And while we can only surmise what someone’s experience might have been, by imagining ourselves living through it, we can help cross that gap. This can apply to any situation in life: hardships, coping with losses, financial stress and even celebrating the successes of others.
For me, nothing has been more eye-opening than spending a few hours in the shoes of kids living at a low-income housing complex in Puerto Rico. These communities of very small apartments have been designed to be as invisible and non-intrusive to passersby as possible. They are usually made up of small clusters of walk-up cement apartments, with aluminum windows, and wrought iron fences or tall cement walls around the complexes, which sometimes include a children’s playground and basketball court.
Usually, you would drive around these complexes and only get a glimpse, through the iron bars or the front gate, of what goes on in that world. Because these communities are so closed off from the world around them, there’s a lot of misinformation and lack of education about the day-to-day lives of the people that live there. And while the reality is that there is crime, lack of education, drugs and other factors tied to these communities that strike fear in many — who avoid and stereotype the people within its walls — there are always exceptions to the rule. There are always good people living in these “gated communities” who are just trying to get by without harming anyone.
You might be asking yourself why in the world would I visit a place like this. Well, I was taking a communication class at the university and the professor planned a trip to this community. It was a smaller one, yet one that people who lived in the town knew well never to visit because of drug turf wars that had been raging for years between the one that we visited and a bigger, sprawling, low-income area about a mile away.
Our professor made all the arrangements for our small class to visit for a few hours and try to talk to the residents that wanted to speak to us, about whatever they wanted. We brought them snacks and a few other things as small tokens of gratitude.
The class boarded about five cars and we headed out towards this very dangerous place. Needless to say, my heart was racing and my adrenaline pumping. I felt like we were going “behind enemy lines” or something.
I’m not going to go into the many gritty details of the things we had to do to ensure that we were safe, but it was very scary to see that people began to shut themselves in their apartments when they saw the caravan of “unknown cars” (our cars) approaching. It felt like the old Wild West.
Our class then divided into groups: one group was going to talk to the women of the community, while the other, the one I was in, was going to play with the children. Our group decided to go to an upstairs area of the community center and just talk to the kids because we couldn’t be outside.
The kids had a lot to say. Things like: “We just want to play. We don’t know why the other people (from the other community) are trying to kill us,” and “Leave us alone! We haven’t done anything (to the other community)” were the types of comments we heard. The violence affected them greatly. They had seen someone get gunned down steps away from their houses at the basketball court and told us the story of how fast they ran when they heard the shots ringing out above their heads, while they were playing there one afternoon.
Harrowing tales like these still accompany me to this day. It’s not normal for a six-year-old kid to be retelling the story of how he ran from bullets in an area that is not a declared war zone. And apparently, we got the softer side of the story. The other group mostly dealt with women who didn’t trust them because they were outsiders, although some shared their stories of domestic violence and what it’s like to live in fear.
Before the day was over, we did play with the kids, sang and gave them candy. And minutes before we left, they were imploring: “Please, don’t go! Please, come back and visit!”
It was a rude awakening for me to experience that fear, honesty and emotion. I’ve never been afraid of going anywhere or talking to anyone — I’ve been known to talk to homeless people, curious as to why they are homeless, etc. But that time, I could feel the fear and tension in the air the whole time we were there. We were not wanted there. We were prying.
Had I never set foot in that small community, I would’ve never known a gritty part of the hard truths of what it’s like to live there. Had I never visited them, I would’ve probably been another misinformed, unaware, ignorant person choosing not to see the harsh reality that some people face every day of their lives.
And while we could never truly know exactly what it’s like to be in someone’s shoes, we can imagine what it would be like by educating ourselves. If you try to channel that, if you try to put yourself in their mindset and understand what is stressing them out, what motivates them, what are their fears and hopes, and really listen, you will make an amazing connection and learn a lot about yourself and them along the way.
Empathizing and listening to people not only makes you more human, but also reinforces bonds and relationships with others. These are also some qualities that make a great advisor.