Silas Helm


One city, two parts.

100+ people were shot in Chicago this weekend. This sentence can become all too familiar, so read it again. 

100+ people were shot in Chicago this weekend. This sentence can become all too familiar, so personalize it. Start trying to name 100+ friends or family members. Imagine them gone.

100+ people were shot in Chicago this weekend. This sentence can become all too familiar, so consider the impact. Recognize that your list is real in someone else’s eyes. Think of the families that woke up today broken with grief. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychological theory that explains how humans prioritize needs. The theory explains that the most basic (fundamental) needs must be met before someone can begin considering “less-important” needs. At the base of the hierarchy are physiological needs (i.e. survival). Once those are met, we begin considering safety needs (i.e. violence, domestic abuse). 

Then, we begin to consider the need to belong socially: friendship, intimacy, and family. If we feel a sense of grounding on the lower levels of the hierarchy, we can even begin to address esteem: self-confidence and respect. If all of those other things are somewhat balanced or managed, humans begin to consider self-actualization needs. This is the need to become the best you can be. Only a small percentage of the world’s population ever reach this point.

It is clear that our needs, according to Maslow’s theory, are largely influenced by the particular environment we find ourselves in. Where we live determines the base-levels of the hierarchy: survival and safety. Only once we have protected ourselves, we can think about thriving in our career, making friends, or creating art/music. 

For the past few years, I have begun to process the duality of Chicago. I have never met residents more loyal to their city than Chicagoans. The pride of belonging to this city is worn as a badge of honor. Yet, as I took the train to work this morning, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt for the city I’m proud to know. 

This morning, I recognized (again) that I am lucky enough to reside at the top of the hierarchy, addressing my “need” for self-actualization. Spending time here, it’s easy to forget that safety and survival aren’t assumed for everyone. This morning I had to remind myself that a career in creativity is a privilege. Not everyone has the opportunity to spend their days concepting and creating. The way I spend my time (and make money) is a privilege. 

I encourage you to consider where you find yourself within Maslow’s hierarchy. I challenge you to be honest. If I’m right– a lot of you (like me) will also find yourselves addressing your “need” for self-actualization, maximizing your individuality by harnessing your potential. 

Not everyone in Chicago is as lucky. We have pushed minorities and marginalized populations to the fringes of society. In contributing to this system, we have been able to preserve our hierarchy, enjoying the luxury of self-actualization. But, there are a ton of people with whom we share a city that don’t enjoy the same privilege. 

It’s important to recognize that those who experience the joys of self-actualization aren’t protected from hardship. Broken families, the death of friends, and corporate downsizing exist at the top of the hierarchy too. While experiencing these hardships is immensely difficult, it doesn’t mean you aren’t privileged. The problem with distancing yourself from your privilege is that you fail to recognize that you were able to experience self-actualization in the first place. There are many who will never be able to move past the most fundamental need to survive and stay safe. 

Subconsciously or not, the “self-actualizers” have banded together to encourage, support, and spur on the successes of one another. In the process, we have left many behind. Most of the 100+ shot this weekend lived in concentrated areas of poverty and neglect. The majority of residents in these areas are stuck consistently addressing the need for safety and survival, they don’t have the capacity to consider less fundamental needs. 

The city I know (and love) is only half of the city. By only highlighting and recognizing the trendy coffee shops, rooftops, and luxury stores I am neglecting the other half. The two sides of Chicago are woven together in a complicated relationship. 

The freedoms I celebrated yesterday are beautiful. To live in a country that protects me by considering my speech, religion, and petition unalienable is amazing. But there are less explicit freedoms I celebrated yesterday. I celebrated the freedom to go to a private 4-year college. I celebrated the freedom to work in a creative field. I celebrated a family that loves and cares for me. I celebrated friends that have traveled the world with me.

As I began drafting this post, I felt uneasy about how to clarify so many complicated thoughts. I decided to send it along to some close friends who are passionate about everything urban life has to offer. One friend responded with the following:

“One thing to keep in mind is the impact a violent Chicago rhetoric has on marginalized communities. No doubt Chicago has a problem, but the Chiraq narrative drives the velocity of funding to…police force [and] gun control. Why do we hear so little about rape in the city when it occurs x2 to x3 more often than shootings? This fear mongering around guns and shootings informs outsiders and those in political power of what the main problem is. Or better put– it establishes an identity of gun violence that demands "bringing the feds in" instead encouraging and partnering with those in the community that are laboring for growth and beauty. These neighborhoods are tagged by this negative label instead a positive one of resilience in the face of difficulty. The point: if we focus exclusively on this, it can and does perpetuate racism.

What impact does this implicit privilege have on our understandings of ourselves– on our needs but most important on our understanding of our relationship with our neighbors in these communities? Do we have anything to learn from these communities? Are there ways these communities can teach us? Being a white, upper middle-class male, I usually think of myself as a leader and agent for change...should I, can I, and have I ever, viewed myself as a follower and a student?

Another friend took it a step further by presenting tangible opportunities to listen and learn. “In order to learn from the micro-worlds around us, we need to stop and listen. We need to take out our headphones and talk to the older woman sitting next to us on the bus.  We need to look up and greet the man we pass on the way to work every day. We need to meet our neighbors and invite them over for a meal.”

What I love about this perspective is that it’s so simple. Rhetoric surrounding injustice becomes lofty and heady. But, the root of the problem stems from a lack of understanding others. This is a human problem. This is a communication problem. Marginalization happens when people don’t know or understand someone that’s different from them. 

Privilege bearers should be asking questions that maximize their ability to know, love, and learn from the marginalized. 

While in college, I took a class called Communication Theory. It changed my life. One of the ideas that reframed how I understand the world is Standpoint Theory. Standpoint Theory claims that a person’s perspective is shaped by how they fit within a variety of systems. So your race, age, gender, socio-economic status, and sexuality contribute to your perspective (along with plenty of other variables). In order to better understand how a system is working (or isn’t working), you must look toward the marginalized. The ones for whom the system isn’t working are the ones who have the highest incentive and insight to know precisely what isn’t working, because it’s not working for them. 

If a system is working for you, you probably don’t have an incentive to learn where it’s lacking because those deficiencies don’t impact your life. Standpoint Theory urges people to turn toward the marginalized; underlining the importance of understanding the marginalized and learning from them. Once recognizing the role privilege has played in your life, it is essential to learn the ways it has harmed or hindered others. Turning toward the marginalized also works to combat the perspective of change agents. Instead of believing that privilege bestows unto you the answers to society’s problems, understand that your privilege requires a listening ear and a compassionate heart. 

These ideas are complicated, nuanced, and weighty. For me, this blog serves as the beginning of public processing. My hope is that in sharing my journey of unpacking injustices within the city I love, others would refine my perspective, draw out nuances, and engage in conversation. I hope that this post provides insight but also fosters conversation. 

Without effective communication change will not come.

Silas Helm