One of my journalist friends recently returned from a trip to the Congo. While most of the participants on the trip were fellow journalists and aid workers, two patrons also tagged along. These patrons– who I will refer to as tech wives (the wealthy spouses of Silicon Valley coders)– had little sense of the challenges they would face.
One day, toward the end of their trip, the participants visited a rape shelter, where 10 Congolese women shared their horrific stories of sexual violation. The tech wives, already overwhelmed by the Congolese realities, burst into uncontrollable tears. And in a cruel twist of fate, the rape victims began to console them.
Upon hearing this story, I vowed to never ever become a tech wife– to never exhibit such selfish disregard for those most pained by life’s inequities. And then last night happened.
About a month ago I joined ACTION Youth Media as a project mentor. In this role, I began to work with a group of Coney Island teenagers (mostly from the projects) to create documentaries on critical issues facing their community. We explored gang rape; stop and frisk; and a variety of other sordid realities entirely removed from my own experience.
Though I feared I would fail to connect with them; that they, justifiably so, would never trust a privileged white girl from the brownstone-riddled side of the tracks, I thought I was beginning to make some headway.
And then Eddie died. To be precise, he was stabbed to death by 15 kids who followed him into the McDonalds across from the Coney Island train station. Though I did not know Eddie on a personal level, he was a close friend of several of the teenagers in my program. And his untimely departure affected these young men and women in ways I can’t begin to explain.
As I listened to my students describe his murder, I felt the tears well up in my eyes. I had to use every bit of strength in me to not cry in front of them, to not devolve into one of the tech wives. While I’d had no formal training in group therapy or social work, I needed to keep it together. I needed to be the objective outsider, who listens rather than speaks; who offers some hope of a brighter tomorrow, even if she only half believes it; who looks the gravest dangers in the eye and says, “Is that the best you’ve got?”
But I wasn’t a superhero, and I couldn’t be all those things in that moment, so I tried to do the one thing I had learned in my high school AP Psych class: create a sense of normalcy. When kids’ worlds have been knocked upside down, they need to feel like they can be right side up again. They need their 6 pm media class to continue as scheduled. And so it did. Despite this tragic beginning, I brought the conversation back to the topic at hand: the gendered nature of police investigation and interrogation.
The boys claimed that the police stopped them fairly regularly, but the one female student in my group said she had never been frisked. There was a gender divide, and it was inextricably linked with racial profiling. And, of course, with the search for Eddie’s killers. But it was also a part of the documentary we would begin shooting in two weeks– a documentary that would ask the question, if gendered-profiling is unfair, how can we fix the criminal justice system so that it creates a safe space for everyone in it?
It was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had, but it also felt like one of the most important I would ever engage in. And when class was over, one of my students turned and said, “Ms. Yaffa, this shit is complicated. This whole god damn world is complicated.” I channeled my inner Whoopi Goldberg-gone-rogue-nun and replied, “Amen.”