The Key to Understanding Is Empathy

An Interview with Alex Kotlowitz

Did you harbor any misconceptions about children and their parents who live in urban poverty and are surrounded by violence prior to the There are No Children Here project? What did you learn that has changed your understanding of families who live in these environments?

I thought myself pretty savvy about life in the inner city. I'd grown up in the heart of Manhattan, in a neighborhood that was integrated both by race and class, and when I was nineteen, I spent a year working with children at a settlement house on the south side of Atlanta, a neighborhood that at the time was the second poorest in the country. But in that first summer on Chicago's West Side, I was both dismayed and startled by what I saw and what I heard.

I knew I'd find violence, but not in the intensity and frequency that I did. And I think I, like many, believed that somehow these children became hardened to it. But what I learned — and it was a slow lesson — was that these children were deeply affected by what they saw and what they heard about. They were traumatized. I saw children who were deeply depressed — kids who were clearly more aggressive, kids who were hyperactive (hyperactivity is a known result of trauma), even kids who had flashbacks. I came to realize that it was a single act of violence around which the rest of a childhood will revolve. We've completely underestimated its effects, not only on the children but also on maintaining a sense of community. It's virtually impossible to achieve a social compact if you live in a place where violence has become part of the norm. (In parts of Chicago, for instance, the shootings are so pervasive that there are billboards and bumper stickers pleading for a cease fire.) And so communities begin to unravel, and of course as they do so it becomes even riper terrain for the violence.

Over the years, I've become much more appreciative of the central role of family. I'm convinced it is the one institution that can make the most difference. And so if I were to do anything, it would be to figure out ways to buttress family.

Do these parents have hope? Do these children have hope? What are their dreams?

Without hope, there's not reason for life. So, yes, most have some kind of hope. In fact, it struck me that with the children — given all that they've experienced — that they held on to dreams, that they held on to a strong sense of right and wrong, a strong sense of what they wanted to be and didn't want to be when they grew up. And that it wasn't until they entered adolescence that often the currents would become so strong that they had trouble swimming against them. It was in these years, some would turn to drugs or to criminal activity, paths that slowly eat away at hope. As the hope erodes, the children and adults become self-destructive.

Did I see hope in the parents? Absolutely. For their children. Some, of course, could see more clearly than others. Some had a better sense as to what it would take. But virtually all the parents I met (unless they were hooked on drugs) had hope for their children. It was what they lived for. Hope is so essential to the spirit. Without hope there's no future. Without hope, life ceases.

Camps offer programs to children from all environments, but they are temporary, safe refuges from their everyday world. How do we prepare children who come from urban poverty and violence for the camp experience . . . and, how do we prepare them to go back?

I'm of two minds about this. I went to camp as a child, and my refuge today is canoeing in the North Woods. I go there to escape, to put everything else at a distance. Camp was that way, as well; it was an opportunity to push everything else aside. It should be the same for children who come from neighborhoods of poverty and violence. But I also think it important that the adults be alert and attuned to the travails of these children. It may well be that amidst the peace and tranquility of camp that they want someone with whom they can share their worries and their fears.

How do you prepare for them to return? I'm not sure. Short of changing their environment — short of strengthening their family, of improving their school, of ensuring their safety — I'm not sure there's much camp can do. Perhaps it's best to acknowledge what feels obvious — that probably many of these kids have ambiguous feelings about returning to their communities. But that is where they belong, with their family. And perhaps what's important is the assurance that next summer they can indeed return to camp.

What mistakes do you see well-meaning professionals make when they try to relate to communities they are not a part of? Can you suggest solutions? A better approach?

The key to any understanding is empathy. Empathy not sympathy. By that I mean the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes, to look at the world through their eyes. Not to excuse their actions but to understand them. Empathy takes a leap of the imagination. It requires that we push ourselves to imagine things in ways we might not have thought of before.

The mistake we too often make is to feel pity, to feel sorry for others — or conversely to absolve individuals of personal responsibility. Both are demeaning and dehumanizing. It's okay to get upset and to disagree with others. But to do so respectfully. I also find, as well, that too often people will venture into communities that seem foreign, and rather than look for the familiar, immediately seek out the unfamiliar. It's what I did when I first began to spend time in the projects. I was too taken aback by what seemed awry than what seemed right. It's important to look for those connections, that which binds us, that which we share. Also, be careful about entering someone else's world and then adopting their speech or mannerisms. Be yourself. People respect that.

Camp is a world created very specifically for children. How do children who've seen too much, children with no childhood, relate to camp? How can camp relate to these children?

Camp is a respite. And so I suppose if you have a lot from which you want to escape, camp may be that much more meaningful and welcome. I've been on camping trips numerous times with kids from the inner city, and I'm always surprised how these tough kids who have seen so much are so daunted by the outdoors, even afraid. Find ways to make kids feel secure, feel safe. Most have led rather sheltered lives, and so the unfamiliar can be terrifying. I'm an avid canoeist and camper and have made the mistake in years past to assume that everyone will love it as much as I do. It's not always the case, but especially with some of the kids from Chicago's hardscrabble neighborhoods. Take it slow. Don't push. The boys I wrote about in There Are No Children Here and I used to go fishing in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP) every summer. I learned that it was important to bring things they liked to do, that I not keep them out on the lake all day, or make them camp in a rainstorm. I had to remind myself this trip was for them, not for me, and so I looked for ways to challenge them while not wearing them out. This was, after all, meant to be some time away from all the crises at home, not to create new stresses in their lives.

As a footnote to those trips, I also learned the importance of talking about and acknowledging race. We'd often stop for lunch or dinner on the way up and back to the UP, and occasionally the boys would get discomforting stares, even comments from the white customers. I dismissed their concerns the first couple of times, but then I began to see what they saw — people's discomfort with these young black boys in otherwise all white towns. While talking about it didn't make it go away, it did let them know that I saw what they saw and heard what they heard. It let them know that someone was listening.

Camp is often used as part of a therapeutic process — grief camps, camps for children with life-threatening or chronic illness, camps for children with emotional or behavioral problems. There are youth development camp programs specifically designed to help underserved and at-risk youth. How can the camp community expand what we are already doing to serve more children and provide more opportunities for healing and growth?

I would think it important for underserved and at-risk youth to spend time with kids not necessarily like themselves, to expose them to kids they otherwise wouldn't meet (to say nothing of doing the same for children of the privileged). Camp is a great equalizer. Pharoah, the younger boy I wrote about in There Are No Children Here, spent a number of summers at a camp where he was distinctly in the minority. It was a wonderful experience. A respite. An adventure. An opportunity. A broadening experience. He was the better for it. As were, I believe, the others there who were from very different backgrounds.

I suppose this already happens, but it would seem reasonable and right if camps — like prep schools, for instance — offered scholarships to underprivileged kids, and that they also made an effort to hire minorities as counselors. Perhaps this is already going on, but when I think back upon my experience at camp, I don't remember there being any minorities there, either as campers or on staff.

Alex Kotlowitz is the author of the recently published The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death and America's Dilemma. He also is the author of the bestselling There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America. Kotlowitz currently writes for The New Yorker and teaches writing at Northwestern University, and worked as a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal from 1984 to 1993. His articles have also appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Rolling Stone, and The New Republic.

Originally published in the 2006 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.