Columnist Emily Laufer: Be mindful of your privilege

  • Erin Samson watches her son, Noah Rodriguez, 3, pull out his bike at their home in Hampshire Heights in Northampton. The Northampton Housing Authority earlier this month sent a letter to tenants asking that they remove items from common areas. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Sunday, June 25, 2017

On June 5, I came home from a long day at work to a letter stuffed in between my doors from the Northampton Housing Authority (NHA).

The letter, titled “Removal of Furniture or Items in Common Areas,” instructed all Hampshire Heights Residents to “Please remove any and all items out of common areas such as yards, porches, lawns, halls, stairways and sidewalks no later than June 12, 2017 or they will be disposed of and you will be billed for the disposal.”

Furthermore, bulk items were “NOT to be left @ the dumpster.” According to the Housing Authority, this was in the terms of my lease and the house rules.

I breathed a deep sigh. I sat down on my porch chair feeling confused. As I looked out to my community, I saw children playing. I smelled dinners being cooked, as parents and residents pulled into their parking spots after long days.

After living in the more rural area of Florence for the majority of my life, I finally felt like I lived in a community when I moved here. A community that takes pride in family, work, education and of course, our homes. I glance to my left and see my neighbor. Our eyes meet and we share a moment of understanding. In that glance, we both felt defeated by our landlord.

It was not long before our community had a low yet frantic buzz humming through the air. Men and women worked together to haul whatever they felt they needed to dispose of to appease the NHA. Slowly but surely, beloved play structures, bicycles, lumber and parts of gardens disappeared.

We tried to look at this in a positive way: “It does look clean!” “At least the grass is cut.” “At least NHA is paying attention to us.”

And then an article came out in the Gazette (“Tenants irked by Northampton Housing Authority crackdown on outside items, gardens,” June 20). I was excited to see what was said about the issue. But to my dismay, the article was written with privilege and for the privileged reader.

After living in Northampton for my entire life, I understood exactly who the Gazette was addressing the article to — a community that turns its head to the working class. Let me be clear. I based my definition of the working class on the amount of power one has in their workplace and, in this case, living situation. Michael Zweig, director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, states:

“The working class are those people with relatively little power at work — white-collar bank tellers, call-center workers, and cashiers; blue-collar machinists, construction workers, and assembly-line workers; pink-collar secretaries, nurses, and home-health-care workers — skilled and unskilled, men and women of all races, nationalities, and sexual preferences. The working class are those with little personal control over the pace or content of their work and without supervisory control over the work lives of others. There are nearly 90 million working-class people in the U.S. labor force today. The United States has a substantial working-class majority.”

Now, many of my fellow Northampton residents can relate to the working-class status. I am not arguing with that. However, somehow, through some type of privilege, be it marriage, external financial support or perhaps pure luck, these residents do not find themselves living in low-income housing. They do not find themselves powerless in terms of a home. They are not threatened by lease violations one to three times a month. They do not need to give up personal financial information to their landlord. And most importantly, they are not blatantly excluded from the greater community.

Let me be clear. The majority of the people living in low-income housing are not lazy, and we do not purely live off of governmental assistance. We contribute to the economy of this city.

Thus, the Gazette was addressing an audience that does not live in the same circumstances as us — a community which simply “puts up” with those who cannot afford to live outside of affordable housing. This may sound harsh to my liberal “open-minded” comrades. However, if you are a working-class person, or a person of color in this community, IT IS HARD. It is hard to walk into majority-white spaces, and even harder to walk into economically stable majority-white spaces.

It is hard to walk into schools and immediately feel different and judged. It is hard to walk into supermarkets and be one of (on a good day) three other people of color/working-class people. It is hard to be the only person in the supermarket line that tentatively pulls out their EBT card. It is even hard to go to farmers markets and pay for your food with wooden chips!

I am not writing these things for pity. I am writing them to give the greater community a reality check. Economic inequality is a leading issue in our great country, but it is also a leading issue right here in Northampton.

Articles like the one published in the Gazette belittle us. You are excluding us from the greater community, and you are deepening the gap between us and the greater community. You are asserting your privilege.

Not only are our homes pristine, we are a pristine community. We have voices, we have minds and we contribute to this community every day.

What bothered my neighbors the most was not the cleanup, it was the lack of communication. It was a community of able-minded citizens feeling like they were being treated as children. It was a community feeling trapped. But most of all, just like our belongings, it was a community feeling as if we were disposable.

So here is a call to all of Northampton residents: be conscious, be mindful, and most of all, live every day mindful of your privilege and do what you can to fight against injustice and inequality.

Emily Laufer is a resident of Hampshire Heights in Northampton.