“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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