One thing that I was cognizant of before coming to Brandeis, but which has been reinforced over and over inside and outside of the classroom at the university, is that there are a lot of things that I don’t understand. My time at Brandeis has further instilled in me two very important things: one, that I must harness my resources to gain as much of an understanding of the world around me as possible, and two, that there are some things, despite all the resources in the world, I will never understand. That second truth is incredibly important in all kinds of work, but especially the kind of work in which you are interacting with people from different cultures and backgrounds than yourself.
I do see this changing, but I think that people often feel that the only way to create change is to understand, through and through, the experiences of other people. In my mind, that is fundamentally damaging because it keeps people racing toward some unattainable goal in which they are the hero of their own story of triumph over the unknown. What it stops them from doing is accepting right off the bat that they will never understand in full the reality of someone else, and moving forward from that to a place of collaboration. Through all of my courses, but especially my classes that centered around the American healthcare system, the juvenile justice system and the global health mechanism, I’ve learned time and time again that saying “I understand” when one actually doesn’t is a step in the wrong direction.
We have weekly intern check-ins at my internship, and we have heard from a few of the staff attorneys about their careers and their time in the field. We heard from one woman whose perspective I really appreciated. She said something along the lines of, “I will never experience the things my clients have experienced, our realities are completely different, and that is okay.” While I don’t have the experience or the involvement that she has, from where I stand, I agree. There are many aspects of the realities of the immigrant clients I engage with that I cannot control, and even fewer that I can fully understand. It is my obligation to do the best I can to listen, to be compassionate, and to center every conversation around them and their experiences. It is also my obligation to not minimize them or their experiences by saying that I understand. That is not the goal. And I see that belief echoed throughout the organization.
In terms of my own conduct, I do a combination of things to honor what I have just laid out. I read everything I can get my hands on so I can contextualize the experiences of those I work with. I just read The Dispossessed; A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexico Border and Beyond by John Washington, which I recommend. Being able to contextualize and being able to understand are two different things. I try to choose my words wisely, always lend my ears, and never think or express to the individuals I work with that an understanding of their reality is something I can master. And that’s okay. I’m glad I am not fooling myself, wasting my time and hurting others by believing that I understand.