The following is a reflection by Ellen Lundwall, a recent Regis College graduate, who spent time during her Regis tenure – and after – at Community Educational Outreach, a Colorado nonprofit devoted to providing educational resources that target low-income adults who may be at risk of being institutionalized.
Short. White hair. Hiding behind thick glasses. Unbuttoned blue flannel, a well-worn grey t-shirt underneath.
Steve was my Wednesday regular. He shuffled into our tutoring session upset and frustrated. Of course he was: custody, parole, inability to get a job, inability to keep a job, the disproportionate instability of life, the single-storied stereotype limiting him and his fellow parolees from breaking the cycle and oppression within incarceration violence. The state, instead of granting the psychological help needed, assigned him to education classes at Community Educational Outreach (CEO). He was angry tonight. Of course he was: mad at his incapability to grasp the material necessary to get a GED; more upset at the irrelevance of the required materials, knowing the Pythagorean Theorem does not hold some great, unseen meaning for his daily existence.
We sat between dusty books and unopened dictionaries in the run-down classroom working on math. The concept is simple for many: round up, round down, but not for Steve. It took a half hour and countless broken pencils before understanding. Frustrated. Beaten. Incorrect.
I don’t know how it changed exactly. Maybe it was the over exaggerated excitement for correct answers. Maybe it was the gentile laughter that broke down the fear of messing up. Maybe it was just the sitting together, the listening. I don’t know how we got from “I don’t know and I don’t care” to something more like “Yes! It’s ten! Let’s do another!” but something un-cuffed his hands from the anger and bitterness of confusion and loneliness. “Yes! It makes sense! Let’s do another!” he kept saying. In an overwhelming state of pride and a realization of personal transformation, his tears began to fall.
White hair. Blue flannel. Hiding his wet eyes behind thick glasses. Grinning.
To me, it was just rounding. Six rounds down to five, eight rounds up to 10. To Steve, though, it was so much more: an obstacle, a battle, a “To-Learn” on the long list of GED requirements, another silent and paradoxical mountain. And he was standing on top.
CEO is not about rounding, test correcting, quotas and requirements. They instill confidence. They work through education to help people realize their unknown or forgotten potential, their self-agency and their access to self-liberation. They fill oppressive silence with opportunity.
So I go. I bear witness. I listen. I learn. Most of all, I wait with both joy and anticipation for that moment when eyes light up with, “Yes! It’s ten! Let’s do another!” Because Steve at 51 years old proves it is never too late for self-liberation.
Our society seems to possess a plethora of problematic misconceptions about homelessness. Especially in Denver, where this population is so large, we can’t afford to continue to write them off as irresponsible people incapable of taking care of themselves. Many of these women are experiencing homelessness as a result of being victimized by the rise of rent in the Denver area or because they have left circumstances of domestic abuse, which, in both cases, could happen to anyone.
One of the things that attracted me to Regis was its emphasis on education through service and community involvement. As a middle-class person with the privilege of higher education, I can never fully comprehend what it means to be homeless, but The Gathering Place allows me to deepen my understanding of this issue and grow in my belief in the importance of all members of our society being adequately taken care of and provided for.
This support is a great need and, if in our present societal paradigm, we cannot fulfill this need, it is clear it is necessary we do some collective reevaluating. Furthermore, if I, personally, was aware of the difficulties these women experience and did not do some small part in easing these challenges, I would also need to do some serious re-evaluating.
Creating bonds with the women at The Gathering Place is not something I do because they need me, but because, in having the ability to make some small difference in their lives, I have an obligation to do so. Through my time spent with these women, my passion for social justice and my belief in human dignity has greatly deepened, for which I feel such gratitude towards these women.