The Columns

Changing Perspectives: Phillip Harmon ’17 Changing Perspectives, Capital Area Partnership Uplifting People, Inc., Richmond, VA

— by on August 31st, 2016

Phillip Harmon '17

“The most invaluable part of my summer work with CAPUP is a newfound drive to help those in need.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect my first day working in the Food Pantry, but it certainly wasn’t this! As a college student, I thought I had an understanding of what it meant to live on a budget. In fact, my friends are always teasing me when I talk about my studies with the Shepherd Program saying things like, “Don’t all college students minor in poverty?” Speaking to the girl across from me, I quickly grasped just how privileged I am. From the questions she answered when checking herself in, I learned that the girl had no income. Although searching, she could not find a job. She was fortunate in that she had secured temporary housing, but it sounded like it would not be a long-term solution. Even if she hadn’t told us that she desperately needed the food we gave her, it would have been apparent from her worn-down figure. I was helping one of the poorest of Richmond’s poor and in a startling realization noticed that we could easily have been sitting in different places. We were born within two weeks of each other and both graduated from high school in the spring of 2013. Each of us wants to lead a happy life and be able to provide for ourselves. Quite frankly, the biggest difference in our current situations stems from birth. I grew up in a very supportive family with the time and resources to support me in any endeavor. This girl’s family wanted to support her, but simply could not afford to and was forced to kick her out of the house following her graduation. By consequence of birth, I am lucky.

Working at Capital Area Partnership Uplifting People Inc. (CAPUP) this summer, I had the opportunity to interact with people in different capacities to confront the problems facing the impoverished in and around Richmond every day. Observing local politicians and other leaders in the community in conjunction with CAPUP’s clients helped me to not only better understand the lives of the impoverished, but to see what problems they face and how they are not being addressed. As a community action agency, CAPUP works to identify and put into place programs to remedy these problems. It came as no surprise to find that topics I had previously discussed in classes such as food and housing insecurity and inadequate access to transportation are the focuses of many of the programs that CAPUP oversees. Still, it came as a shock to me just how much this organization does. I was fortunate to interact frequently with the clients in CAPUP’s many programs. Every day was different from the one before as I raced between diverse placements such as the food pantry or the Musical Youth summer camp. What came as a larger surprise, however, was not just how much CAPUP succeeds in fighting poverty, but how much still needs to be addressed. CAPUP has helped thousands of people. This does not even take into consideration the awesome work that the local government and dozens of other great nonprofit organizations have done in the Richmond area. On the national scene, Richmond has become a model for other cities hoping to fight socioeconomic injustice. With this in mind, I was struck when I met the girl in the food pantry who had seemingly slipped through the cracks of our system. Surely more could have been done to prevent this girl from reaching her current situation. My interaction with her showed me the flaws of our society in a way that I could never have understood from reading a text.

The most invaluable part of my summer work with CAPUP is a newfound drive to help those in need. My daily interaction with CAPUP’s clients has given me a deeper understanding of the diverse manifestations of poverty and social exclusion by allowing me to form concrete frames of reference for them. It is often easy to ignore or forget the fact that statistics concerning poverty or related issues show the conditions of real human lives. In my opinion, stripping away the humanity from discussions about such problems fails to respect the dignity of the people most affected by them. My work with CAPUP gave me a sharper understanding of problems in our society and a greater passion for finding solutions to these problems. I am lucky to live such a privileged life. My summer made this clear to me. Now, however, I better understand why I have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate.