Reflections from a Jesuit Volunteer

harryHarry Huggins is a Jesuit Volunteer in Detroit serving formerly homeless residents of a supportive housing building. When he’s not serving the residents at work or his roommates at home, he writes.

Bud dealt heroin and cocaine before and while he lived on Detroit’s streets. He’s wheelchair bound now, and he’s one of the social hubs of the supportive housing building where I serve. Last Thursday, Bud stopped me in the hall outside his apartment to pitch a project idea.

“I’m gonna tell you something,” he said. “I used to deal drugs. I was damn good at it. Heroin. And you know why I was good at it? I noticed things.”

Bud said he saw that Fridays weren’t as big spending days for drug users than most people think. Although paychecks go out on Fridays, most people will deposit their pay, settle debts and write checks, then go out spending some money, but not an inordinate amount on drugs. He did most of his business on Mondays, when people made bank withdrawals to replace the cash they spent over the weekend.

Sundays, he said, were terrible days for sales. It was harder to get checks cashed or receive money orders, and banks were closed, so Bud offered 20 to 30 percent discounts to Sunday customers. He said he did much better business on Sundays than most drug dealers he knew.

Without much transition, Bud pitched me his idea: we should hold a car wash to raise funds to take the formerly homeless tenants to Cedar Point, the amusement park. His friends in the building could find all the basic supplies, and if I could get my organization to buy a tub of car polish, we could charge $7 for a standard wash and $15 for a full detailed wash. We’d make the money we needed in a month.

“I’d sit out on the corner with a sign,” Bud said. “Cars see my wheelchair and know it’s for a good cause and maybe tip more.”

Bud was right, we definitely could make enough money for his trip with a long-term car wash, but all I could think about after his story was, why? Why hadn’t one of the many data-driven, sociological, Malcolm Gladwell-influenced news outlets I follow ever found out what Bud knew for so long? Why isn’t someone taking note of his story, and stories like his? Why do we put so much money toward covering largely superficial stories about people in power, but almost no funding to tell Bud’s story?

I don’t know how Bud became homeless. His business sense is keener than any business student I met in college, but he doesn’t make a six-figure salary. In the school of life, I’m still doing my prerequisite courses, so I can’t begin to explain the systems that have interacted with Bud leading to this point.

I know occasional stories (like that of the Detroit man who walked a 21 miles to work each day) make national headlines, but we deserve more. If more news outlets profiled people like Bud, more readers would have more empathy for people who suffer as a result of injustice.

I hope to be one of the people driving journalism like that after this year. I pursued a career in journalism throughout my undergraduate career, but none of the entry-level opportunities I saw after graduation felt right. There were no places I could use my skills in the service of underrepresented people, nobody wanted a recent grad to tell Bud’s story. So I switched courses and took a job at a nonprofit. Eventually, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

Bud, and interactions with all of the residents every day, proved to me that I need to go back to journalism. I hear too many stories like Bud’s that, if reported, could help change prejudiced and ignorant opinions for me to not pursue my renewed passion.

And so next year I return to my studies, training at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism for a graduate degree in social justice journalism. I considered going for my dream now and beginning my own freelance career while I’m focused on social justice with JVC, but I realized what I want to do should not be done without training.

As important as it is to tell stories of people like Bud, I must work cautiously. Reporters and PR arms of non-profit organizations take their sensational stories and use them for their own gain. Done insensitively without regard to how the person wants their story to be told, you risk propagating their oppression. With practice, and mentorship from people who struggled with this already, I hope to be able to tell Bud’s story responsibly.

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