I think we need to be careful not to create or perpetuate negative sterotypes of the “Haves”, even in our efforts to undermine stereotypes of the “Have nots”. There are plenty of “Have” communities in Oxford – Jericho, Summertown, Wolvercote to name but a few – where community spirit abounds, and community identities are strong, just as there are no doubt “Have not” areas in the city where such things are in short supply. And if we find the need to build these profiles, to better understand the disparities for example, then I would push for them to be more evidence based (but then I would, wouldn’t I) – annecdotal accounts from friends in Rose Hill, for example, who lament the lack of community hardly consitute evidence of this area having no sense of community or identity. The reality is that every community, Have or Have not, has a different characteristic, made up as they are of different characters, and to sterotype them is to do this diversity a disservice. The point surely is that we’re all human, born equal in rights, and similar in many more ways than we’re not; and to help overcome the gross disparrities in wealth and health, we need to extend our empathy and indeed our idea of community, beyond those more traditional boudaries. I’m not sure we need to acclaim Have Not communities, and degrade Have communities in order to do this. It may even be counterproductive, reinforcing the very boundaries we’re trying to tear down… just a thought – one I hesitated to make, but one that I think warrants comment (and may even invite debate?)
Very fair comment, Claire. I have spent the morning in the wonderful East Oxford Farmers Market, where a strong sense of community is being positively nurtured. Also on the Cowley Rd a People’s Supermarket is due to open soon – I am member number 00002! I guess I was so incensed at the wall-builders that I forgot about all the good work and positive actions being taken by many Haves!
My evidence for the sense of community in Blackbird Leys is based on my connection with the Women’s Community Business Network which helps to promote Just Change tea.
Sorry! Evidence was the wrong word – it wasn’t to suggest that there wasn’t any evidence of a sense on
Sorry! It wasn’t to suggest that there wasn’t any evidence of a sense of community in Blackbird Leys, of course there is, only that different people’s experiences of community, of belonging and identity will be different in every community and so I was quesitoning whethere we can evidence one area have a stronger sense of community and identity than another.
Thank you for the food for thought! My first comments on a blog ever – your post has clearly inspired me, keep it up!
Thank you Sabita! I really hope we will “all become Have A Bit Mores and Have A Bit Less But Enough”!
Thanks, Maria. I am very optimistic that we will 🙂