I am a poverty pimp.
I wrestle with this possibility often. It feels like celebrity prattle to even write that I struggle with pangs of guilt.
When one works in a non-profit agency, the distance between a cause and one’s life is sometimes too close for comfort. We exorcise our demons through the work we do and my demon is HIV.
I recently attended a conference in Victoria to discuss topics that make us look good and important, such as illness, homelessness, food security, the maladies of the world. In this field we don’t often talk joy, resilience or abundance.
I attend conferences and committees all the time and it’s hard not to feel like a poverty pimp when one just blabs away in bucolic settings such as the garden city (which still throws its untreated shit into the harbour, by the way) and in a university plagued by free prancing bunnies.
No one eats Lapin à La Cocotte in Vicky City, I see.
In these terribly solemn scenarios, erudite talking heads blah-blah about lofty goals and solutions — “outcomes,” pardon me.
I’m reminded: the fact you are important doesn’t make you necessary.
Meekness plays a critical role in the non-profit biz. You want to be successful but not ostentatious, make money but not rub it in the faces of your constituency, have influence and appear awfully collegial and democratic.
In a non-profit, it isn’t uncommon to play minor fiddler to politicians, philanthropists and public health authorities. While the powerful ponder AIDS in Africa, wars in exotic lands and world food security, it feels sort of shitty and hypocritical to be pushing digital memos, making whiny calls, or preparing one single modest workshop for a few dependable converts.
I feel like a girl Friday, minus the secretarial spread. I’ve been told, “You make money doing something that changes nothing” and “those people you work with ain’t gonna change and don’t seem to want to change anyway.”
Nothing gets more high-minded responses and so swiftly than health and poverty in our formerly most-desirable-to-live-in city.
So, I do what any self-respecting Canadian would do. I pack my tools of the trade — tools not toys — and I head for the Downtown Eastside, our renowned social lab, our pet charity, to find out about food security.
This is the place we would prefer to have whited-out, but are equally quick to underscore when we talk about the “public good” and “social justice” that we do.
East Van is sobering. You can descend from the Gourmet Warehouse, a grastroporn paradise, to Quest, the radically low-priced membership store where a bag of groceries costs a few dollars. Now there is a useful idea. We all appreciate what we pay for even if it is cheap.
I come to the LifeSkills Centre, a caldron of human experience, to see how the grand global issue of food security translates into a local setting. We got taxpayers’ money to find out something that may never change anything. We will make good on our promises even if we have to drag the residents out of their hotel rooms (SROs — we have acronyms to talk in code about “them”).
In about eight weeks we will be squeezing information out of them on what it’s like living in the Eastside when you are HIV-poz, dirt poor and in need of sustenance. We feel good, we give stipends.
We may be supporting yet another parallel and crappy economy by paying a pittance to our research subjects. And to think that they say research is done for the sake of advancing knowledge. See how easily one can wind oneself up and not sleep at nights?
Ten adults over 30 and living with HIV: women, men, gay, straight and trans participate in the Good Eats! workshops. They remind us that this neighbourhood is a community, even as our pious investigative tourism and other types of tourism paint a postcard of misery.
While chatting with nutritionists, the workshop participants cook meals and tell us that in the neighbourhood women have an easier time finding food but a harder time finding places to sleep than men. It seems easier to be trans than a boy in this area; trans folks can hook up and get by.
They remind us that people live on bread, water and sugar, especially if they use drugs. And when they get solid stuff to eat, they don’t have good teeth to chew.
We learn that the meals that you and I engorge in sweet privacy and the leftovers we discard are a privilege and a luxury. These folks spend time in lineups, not leisure.
Many times they are red-zoned by the police from the very places that ladle out the glob made from our substandard donations. If they are queer — yup, there are poor non-gorgeous queers! — they’d better keep it hushed! Liberation is for the ones who can afford it.
In some places you gotta pray to some God to get your meal, if you make it there on time. God waits for no one.
If they have real opportunities, folks work for food. At the LifeSkills Centre, some volunteer to get some cash or food. The hassle and bustle during the workshops prove that even “the downtrodden” enjoy ambiance, socializing around food and deserve convenience and good quality. Surprise, surprise! They behave towards food the way you and I do at any expensive eatery.
I come back to my precarious middle-classdom on Commercial Dr with a sobering suppository up my arse.
I have options: one is to radically switch paths, say, suck Jim Pattison’s cock. Oops, too late — I’m an infected queer with a Mother Theresa complex.
Another option is to forget these unsavoury people and this philanthropist crap. They will soon be bussed to Surrey to clean it all up for the Olympics anyway.
Yet another option is to withstand the guilt and be really self-righteous about the small non-profit work that I do. Can you guess which option I choose?