A good friend of mine, a lovely and generous woman, was telling me about a family of migrant workers that she and her family had sponsored through a program of The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. This friend was helping a migrant family with daycare and medical expenses and the process of finding an affordable reliable car. It must have made such a difference in the quality of life of this family from Mexico. Occasionally, my friend would invite the family over for dinner at their beautiful home in Grand Haven. When I heard about this part of their connection, I asked my friend, “How do you not feel so guilty about what you have and what they will never have?”
She said that she did not feel guilty because she is doing something positive about the inequity. She was being the change she wanted to see in the world. It was true and I believed her, but I thought: If I had a family of migrant workers over to my house for dinner, I would experience such crushing guilt about the economic unfairness of life that I would need to be hospitalized.
White middle-class guilt. It is uncomfortable to feel, embarrassing to admit, easy to parody, amusing to lampoon, useless in the struggle to be the change you want to see in the world.
Five years ago, Doris Rucks, in my early days at C3, asked me if I would come to the Muskegon Heights Library to do a children’s program. This was my first visit to the Heights Library and the program went well—the children were enthusiastic and fun. Afterwards, Doris asked me if I would consider joining the Friends and bringing my interest and experience in programs for children to the group. I remember thinking: This is something I can do.
That first time in the library was my first time in a Muskegon Heights neighborhood. It was twenty minutes away from downtown Grand Haven. Once you leave 31, take the Sherman exit, drive down Sherman to Getty, take Getty to Broadway and start watching for the library, you are in the heart of one the poorest cities in Michigan. There are many deserted buildings and boarded up stores. There are broken streets and curbs and littered sidewalks.
There used to be a grocery store on Broadway, but it closed a couple of years ago. Muskegon Heights is a food desert. There are many people helping to improve this deprivation, among them CCD folks and C3 volunteers, but the absence of a grocery store is yet another blow for this community. Many people in the Heights are without the transportation needed to go to Meijers. This affects the way everyone eats, including the children, including pregnant women. Including the elderly.
Muskegon Heights is twenty minutes away from downtown Grand Haven.
The Muskegon Heights Branch Public Library is very small. It has been vastly improved by the ongoing efforts of the Friends of the Library. In the Community Room of the library, for example, we have a new projector, a new screen a new amp and microphone system, new tables and we will soon have new chairs. We fantasize about a new building for the library regularly. In the meantime, we plan events, hold book sales, search for funds, invite authors,
Soon after I joined the Friends I agreed to be the secretary and take the minutes, something that Leslie Newman now does. At the time I thought again: This is something I can do.
The gift of a specific task.
When the Friends decided we should invite African American authors to the Heights library and the libraries in the Heights schools, I thought: I know how to contact authors. I know the language of authors. I can explain what we need. This is something I can do.
When Leslie Newman joined the Friends, she pushed for us to have regular book sales like the other libraries in Muskegon, something we had hesitated about because of the limitations of the tiny library, and because of the economic realities of the Heights community.
We now have 3 book sales a year. We charge almost nothing for the books—25 and 50 cents. We want the books out in the community, especially the children’s books. Our next book sale will be June 20th and it will include, we hope, many donations of books and costume jewelry from C3 members.
And what of the guilt? My old friend Guilt actually served me, by helping me to start small and move slowly, to find my way carefully, to be mindful and respectful of a different culture and situation than my own.
Now when there is an event at the library, a few people from the Heights who come to our events know me. They know I am Margaret and I am not connected with politics or charity or any agency. They remember me from the last event. They know that I am Doris’ friend. They know that I am with the Friends of the Library, along with Doris, Steve, Leslie, Kathleen, Karen, Greta and Phil from the C3 family, and the Friends of the Library who live in the Heights community.
Perhaps the people of the Heights see my white middle-class guilt when they look at me. That is okay. That is reality.
I was given an invitation to move out of hopelessness, even though I have no answers or solutions. I took a step, a small step on a new path and then another step.
I still say regularly: This is something I can do.
I can do this.
We can do this.
This is something we can do.