I parked the car, looked around, and got out, grateful that I had found a parking place in front of the house. I put the Social Research Center sign in the windshield as instructed, locked my purse in the trunk, and began walking up the steps to the porch. I was in inner city Flint, likely the only white person for blocks. My African-American husband had filled my head with warnings: “Be aware of who is around you, walk quickly with your head up, act like you know where you are going, keep your phone with you at all times.” But I was more nervous about the interview than about the surroundings.
My assignment was to interview this African-American single mother three times in the next three years for researchers at the University of Michigan who wanted to learn the reality of life for welfare mothers in urban Flint and surrounding area. I needed a second job because my husband was unable to work for health reasons. My senior manager position with the Michigan Chapter of the MS Society allowed me to manage my own time from a home office. So I had responded to an ad in The Flint Journal for researchers for the Social Research Center at the U of M. To my surprise, I was hired and sent to three days of intensive training in Ann Arbor, going over the 50+ pages of the survey nearly word by word and discussing the “etiquette” and art of interviewing. Our first task was to call our women and make appointments with each. If there was no phone, we had to make cold calls. Each interview took about an hour and the women were paid $30 as incentive to let someone into their lives.
Now, as I walked onto the porch, I saw a pile of lumber and a tool box along with a girl’s bike. I rang the doorbell. She opened the door and when I identified myself, she said we could do the interview on the porch.
I sighed. We were supposed to include notes on the conditions of the home, but this would now not be possible. Also women on welfare at that time were not allowed to be married or live with a man. We were supposed to look around for the presence of men and ask questions – not to report them to social services but just to learn the facts of their situations. I remember instances of men running out the back door as I came in the front or creating inventive stories about why they just emerged from the shower in a house they didn’t live in.
My “lady” (as we called our interviewees because we couldn’t identify them) was in her 20’s and had a young daughter. She had been attending the U of M Flint until the welfare rules changed and now she had to work instead to qualify for welfare. She was angry and confused as to why the state would take away her chance to be educated and better herself and make her work at menial labor.
Her job was to clean the “The Palace of Auburn Hills”, a huge concert venue about an hour away. She and dozens of other women were bused to work around 6:00 a.m and brought home around 5:00, which meant her mother had to take care of her daughter before and after school. One of her major complaints was that Social Services paid her mother more to care for her child than she herself received from social services for this job that she hated.
As we went through the interview, I learned that she was horribly embarrassed to be on welfare. Her goal was to finish her degree and support her child. Another goal was to get a car so she wouldn’t have to take her child on the bus to do errands and carry bags of groceries from the bus stop to her house. She was determined to teach her daughter to be an independent woman who would find work that matched her skills and could take care of herself. She was proud of herself for buying the brand new bike I had seen on the porch, taking the box home on the bus, and putting it together herself. Her next task was to learn how to build a dog house (hence the lumber on the porch) for the puppy she wanted to buy her daughter for her birthday.
I returned to interview that woman two more times. The second year she had a car. The third year she was back in college. And she made sure to show me the finished dog house in the back yard.
I interviewed more than a hundred women for that study and for another Mental Health Study in the Detroit area. I became a team leader, editing surveys, chairing weekly conference calls, and basically supervising the work of 10-12 interviewers. But mostly I learned a lot! I learned that I represented white privilege every time I walked into one of these women’s houses. I learned about the demeaning way women on welfare are treated, how the state’s arbitrary rules broke up families and interfered with women’s dreams, how some people scammed the system and how others lived in honor and truth no matter how hard that was. I learned about racism, drugs, incest, physical and emotional abuse. I also learned about love and forgiveness and pride and determination.
But mostly I learned to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” before I formed opinions on who they were. I saw the need for Christians and their churches to love the Christ in each of us enough to take care of others’ needs and value each of them as people. I better understood the model Jesus gave us when he “ate with sinners.” For we really don’t know who we are until we work at loving and honoring “the least of these.”
image of Flint sign by neighborhoodeffects.mercatus.org; silhouette image by hotzoneusa.com;