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Field Notes from Mexico: bias, belonging, and dignity building - abroad and at home

Simply Smiles blog

Follow our blog and read insights from Simply Smiles staff, volunteers and other individuals whose lives are affected by our work!

Field Notes from Mexico: bias, belonging, and dignity building - abroad and at home

Alex Gross

This latest Field Note comes from Sacred Heart University philosophy professor, Dr. Andrew Pierce. Drew volunteered with a team from SHU in mid-January 2016 and also worked alongside his former student - and our program manager of Mexican operations - Gaby Chavez Hernandez. Drew reflects on the complexities of racial and cultural bias and how to effectively and thoughtfully learn from his volunteer experience.


At the end of an amazing and challenging week-long experience with Simply Smiles in Oaxaca, I am left struggling to process all that I saw and did there, and to figure out a way to incorporate the experience into my daily life here in the United States. It’s a lot to process, but I’d like to focus on just one aspect of the trip, one that moved me deeply, and challenged me to think deeply about poverty and injustice as they manifest not only in Oaxaca, but in my own backyard as well.

The experience I’d like to reflect on was not the most physically challenging (in fact, it was probably one of the most fun experiences of the week), but it was challenging in other ways. On our final day with Simply Smiles, we organized a dinner and party for about a hundred people from the dump community that we visited earlier in the week.

The Sacred Heart University group gets a tour of the Oaxaca City garbage dump from Simply Smiles staffers Gaby and Zach, while standing on one of the trash mountains that overlook the communities below. (January 2016)

The Sacred Heart University group gets a tour of the Oaxaca City garbage dump from Simply Smiles staffers Gaby and Zach, while standing on one of the trash mountains that overlook the communities below. (January 2016)

This is a community of people who live and work in the Oaxaca City garbage dump, sorting through trash to find recyclables to sell. Picture them for a moment. How do they look in your mind’s eye? Dirty? Dressed in tattered clothing? The image you’ve concocted is probably not too far from the reality that we experienced when we visited that community earlier in the week – a people hardened by the searing sun and the unspeakable conditions in which they live.

And yet, one of the things that struck me about our gathering was that, when these families arrived, their appearance had changed drastically. They showed up clean, fashionably dressed in a style that most of us in the U.S. would find familiar, and displaying the same warm and amicable demeanor present in all of our interactions with them. Had you met these folks on the street, you would never guess that they lived in such abject poverty.

Perhaps this should not have been all that shocking. We all present ourselves differently at a party than we do at work, or in our homes. Perhaps it’s rather superficial to focus on appearance in this way. But I do think that there is a deeper insight that my superficial reaction was teasing out. It has to do, I think, with basic dignity, and with what it means to be recognized and treated as a fellow member of society in equal standing.

Fitting in, feeling “cool” or fashionable, in short, belonging, is important to all of us in one way or another. But why then are we often offended and enraged when the poor and marginalized demand this kind of belonging? When they demand to look like us? Why do we demand that the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed present themselves deferentially - in tattered cloth, with eyes toward the ground, as inferiors, in order for us to deem them worthy of aid? To bring the point a little closer to home, think of the woman on welfare carrying a designer handbag, or the man in line at the grocery store wearing hundred-dollar sneakers, checking out with food stamps.

These images have become standard tropes in our society, marshalled to blame the victims of systematic poverty and oppression for their own conditions, thereby relieving us of any responsibility we might have to help, or even care, as we ourselves pursue our designer bags, expensive shoes, and all the other accoutrements of consumer society. 

Dr. Pierce, with Gaby, a former philosophy student at SHU and current Simply Smiles program manager of Mexican operations. (January 2016)

Dr. Pierce, with Gaby, a former philosophy student at SHU and current Simply Smiles program manager of Mexican operations. (January 2016)

It may seem like a leap from the Oaxaca City dump to the streets of American cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and etc. But while living in dumps may be uncommon here, the kind of marginalization and injustice minority communities face in the U.S. is, finally, not that different from the kind that I observed in Mexico. The difference is that I have not been raised on a steady diet of stereotypes, rationalization, and disinformation designed to explain and justify the inferior status of the kinds of folks that inhabit the fringes of Oaxacan society, in the way that American society has inundated me with rationalizations of, for example, black urban poverty in the United States. Because of this, it is actually easier to see the people living in the Oaxacan dump as equals, or at least as genuine victims of injustice in need of relief. It is much more difficult to bring this attitude home and apply it to the disadvantaged groups that suffer right before our eyes.

So that is the task that I have set myself upon returning from my trip with Simply Smiles. I will not forget the amazing and inspiring folks that I met there, and I will share their story in hopes that others will be inspired to get involved in their particular struggle.

But perhaps even more importantly, I will make a greater effort to understand the poverty and marginalization in my own society, and search for ways to eradicate it. I will refrain from relying on stereotypes and hasty judgments when interacting with those who may be less advantaged than myself, and I will attempt to recognize and treat them as equals. Instead of searching for reasons to dismiss their claims, I will search for ways to empower and assist them.

In this way, my hope is that my week in Oaxaca does not become a one-off experience that gradually fades into memory, but helps me to become a person committed to justice, equality, and human dignity, in deed as much as in word. 

At the end of the volunteer week, the SHU team had a fiesta with our friends from the Oaxaca City dump - full of homemade tostadas, musical chairs, and lots of laughing! (January 2016)

At the end of the volunteer week, the SHU team had a fiesta with our friends from the Oaxaca City dump - full of homemade tostadas, musical chairs, and lots of laughing! (January 2016)