Tours in poor communities at home and abroad are double edged swords. They do often reinforce a detached romance with poverty, allowing for a separation of the experience from its observed reality. But even those moments, through discussion and commentary, can be turned into teachable moments. They can be used to touch the hearts and minds of observers in powerful ways.
I work as a tour guide, often showing visitors the inner city neighborhoods and history of slavery in Charleston, SC. I have learned to be an effective advocate for change I had to overcome my own issues with the circumstances of the past and present. Once I broke through the barriers of my own resistance, I found I was able to explain without excusing the conditions and experiences, and to effectively describe the resilience and humanity of those who are poor or were enslaved.
Bridging the gap of perceptions and responses to poverty and its circumstances, whether witnessed directly or abstractly discussed in classrooms and coffee shops, requires a special kind of communication to create empathy. Somehow, it is necessary to show a whole picture of how outward circumstances are balanced against a timeless inner strength. Viewing the extreme conditions of the poor firsthand, up close, doesn’t create the problem of idealized antipathy or make it worse–but it does offer an opportunity to engage in directed dialogue, using carefully chosen examples and insights, to connect those who are witnesses to a new understanding of these conditions.