Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Different Sort of Privilege

by Sarah Nydick Cheshire

I guess you could call me privileged. I go to a private school, live in a lofty suburban house, eat healthy and go to the dentist regularly. I wouldn’t say I was handed life on a silver platter, but it’s not as if I go to bed hungry.

At my small Quaker high school in Durham, N.C., I am distinguished by my peers as "the political girl,” or sometimes even “the annoyingly political girl.” I am the one who can be found organizing lunchtime vigils for victims of genocide, posting flyers about some peace march or another, or obstinately telling a guy off for a supposed sexist comment. I guess you could say that I am your average “privileged white girl who wants to change the world.”

My school allots a small period of time at the end of the year for students to participate in internships at occupations that interest them.

When it came to organizing mine, naturally, I wanted to do something political. I e-mailed a few social justice coalitions and human rights organizations, all of which either didn’t respond to me at all or e-mailed me back saying something along the lines of “Thanks for your interest, sweetheart. Come back when you’re in college, okay?”

I came across Street Sense as a last resort; a product of desperate late-night Web surfing a week before my internship proposal was due. But the vibe I got from them was different. Koki Smith, the editor of Street Sense, called me back almost immediately and seemed to be at least borderline enthusiastic at the prospect of having two high school students hang around.

Several weeks later, my friend Naomi and I buzzed the intercom into Street Sense just 45 minutes after stepping off the train at Union Station, heavy duffel bags afoot and sweating in the mid-May heat.

“Hey, are you guys vendors?” A lady opened the door and led us up the stairs into the main office.

“No, interns actually.”

Over the next couple of days, we answered the door, organized the office and, most significantly, got to hear the stories of vendors coming in and out of the office.

Before coming to Street Sense, whenever I would walk past a homeless person on the street, I would either downgrade his life as something worthy of pity or see him as the tragic product of some larger-scale political issue.

None of the people I met at Street Sense were in any way the “helpless and disillusioned by society” image of homeless that I expected. Each one had a different story, a different ambition and a different reason for being where they are.

The only real difference I found between myself and the vendors at Street Sense did not have to do with differences in personality or social surroundings, but with my own label as “privileged.” They don’t have that status on their side.

After my experience at Street Sense, I am working toward putting a face with my politics and seeing homeless people not for the identity of the system that has failed them, but for their own identities as people.


Sarah Nydick Cheshire is a sophomore at Carolina Friends School in Durham, N.C. She and Naomi Eliza, also a sophomore, recently spent two days volunteering at Street Sense.

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