Our featured member post this week is a deeply personal piece from Jenn Smith, who blogs at Citysmiths.


There are a multitude of reasons that my husband, Michael and I started this blog, some more altruistic than others, but one reason was purely selfish: the opportunity to experience the catharsis that writing at length about an issue for which we feel great passion can bring. So I'm jumping back in with a post that is neither technical nor timely, but intensely personal, and an attempt to put into words some conclusions that have come into focus.

Several months ago a blog reader emailed us a stringent warning against wasting our time and energy in and on Rockford:

Do not invest your money, your efforts, your emotions there. Get out while you can because it is absolutely never going to get better.
You poor, misguided people. You are so smart, so dedicated and articulate too! You have yet to have been in RFD long enough to have your souls pulverized by the truth. Talent like yours should be used where there is some likelihood of success - but not in the hopeless RFD. You need to step back a bit to see the place for what it really is. Do not invest your money, your efforts, your emotions there. Get out while you can because it is absolutely never going to get better. It, like Flint, is utterly without redemption.
Take your talents where you will be rewarded - Sioux Falls, Fargo, Cedar Rapids or Columbia maybe?
My wife and I (both RFD natives) escaped 20 years ago and recently only visit once every two or three years. There is never any reason for optimism; every time we are there our pessimism of the '90s is only confirmed to be correct. It is a scary, corrupt, derelict and obsolete place and we are happy to be driving away after just one night spent there in July or August when we show up for some family or friends event. Get out while the getting' is good.

As you can imagine these words have rattled around in my brain quite a bit. Not because I agree with any part of it (other than perhaps the "smart, dedicated, and articulate" statement!), nor because there aren't abundant reasons why Michael and I choose to make Rockford our home, but because there was something deep and important I needed to learn from these words, something about myself and how I view people and the world. 

“The way you spend your money - the power of capitalism - can ultimately decrease the need for charity in the first place.”

Three years ago the organization I work for welcomed Robert Egger (founder of DC Central Kitchen and LA Kitchen, author of Begging for Change) to Rockford for a keynote address. Egger's work, centered around his belief that "Neither Food nor People should Ever Go to Waste", is an inspiration for anyone interested in seeing the difference between service that deepens dependency and service that empowers. Egger's message also turned my thoughts about my personal responsibility as a consumer, part of a larger market economy, upside down: "The way you spend your money - the power of capitalism - can ultimately decrease the need for charity in the first place." It was the first time I had deeply considered that the spending choices I make on a daily basis (not just the charitable deduction I claim at the end of the year) have as much if not MORE impact on my community and its people.

As a person of faith, my view of the world and the people in it is colored by my understanding of how God directs his people to work, relate, and live with one another. This understanding has and continues to evolve, particularly when it comes to issues of social justice. There is a much-quoted verse from the gospels wherein Jesus states, "The poor you will always have with you", a statement that I have come to understand as a personal mandate for believers -- as long as there are poor people, the people of God will be near and WITH them. This is what Emmanuel (God WITH us) is all about, not that believers are the saviors of the poor but rather they are people who seek to know the lives and struggles of the poor, to come alongside, to share time and talent and treasure for the good of others, not for self.

Last night I watched the movie The Big Short. There are myriad lessons to be learned, plenty to react to, in this retelling of the events leading up to the housing market and larger economic implosion of 2008. The element that left me almost breathless with despair was the complete disconnect that most of the people portrayed seemed to have from the impact their decisions would have on real peoples' lives; not even so much that they didn't care, but that they literally didn't HAVE to. In the end, for the "good" and "bad" guys alike, it didn't matter that the economy fell apart, their personal safety nets were large enough to keep them and their families safe and allowed them to pursue their various dreams and ambitions without disruption. They were, personally and professionally, too big to fail.

These (and many other) moments have informed my reaction and response to those tough words of the submitted comments above. There's room for my reaction and response to change over time, but today, here is where I sit:

I am not a martyr, savior, or saint. But I refuse to subscribe to the assertion that my life should be focused on what I can “get out of” a place or the “rewards” I am able to attain from a place.

I am not a martyr, savior, or saint. But I refuse to subscribe to the assertion that my life should be focused on what I can "get out of" a place or the "rewards" I am able to attain from a place. If the financial choices I make on a day to day basis -- where I live, shop, eat out, recreate -- have the power to build into a place and its people, I will make these choices very intentionally. If my work and words have the power to increase or limit the ability of my neighbors to live more whole, resilient lives, I will work and speak diligently and thoughtfully. I embrace the reality of community and the messy, chaotic, flawed, beautiful diversity that entails. I will not isolate myself within a community that does not challenge my thinking, nor become a person that does not have to care. 

I am not a rose-colored glasses, naive, shallow youth. I've felt the full force of "For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief" and my poor husband can attest to the sleepless nights, tears, and fury about the injustice we see in our community and beyond. But this smart, dedicated, articulate person will not shy away nor retreat into the safety that my education, my income, and my race afford me. My heart, soul, mind, and strength won't be wasted on a place that is safe, neat, or easy.

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