Building Communities that are More than “Fair”

By Jenn Pollan

jenn pollanI make it a point to try to remember to kiss my roommate Kira on the forehead every morning before I leave for work. Though Kira and I both work for projects run by the Center for Court Innovation, her commute to the Crown Heights Mediation Center is around 20 minutes, while my commute to the utterly inaccessible Red Hook Community Justice Center takes me almost an hour. Every morning at around 8:00 AM, I tiptoe around the mounds of clothes and shoes that cover the small double room we share, trying not to wake a peaceful, sleeping Kira, who will not stumble out of bed for at least another half hour. Unfortunately for Kira, quiet exits aren’t my forte and she almost always wakes up. When we inevitably make eye contact, I open my mouth to utter an apology for once again waking her up, but she always just smiles and mumbles some version of “go get em girl” or “have a great day Jenn.” Recently, we decided it would be cool if we both held up three fingers, a symbol borrowed from one of our favorite movies, The Hunger Games, indicating respect and love (yes we do on some level realize this is quite weird). Despite the fact that we live quite literally on top of each other, lacking storage space, amenities, and any semblance of privacy, Kira and I have built a mini home together brimming with love and support.

The midyear of AVODAH is a time for abstract community reflection, but also for concrete changes. Our program director asks that we sit down together and evaluate how our communities are functioning, as individual houses- Brooklyn and Washington Heights – and as an entire New York cohort. While this reflection covers everything from food buying systems to our satisfaction with AVODAH programming, the crown jewel of this midyear process is the – drum roll please – rooming discussion.

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The Brooklyn Bayit contains five singles and three doubles. At the beginning of the year we sat down and decided together who would live where, with the agreement that at the midyear point we would re-evaluate with the goal of getting as many people who had been in doubles for the first half of the year into singles for the second half of the year.

When we sat down in the middle of February for our rooming discussion, the plate of brownies on the coffee table did little to ease the overwhelming tension, except to allow those of us who were so inclined to eat our feelings. After a few minutes of discussion it became pretty clear that this was going to be a complicated and emotionally taxing process. Some of the people in singles felt that they needed the privacy of a single room or that the only roommates they felt comfortable moving in with weren’t available and some people felt they couldn’t live in certain rooms because of their size or proximity to noise. Everyone had wants and needs and it became clear that we simply couldn’t make everyone totally happy.

My wants and needs were actually simple. I wanted things to be “fair.” Sitting in the meeting listening to people talk about why they couldn’t move into a double room, I was filled with righteous indignation. The way I saw it, fair was fair. I had lived in a small double with a roommate for half a year, and now it was someone else’s turn to bear that same burden. I’d like to say I had some grand epiphany about what a pointless paradigm “fairness” was for approaching this situation, but I was slow to come around.

We learn first from our parents as toddlers and then from liberal arts colleges as young adults that nothing about life is fair. At five years old those moments when our siblings got to get their ears pierced at an earlier age introduced us to the visceral feeling of unfairness. At eighteen in sociology and race theory classes we learned of an unfairness deeper than we could have imagined, the reality that in New York City in 2011 700,000 people of color were stopped and frisked simply because of the color of their skin. To equate these two experiences of unfairness is of course preposterous, but in these moments of high tension, when rooming arrangements seem like the only important matter in the world, we seem to forget that the world isn’t just unfair, it is profoundly, philosophically, unimaginably unfair for those 700,000 people and for all those who suffer at hands of racist and classist systems. For many of us Avodahniks the recognition of the unearned privilege we hold because of our race and class backgrounds is paramount to the way we interact with the world. So it’s a bit of a wonder it took us so long to realize that trading in “fairness” would get us nowhere.

In our community, there are people with differing strengths, weaknesses, wants and desires. I cannot for the life of me put together an IKEA dresser or make a delicious lentil stew, but I can live happily and well with a roommate. Some of my housemates need singles, but they can cook, clean, and build furniture as I cower in the corner in fear. I realized somewhere in the middle of the conversation that the five year old who wanted her sister to get the same exact punishment needed to grow up.  When we drop the paradigm that everything should be tit-for-tat, that we should always get as much as we give, our communities become something bigger than the sum of their parts.

Kira and I realized that our loving and functional roommate relationship was something that we had to give, a gift to the community that would not be “returned” in any tit-for-tat sense. Something about this rooming conversation made me remember a favorite client, who during the long battle to get his social security benefits reinstated, had resorted to stealing food for his severely disabled mother, for whom he was the sole caretaker. As a result of his bipolar diagnoses, this client, who I will call Frank, was eligible for SSI benefits, even though, as he admitted to me, he was technically physically and emotionally capable of holding down a job. The money he would make working that job, however,  would not pay for a caretaker for his mother. Was this “fair”? I guess it depends upon what kind of community we want to be in. Do we want to trust that people will give what they can, when they can and that in return we should meet them with all the compassion and resources we have at our disposal? Are we ready to admit that if things were really “fair,” instead of fifty percent of black males being incarcerated, it could be some of us Avodahniks missing house meeting for a bail hearing?

Kira and I chose to stay in our room. Many of our housemates kept their singles and the next day I took the communal lentil stew, cooked lovingly by a housemate, to work for lunch. Later when I would come home upset about a client interaction, one of those housemates who kept her single, would embrace me for hours and listen to my woes. Who knows if our rooming arrangement was fair, but what we were left with was a community, something bigger than the sum of transactions and exchanges. My client Frank finally got his SSI benefits reinstated and found a community in a support group of fellow elderly caretakers. Kira and I are currently working on a new goodbye ritual for the second half of the year, suggestions are welcome.

Jenn Pollan, from Wellesley, MA, attended Wesleyan University and is a Case Manager at the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

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