“It’s all about relationships” is not a cop-out

Over the last year-plus I’ve had dozens of conversations with people working to address inequity and inequality. They are scholars, nonprofit leaders, politicians, activists, ministers, business owners from a range of political, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Some make well into six figures doing what they do; others get by only a little better than those in the underprivileged communities they serve.

When we talk about the wealth and opportunity gap in San Antonio, we talk about a dizzying range of problems and a just-as-dizzying variety of potential solutions. But one idea, one theme, one solution comes up more than any other: “It’s really all about relationships.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that line come from the mouths of one of those people. And again, it doesn’t matter what their station in life is, their skin color, their political commitments. I’ve heard it from middle-aged, white, ultra-conservative Christians who live in all-red suburbs; I’ve heard it from queer activists of color who live in urban cores. Often it’s after we’ve discussed everything else—solutions that are promising and already working but are also big and complicated and slow-moving. It’s a line that brings things to a close, or adjusts perspective, or delivers a caveat to whatever else has been said. It’s really all about relationships.

What these people share is a conviction that the reason inequity and inequality are so bad in this country and getting worse is that we’re almost never actually confronted with the problem in any meaningful way. We hear data about inequality and injustice. We read stories. We form opinions. But we never personally interact with the problem—we don’t have physical, embodied, personal experiences of people who are not like us. Our neighborhoods, and thus our lives, are socially, economically, and culturally homogeneous, and we’re tricked into believing that the world basically looks like whatever our lives look like. This is particularly true in western cities that have been built for cars and where there is almost no opportunity to have a significant encounter with someone who is not a lot like you.

Still, it’s hard not to hear It’s all about relationships as soft, sentimental. The kind of thing people say when they’re not sure what else to say. Or even a cop-out, because the chances of wealthy and poor actually forming meaningful relationships are so slim.

But usually, the folks I’m talking to have operationalized this issue. They’ve experienced the power of unexpected relationships themselves and have realized how that experience reframes everything. One has moved into an extremely low-income neighborhood. One chooses to pastor a church in a low-income area. One runs a program that delivers food and other support to the poor, and she requires all (usually white and wealthy) volunteers to become mentor-coaches for people in her program. (She tells me that she’s pulling a trick—the wealthy people are the ones who end up feeling coached as they enter into these relationships.)

This is slow work, a person and a relationship at a time. But it’s a strategy that people who think about, write about, and work on inequity should take seriously. If people who are on the front lines of this issue are saying this, how do we make sure we’re hearing what they’re saying? How do we scale a solution like this?

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Young, Broke, and Uneducated in Texas

Texas is one of the fastest-growing states in the country, and it’s growing in ways that belie its national reputation: it’s both an incredibly youthful state and and incredibly non-white state.

In his (utterly fantastic) new book God Save Texas, Lawrence Wright points out that in the city of Houston, for example, almost 40 percent of the population is under 24 years old, and “more than half that youthful cohort are Latino, and nearly 20 percent are African Americans.” Similar demographics (though trending more Hispanic) can be found in San Antonio, where I live.

But Wright points out another fact of this youthful cohort: this group is “the most likely to be undereducated.” Also, they’re often poor: “One in four Texas children lives in poverty.”

Temuco_children

I find this state of affairs troubling to the point of terrifying. People talk a lot about how much Texas is booming — lots of good jobs, growing industries, open for business and all that. A couple weekends ago I drove from San Antonio to Dallas, passing through Austin and Waco, and in all four cities cranes dot the skylines. The growth narrative is real.

But our growth is uneven, which is to say inequitable — the increases we’re experiencing are not going to be good for very many people, relatively speaking. We’re investing in growth with tax incentives for developers and jobs creators, but we’re not also investing in our children by ensuring they are educated, well fed, and living in safe homes and neighborhoods. In these measures — how much we spend on education and attending to the needs of the most vulnerable — Texas ranks near the bottom.

We’re building roads and buildings and new neighborhoods; we’re remaking our urban cores. A lot of this work is good and necessary. But if we don’t change how we plan for a future Texas led by today’s young people, we’re also laying the groundwork for a future tragedy.

And as Wright puts it: “These failures will have national consequences, since one out of ten children in the United States is a Texan.”