The idiom, “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes’” is a reminder to all of us to practice empathy. I think this is especially relevant in today’s political climate where the divide between what most citizens face in their everyday lives, and what elected officials decide is best for us, is wider now than in many years.
I believe that empathy, defined as understanding and sharing another person’s feelings and experiences, by public officials who are making policy and enacting laws that affect the way we live is a missing ingredient in the decision-making process at all levels of government. Our elected officials and appointed department heads are creating policies without looking at or caring how these policies will impact the average Joe or Jeanne.
On the federal level, we have seen a woman’s health decisions being taken out of her and her doctors’ hands, and placed at the mercy of individuals who want to impose their religious beliefs on others. We have witnessed Title IX protections for young women diluted by the Secretary of Education. We have Congress failing to finance the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), possibly leading to thousands of our kids losing health insurance coverage. And we have lived, over-and-over again, the very tragic consequences of the failure to enact reasonable gun-ownership regulations.
The decisions that are being made, are mostly being made by white men sitting in ivory towers who have no idea what it’s like to: Live below the poverty level. Or to face the heart-wrenching decision of whether or not to abort a pregnancy. Or to suffer the loss of a loved one due to gun violence or a drug overdose. Or to not find decent and affordable housing because landlords refuse to rent to a person or family with a Section 8 voucher. Or to not be able to access medical care because of a lack of affordable health insurance. Or to go hungry because there is not enough money at the end of the month to buy groceries. Or, like our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico, to be without power and clean water for weeks following the destruction of their country from Hurricane Maria, while waiting for the federal government to act. Yet, these same privileged elected officials who are cutting funding for necessary services, can somehow find billions of dollars for tax breaks for the ultra-rich and corporations and to build a wall we were promised Mexico was going to pay for. Obviously, these powerful men have no empathy for their fellow human beings.
What I would like to see, is our elected officials and department heads walk a mile in our shoes. Of course, even if they try to live a day or two in our shoes, it doesn’t mean they will actually feel empathy for those whose shoes they are wearing. Take the recent case of Pennsylvania’s Republican U.S. House of Representative member Tim Murphy. He was forced to announce he was going to retire following the public disclosure of his extramarital affair. And, fearing his married mistress was pregnant, asking her to get an abortion. Yes, this is the same Congressman who was lauded by the right and conservative religious groups as a “family values” guy and for being pro-life. One would think that now having walked in the shoes of many others who were having to decide on whether or not to abort a fetus, he would have empathy for those facing a similar dilemma. But, no, he co-sponsored and voted for a bill to make it a crime to perform an abortion after 20 weeks. This clearly is a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Empathy be damned.
While our federal elected officials seem intent on catering to a few special interests that lavish large sums of money on their campaigns, local officials are also guilty of not knowing and understanding what many of us deal with in our everyday lives. My 12 years’ experience serving on the Albany Common Council was full of examples where the Council members representing the more affluent wards of the city, failed to grasp what hardships the citizens living in the low-income wards dealt with on a daily basis.
Here are a few examples of the issues faced by Council members in the uptown wards: Complaints about telephone books being left in driveways and on lawns. Constituents upset because they were cited by the Department of General Services for putting their trash out too early. We pay the highest taxes, but we get the least amount of police coverage. Or, I think my neighbor has an illegal mother-in-law apartment over the garage, please ask Codes to come and investigate.
Contrast those problems with the ones Council members in the lower Wards must deal with: I hear gun shots every night. What are you going to do about it? I can’t get homeowners’ insurance because of the vacant/abandoned buildings on my street. My kids keep finding needles on the sidewalk, is there anything you can do to keep them safe from an accidental needle prick? Or, the city just posted my house as unfit for human habitation, and I can’t get in touch with the landlord, can you help me find a place for me and the kids to sleep tonight?
Now, I’m not saying that Council members don’t care about these issues. What I am saying is that unless one has heard gunshots, had a homicide on their block, or been asked to find shelter for a family left homeless because the east wall of their apartment building is bulging out, it is hard to be empathetic with those facing these difficulties. So, what I have proposed in the past, and I still think it should be done, is that each new Council, such as the one that will be sworn in on January 1, 2018, spend an orientation weekend visiting each ward in the city. I think that elected officials tend to live in their own silos, and fail to get a sense of what it’s like in the other neighborhoods. The problems in one part of the city can be very different than in another area of the city. I feel it is incumbent on our elected representatives that they educate themselves to the different issues each ward has, so that decisions are made from a broader vista than just the narrowness of an individual ward perspective.
Perhaps, if all elected officials, at all levels of government, walked a mile in our shoes and experienced the differences, as well as the similarities in all of our communities, then maybe there would be less animosity among our representatives and more empathy for those who do not live and work in ivory towers.