I said a fond farewell to Gig Harbor last week and moved into my dorm at the University of Washington. I’m thrilled to be starting my freshman year of college, but that I would someday get to attend a university was never really in question – not because of my grades or test scores, but because of the systems that have surrounded and supported me for 18 years.
I was raised in a healthy family and went to a good school, and with the help of government programs, I was able to strengthen my college application with extracurricular activities instead of working to save up money.
I am the product of a family, a school and a government that empowered me to be where I am right now. Where would I be without those systems?
This summer, I visited a place where systems have created disadvantages rather than opportunities. With the youth group from the Fox Island United Church of Christ, I spent a week serving the community of White Swan, a town on the Yakama Indian Reservation.
White Swan is the slum of the reservation; 43 percent of people there live below the poverty level. Alcoholism is pervasive, feral dogs and cats roam the streets, and vandalism is everywhere.
The youth group cleaned up a playground littered with broken glass, painted bunk beds at a homeless shelter, and worked on a farm that donates food to families in need.
We hoped that, in some small way, our work would improve the lives of the people around us. But it was impossible to ignore the insignificance of our contributions against the seemingly insurmountable poverty and hardship the community faces. There was nothing we could do to heal families with teens who litter and break windows, no way we could create jobs for people seeking employment, and no solution we could offer the alcoholics who lived in the shelter.
What created those conditions?
David Bell, the director of our mission program, explained:
In the 1800s, the federal government forced American Indian bands from across eastern Washington onto one reservation. Repercussions of their confinement still influence the economy today; the ruggedness and isolation of the reservation land make it a poor place for farming or commerce. White Swan has faced economic disadvantages since it was established.
But the impact the U.S. government had on the Yakama Nation is far more insidious than financial disparity: between 1860 and 1893, the government forced all Indian families to send their children away to boarding schools with the goal of making them assimilate into white culture.
Even after children were no longer forced into the schools, parents continued to send them until the 1970s; having themselves grown up away from their families, new parents struggled to raise their kids.
Thus, a century of boarding schools devastated a key system in White Swan – families.
I went to White Swan thinking my mission was to fix up a slum, but the town itself is not the issue. Rather, flawed systems – the federal government, the economy and the family – have created the cycle of poverty and hurt that has plagued the community for more than a century.
It’s hard to comprehend how the same institutions that have given me such advantages have damaged the lives of others so greatly. But I’ve realized that’s why I am in college, so that — someday, more educated and more influential — I might be able to change some of the systems.
All I’ve managed so far is to go on a summer mission trip, but I hope all of us who are born into situations of advantage make it our mission to change our institutions until they provide the same benefits to all people.Anna Mikkelborg has written a monthly Youth Connections column as part of the Gateway’s outreach to Peninsula School District journalism programs. To learn how to contribute, call Editor and Publisher Brian McLean at 253-358-4150.