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The lawnmower talk, in which a idealist gets real
May 20, 2015

I’m at a party years ago and this guy I know, a high school acquaintance, takes a pretty condescending tone about low-income people of color in a particular neighborhood in our city.

We’re in our 20s. He’s in law school. I’ve just done a year of volunteer service in a poor community and I’m idealistic – but I’ve ironically become a realist. I know there’s a side of life we didn’t see in the easygoing suburb where we grew up.

He says, “They should get jobs.”

And I say, “Okay, but jobs aren’t always easy to find especially if you don’t have a college degree or references or your parents’ connections.”

And he says, “I mowed lawns in the summers. Why can’t they mow lawns?”

And I say, “Hmmm. Let me ask you this - did you borrow your dad’s lawnmower to mow lawns?”

He did. And he catches on, because it’s pretty clear that young people in this neighborhood we’re talking about are less likely than kids in suburbia to have dads with lawnmowers, or neighbors who can afford to pay someone else to mow their lawn, or lawns that need mowing for that matter. “That’s pretty good for a non-lawyer,” he says in reply. 

I share this memory that has obviously stuck with me for decades because it illustrates the peripheral blind spot of privilege: we think we see things as they are but we miss a whole segment of reality that remains in our blind spot.  

So in this case, what was logical for my friend – to presume that anyone could start a lawn mowing business – wouldn’t work for people without access to a lawnmower.

Affordable housing is kind of like that guy’s dad’s lawnmower.

As having a lawnmower allowed my friend to create his own summer job, having an affordable home can lead to basic prosperity for those on the economic margins. Less spent on rent means more available for nutritious food, high-quality child care, necessary health care. A warm winter coat and boots for the kids. A car that runs reliably. Sadly, this resource is out of reach for many Minnesotans.

I’m not sure what my friend is doing today, but I sure hope he has become a realist and I mean that in the most idealistic way.