An Inner City Thesis

A large part of my formative years were shaped by religious teaching, mostly from the Christian point of view. I worked 3rd shift in my late teens and early twenties which meant my schedule was inherently different than most of my friends. When they were asleep, I was working and when they worked or were in class I was asleep. Because no one was around during the first few hours of my day I would drink copious amounts of coffee and read. I would read the bible and books about living in the way a good Christian would – whatever that actually means. During that time, I became fascinated with the concept of missionary work. The dedication it took to consistently orient one’s life in a way that was bent on achieving a goal that was at its purest level selfless was made easier to obtain and follow through with because of geographic proximity to the group you were attempting to help. We can debate the merits of missionary work and arguments can be made that maybe some of the work is self-serving or even destructive. In fact, those arguments were what drew me, in part, to the idea that the lifestyle of a missionary was something to entertain because if some were approaching the work the wrong way, maybe I could learn how to do it the right way and a lot of what Christianity taught me was you should give of yourself constantly, but you have to make sure you do it the right way. That was the first time the idea that you could do something noble in a way devoid of nobility was presented to me. When I would research how to be a missionary the right way, again and again I would read or hear people speak about “seeking first to understand” – you can’t be of service to another unless you understand the problem. Ironically, thinking about that all these years later it actually mirrors in some ways the design thinking process. Empathize first before you even define the problem. 

It would be a stretch to say Meg and I ever thought of living in the inner city as missionary work. That would be arrogant and ignorant, two things we try hard not to be. While that terminology doesn’t really apply, the idea that we could have done what we did the wrong way was always on my mind. Seek first to understand. I’ve tried hard to have that be the first step in anything I process through living in a place where the median household income is $24,000 a year. Sometimes it works and sometimes I fall short, but over the last 15 years of approaching life here I’ve started to understand some things. I’ve started to see enough patterns emerge through thousands of stories and interactions that have made me land on 3 main reasons why my neighborhood stays poor, why upward mobility takes place on a macro level so infrequently here. Basically, I’ve found 3 things that stifle collective economic growth, not on an individual level, but hamper the collective broadening of wealth distribution in 53206. 

The themes are simple and in no way imaginative. For years I have heard people talk about education, housing, and poverty, but hopefully seeking first to understand for a decade and a half at least allows me to add some complexity to those themes in a way that quantifies the issues enough for us to start moving to the next phase of the design process from empathy to defining a problem to coming up with an idea for how to solve it. This article is simply a thesis statement for what I believe, in my current state, to be a definition of the problem – the three things that stifle individual upward mobility on a macro level in 53206 and the reasons why 53206 stays the poorest zip code in Wisconsin. 

  1. It is difficult to access high quality education that leads to the acquisition of marketable skills – academic success is not predictable here. 
  1. Housing tends to be undependable and impermanent or in other words temporary. The housing stock here is treated as disposable and because of that people tend towards transiency instead of permanency.
  1. There is little economic diversity here. The concentration of poverty is too high and rarely allows for young people to project themselves beyond their current set of life circumstances. This is due in large part to the idea that people that aren’t poor choose to not live around people that are poor. 

These three things are what have driven the desire for me to focus on renovating houses in and around my neighborhood. They are why I have tried to stay in the education field even though it’s been a massive struggle for me and it’s why we continue to live in an area where literally no one looks like us, because the more time we spend here the more we understand the problems and the more we understand the better equipped we can be to offer solutions that serve our neighbors and work toward increasing the quality of life for those of us living in 53206.