Sonnenberg: Experiencing Privilege and Poverty

By Kristiane Sonnenberg

I used to think of myself as fairly self-aware of my privilege. Consciously, I know I am lucky to be a middle-class, white American attending a highly ranked university. Briefly traveling in Egypt showed me how heavily insulated I am in my socioeconomic bubble and how my ignorance has prevented me from being a responsible world citizen. I spend most of my time attending classes, volunteering and hanging out with friends. My brushes with poverty have been limited to talking with homeless people in the library and on the TRAX. It’s not that I consciously avoid stepping outside of my comfort zone — rather, I am just too occupied with my own life and problems to look up at the world around me.

I had no choice but to look up when I visited Cairo for a few days. I was visiting the regular tourist sites, but in order to get there I had to drive through the poor sections of Giza and the slums of Garbage City. I get annoyed when my apartment dumpster starts to smell. According to Atlas Obscura, tens of thousands of people live on top of Cairo’s garbage heaps.

I buy fancy bottled water because the bottles look nice, but bottled water is a necessity in a city with non-potable water. I blow money on vacations to Egypt, but the average salary for a driver living there in 2013 was only $3,345 (based on the average monthly salary and the 2013 exchange rate). I saw buildings crumbling and trash piled up in the streets. Children begged for change and worked in carpet workshops. I might have read about the reality of poverty from the safety of my nice apartment, but I didn’t understand it.

I am now convinced that I am culpable for my own ignorance. I can make excuses for my insulated worldview, but at the end of the day, I am still accountable for the state of our world. There is no justification for staying swaddled in my privilege. With that said, I honestly I have no idea what to do with my glimpse into poverty.

I will likely continue with my day to day work and play. The only thing that I know will be different is that my eyes are wide open and I’m now looking for answers. How did we allow our world to become so divided between the hyper-rich and the scandalously poor? How do those of us who enjoy a materially comfortable existence feel okay when, according to, more than 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day? What can I do to use my comparable privilege to actually make a change? Why did it take me visiting another country and gawking like a tourist for me to understand the severity and prevalence of poverty? I don’t know the answers to any of my questions yet, but I am convinced I need to learn. My ignorance is no longer innocent.

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