Putting yourself in other people’s shoes, otherwise known as “empathy,” helps bridge communication and emotional gaps. There is also no better way to learn something than by experiencing it yourself.
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.