photo taken in my Galaxy Tab in East Baltimore and ‘prettified’ with EyeEm
They call this increasingly popular middle-class ritual “Ghetto Tourism” and I was guilty of it a few weeks ago when I visited Baltimore for the amazing InSquared Conference. I was almost giddy about the idea of touring the poorest parts of East Baltimore brought to my attention by one of my favorite television shows of all-time, The Wire (also #85 in Stuff White People Like). I wanted to see the neighborhood with my own eyes. I couldn’t wait to capture the ‘No Trespassing. If Animal Is Trapped Inside Call ….’ stencils on the boarded up houses. We drove around in a luxury SUV and captured poignant shots like the one above with our iPhones and Tablets. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
I don’t tell you this because I want to make anyone feel guilty, but there was something more poignant than pictures that I took away from this ‘ghetto tour’ and my entire time at the conference. That poignant thing that hit me is core to the problems of North America: the divide between the haves and have nots. And, until the is an overall awareness of privilege, it won’t change.
A conversation on a gmail group I’m part of raised this point for me: Yes, we all have the ability to achieve success by working hard and smart, but some of us have more obstacles in our way. This is not an excuse by any means. The world is what it is for better or for worse, but there is an odd sense of entitlement in our cushy worlds that forgets that, yes, we work hard to achieve what we’ve achieved, but we have experienced privilege along the way to help us get there. Education, skin color, strong support systems, good manners, speaking the right native tongue, access to strong networks, the advantage of being a specific gender or orientation that is the normative, inheritance of wealth and many other leveragable assets give us a different starting point than those without these assets.
I was not born to a wealthy family. My father worked hard to build his business from a place of poverty. He worked his way through university, then he and my mother slowly, patiently, built his veterinarian practice, paying off student loans and slowly climbing up the ranks of comfortable living. We lived in a trailer on his family’s land until I was 10. A second-hand, broken down trailer, but we had the privilege of having land passed down, which gave us more leverage than many of our neighbors. And we lived in a small town in Alberta, which was incredibly inexpensive to grow a business in. Another advantage.
But they gave me oodles of other privileges that helped me to start from a pretty advanced place of leverage. I attended university didn’t have to take out too much for student loans because my parents supported me and post-secondary is subsidized in Canada. I always had enough. I also had my parents’ example of a couple who sacrificed in the short term to make long term gains.
When I was in Baltimore, I saw a very different experience. Entire neighborhoods of abandoned houses, boarded up and falling down. Our guide described them as ‘unburied corpses’. Most people in those neighborhoods are untouched by the lovely startup/angel/VC world we live in that afford us to be connected the way we are. I took photos of those rows of unburied corpses with my iPhone and tablet – and felt incredibly aware of the juxtaposition. Many of the inhabitants of this neighborhood have their mindspace occupied by survival, not how to get followers on Pinterest.
I’m not saying all of this to make anyone feel guilty or to downplay your or my struggles. I’ve struggled and worked hard. I’ve gone without being able to pay my rent. I’ve gone without eating many times. We are all given our lot in life, but I also know that there is a different starting line for everyone. Those that start from behind my position have to run harder, smarter and overcome lots of barriers before they even get to IMAGINE creating a social commerce platform that helps people make better buying decisions.
And yes, it’s reality. There is no room in our world for whining or feeling sorry for ourselves.
But dammit. The arrogance of privilege really makes me hate the world we live in sometimes. And makes me question so much of what we deem as important or successful or admirable or inspirational. We spend so much time and money and energy and editorial space celebrating a certain type of person and funding a certain type of business. And yes, there are a few great funds (Good Capital, Omidyar Foundation, Google.org and Gates Foundation) and government programs and fundraising avenues, but all-in-all, I see more money lost on investing in the new shiny thing that doesn’t work than goes into investing into our own communities.
On a positive note, gb.tc (Greater Baltimore Tech Council), the organization behind InSquared Conference, has the goal of bringing wealth to the area we toured. The organization’s lead instigator Jason Hardebeck, who drove us around, is one of those guys who has examined his privilege and decided to use it to level the playing field for everyone, not just those who already have assets. As we speak, gb.tc, is creating innovative centers with tools, instruction and other resources in many of the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore and reaching out to the inhabitants of those neighborhoods to offer them these resources at little to no cost. When I asked him how they plan to make money, he replied, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” In other words, when the poorest people in Baltimore have stable income and futures, everybody will profit. I love this idea. And it’s been shown that in cities like Philadelphia and New York, this is the case: reduced crime, increased local spending, cleaned up neighborhoods, better valued real estate, innovation and more come from these programs. It’s something that we all need to be invested in.
As a final note, I’m aware that I’m not building a business that is going to help those neighborhoods get to a level playing field, but that doesn’t mean I’m not trying to build something meaningful (I wouldn’t work on a business that doesn’t have a higher purpose). There is room in this world to build all sorts of businesses that serve all sorts of people. But I do want to live in a world where we are serving even the most ‘unprofitable’ looking business prospects because it’s better for everybody.