Exploring the Transformative Power of Reciprocal Relationships

A few years after moving to the city, I was at the grocery store with Ricky, Wesley, Calvin and Cortez  four hungry, black teenagers in tall tees and low-slung jeans with their boxers out. They lined up behind me in the cereal aisle and started rapping about me, and my shopping cart and my Cheerios.

At first, a few fellow shoppers seemed to be entertained by the beats and the lyrics to this new rap song about the Happy White Lady and her groceries. My every move became a subject for their amazing creativity. I was laughing so hard I was crying. I was secretly proud to be honored this way and only a little bit aware of how popular we were becoming.

Around the third verse, a white, middle-aged man approached and asked me if I was okay. He had come to rescue me. I was deflated and I told him that these guys were my friends. He seemed disturbed and skeptical, but he left us to our now de-energized and desegregated shopping experience. The song was over.

In 2003, I moved to the east side of St. Paul after a lifetime in the suburbs. I wanted to work on issues of social justice and it seemed important to do it up close. After a couple of years of meeting neighbors and learning about my new community, I started the Lift Community Development Corporation to work with at-risk teens in my neighborhood.

I found myself getting involved with the local schools when our students had problems, and eventually decided that getting some education in education would be a good idea. I started a doctorate in leadership at St. Thomas in 2007. When I had completed my classes and launched into the dissertation process, I realized that I had actually and inadvertently begun my research for it back in 2003 when I moved into the city.

I used an innovative methodology for my research called a Scholarly Personal Narrative (SPN) that had not been used at UST before. Dr. Stephen Brookfield served as my adviser and together we figured out how to use my decade of stories to full effect in my research. It is stories that drive an SPN; it is scholarship that provides a social and historical context for them. I combined my narratives with interviews and informal conversations with my urban friends and neighbors, and utilized scholarship from the fields of adult education, economics, sociology, ethics, theology and history to dissect my decade in this urban environment.

My dissertation was titled, “We Shouldn’t Even Know Each Other: A Scholarly Personal Narrative of the Development of Deeply Reciprocal Relationships Across Differences of Race and Class.”

My primary theme was reciprocity. I challenge the usual narrative about financially stable people providing help to those who are financially struggling. That narrative has produced charity, but rarely social transformation. It assumes that money is the primary thing humans have to offer one another. In my narrative, everyone brings something to the relationship. Everyone has something to offer. My interviews yielded a list of benefits that people experienced through these relationships, and none of them had to do with money. I realized more fully through this process that relationships, not money, are the driving force for social change.

Through my dissertation research and my life in the city, I also have learned that there are major barriers to developing relationships that cross lines of race and class. Our geographic segregation from those who are different from us, combined with cultural and social differences, mean that it is rare for us to even exchange a few words with someone who is very different from ourselves, let alone have a meaningful conversation that may lead to a reciprocal relationship. This lack of interaction with those who are different from ourselves explains why the man in the grocery store believed I needed his help.

In the closing chapter of my dissertation, I argue that these sometimes challenging relationships are worth whatever investments need to be made. On a societal level, research shows they help reduce inequality, strengthen social affinity and aid in finding better solutions to a variety of problems. On a personal level, they lead to things like improved perspectives, a more accurate picture of reality, the ability to be present and a willingness to let go of control.

It is possible that many people would prefer to isolate themselves from difference and remain ignorant about the ongoing struggles faced by those from different races and classes than themselves. Certainly, that would be easier. My dissertation digs deeply into the barrier of tribalism that reveals itself in segregation, classism and racism. I also explore how conflicting views of money and the absence of true freedom in the lives of the poor create almost impenetrable barriers. I discuss the difficulties of finding a place to experience relationships of diversity, and describe the kind of chaos that can ensue when you cross barriers. This is no easy journey.

But beyond the social and personal benefits listed above which are significant there is this potentiality of a transforming love with the ability to heal an evil brokenness that is part of our nation’s history. I like to think that when this love takes hold, it is strong enough to heal. At least, that’s what is happening in my neighborhood.

My research has opened up a new world for me. I have found my voice and my message on this educational journey. My urban friends and I are developing training on issues of working across lines of difference. We have had opportunities to facilitate rich conversations that emerge when, for example, a 25-year old African American man who grew up poor, a middle-age single mom of six, and a middle-class former suburbanite (me) get in a room together with people who are willing to get out of their comfort zone.

Reciprocity has to be seen and experienced for its power to be known and that is the power we are taking on the road.

Dr. Sandra Unger received her Ed.D. in Leadership from UST in 2014. She is the executive director of the Lift CDC (theliftcdc.org), a nonprofit organization located in St. Paul. 

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.