Treating the Source and Not Merely the Symptoms

As I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom for the third month straight, I’ve found that reminiscing on my experiences with Duke Engage in Summer 2019 makes me quite happy and makes me feel less alone. Wonderful memories that I made last summer alongside my newfound friends in my cohort and at the incredible mental health nonprofits I interned with flood back in welcome waves. However, one memory in particularly quite literally floods back.

One sunny June afternoon at my internship with Threshold Clubhouse, a local mental health nonprofit in Durham, NC, (less than a 10-minute drive away from Duke!) the toilets in both the men’s and women’s bathrooms gushed out gallons upon gallons of water for hours.

The clubhouse descended into a state of chaos when the toilets first started exploding water and people rushed to throw rags and brown paper towels on top of the drenched bathroom floors. A few brave staff members went in to attempt to solve the problem, but it wasn’t until backup arrived a few hours later that the flooding was finally controlled.

This summer, alongside my Pathways of Change cohort, I realized that nonprofits such as Threshold address the symptoms of a much deeper problem caused by the government’s abandonment of responsibilities to its most vulnerable citizens. In a way, the role of nonprofits mirrors the act of attempting to dry a flooded bathroom floor while torrents of water are still bursting forth from nearby toilets.

Support of nonprofits is highly needed, particularly for local nonprofits that cater to smaller populations who are often overlooked otherwise. However, reform of the entire system should not be overlooked as the culture of addressing symptoms of severe societal issues as a way to deflect from actually addressing their sources is highly problematic. The paper towels are going to run out soon, and the problem is still going to persist.

The government has not only abandoned its most vulnerable citizens, but has been complicit in allowing businesses to avoid their social responsibilities to society. The recent controversy surrounding insincere statements from corporations on the topic of Black Lives Matter merely only scratches the surface of meager attempts by corporations to address symptoms of a much larger problem that many of them have helped to create and grow.

The inaction and increasingly polarized nature of the government enables corporations to violate the human rights of not only people in the US, but people in developing nations as well. Corporations are rarely held accountable when they harm people in vulnerable communities, rarely prioritize people who aren’t stakeholders, and perpetuate and worsen the state of inequality, racism, injustice, the environment, and more. We have created a questionable system in which the job of holding these gargantuan corporations accountable is somehow left to nonprofits.

Perhaps one of the reasons as to why the government and corporations enact very little tangible and effective action to uplift the most vulnerable in society is because the most of the people running the government and corporations are not representative of the US population (although we are slowly getting there) and their net worth’s are oftentimes not representative of the average US household. This disconnect reminds me of the mentally-detached relationship of consumers who actively purchase from unethical brands and the laborers whose human rights are violated because of the unethical brands.

But even if someone doesn’t have the experience of being in a vulnerable position, it doesn’t mean that they can’t try to understand and perhaps eventually come to understand the positions and perspectives of the vulnerable. However, what saddens me is the idea that though someone without certain experiences with a problem can believe that the problem harms their fellow human beings, it doesn’t mean that they care. It doesn’t mean that something is going to change for the better.

But the want to even see and understand a situation is the first step to eventual change, and I’ve found that the people who I worked with at Threshold Clubhouse and Waddington Street Centre last summer and the wonderful people of BSR are people who have not only wanted to understand the situations of the most vulnerable of society, but have cared enough to dedicate their careers to helping our world heal.

The government and corporations need to deeply consider how they are failing the most vulnerable populations of society and what they can do to not only rectify the problem, but what they can effectively implement in order to uplift the marginalized. But to even get started, they need to have the sincere want to even understand what they can be doing better.

I hope that society will eventually evolve to a point where people who live with incessantly flooding toilets will be heard, and those that hear them but may not see the toilets themselves will believe them, will care, and will take action. And even beyond that, I hope that people who have lived the consequences of malfunctioning toilets are empowered and elevated so that our government and our corporations are actually representative of our population and their stories, struggles, and triumphs.

Because if not, sooner or later, we’ll all be underwater.