A room with a view … point

Several weeks ago, I attended a presentation held at a private club in Washington, DC. I was looking forward to the topic, “Alleviating Poverty: The Universal Basic Income Approach.” One of the speakers was a colleague from a monthly breakfast group that I’ve been a part of for over a decade. In fact, I was so looking forward to the presentation that I hadn’t paid much attention to the location.

That changed as soon as I walked into the room. I had been to this club before, but for some reason, I saw it differently this time. I was struck immediately by its grandeur. Versailles came to mind. It was ornate, replete with goldleaf, lots of mirrors, and corner cherubs. The place settings sparkled, ready for us to enjoy dinner before the presentation.

It was breathtaking and it made me uncomfortable.

Was this where we should be discussing alleviating poverty?

My discomfort wasn’t just about the physical setting. It was the combination of the setting and the attendees.

The people in this room were members of the club, literally and figuratively, and their guests. There was lots of chatting during the cocktail hour before the event. One person commented to me that she had been married in this room.  The venue was familiar and comfortable for them. They were proud of it. They repeatedly celebrated the quality of the food, the comfort of the club’s library, and the proficiency and long tenures of the staff. This was their place. They were at home.

I had expected the attendees to be older and white. I just hadn’t thought I’d be the only Black participant. I’m pretty sure that everyone was white except for three of the five presenters, a staffer accompanying one of the speakers, and me. So, was that why I was uncomfortable? Was this about race?  I don’t think so. The dissonance I felt was more about class and understanding/frame of reference.

To me, these were wealthy people. Their conversation, however, suggested they thought of themselves as being in the middle class. Educated? Yes, but other than that, I think they thought of themselves as Joe and Susie Average. Frame of reference is everything, right? Had anyone in the room ever been poor or had direct familial relationships or contact via deep friendship with people who were poor? Could they understand poverty?

Several people commented that many in the club were liberals and that all were knowledge seekers.  Liberals? Was this said so I’d think they were proponents of racial justice and knowledgeable about racial injustice? Was it code? Knowledge seekers? I knew that learning was one of the founding principles of the club. Was this presentation primarily an intellectual opportunity to understand the concept of universal basic income? Did they think that a universal basic income would level the racial playing field, not taking into account the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism? Was I overthinking this? So much swirled through my head as I sat in that room. Did anyone else feel the disconnect?

For those of us who see ourselves as change agents, we are the bridge between the community that is most impacted by the problem to be addressed and the community, that, by their positions and power, hold some of the keys to addressing those problems. We must be comfortable in both places, going to both to gain and provide information, and to discuss strategy. We – the change agents – must be able to navigate very wealthy/powerful/white spaces and translate the realities of poverty to people with none, or little, experience with it (which the panel of presenters did brilliantly).

My concerns about what people did and didn’t know about race, racism, poverty, and class didn’t need to be addressed in one evening. I needed to move beyond the setting and focus on the potential. Because of the inequities of our society, the people in this room had the needed financial, social, and political resources to respond.

Was this private club in Washington, DC the right setting for a conversation on universal basic income? I think it was one of many “right” venues. The club’s program committee had recommended the topic. The attendees were a ready, willing, and able group; so, let the education begin. Plus, the right people are always the ones in the room, right?  Still, what a room …