“Charity depends on the vicissitudes of whim and personal wealth; justice depends on commitment instead of circumstance. Faith-based charity provides crumbs from the table; faith-based justice offers a place at the table.” (Bill Moyers)
At the Tenderloin Technology Lab (TTL), are we offering charity or working for social justice and perhaps more importantly, does it matter? As a Jesuit Volunteer, I have spent a lot of time thinking and learning about social justice issues, spirituality, and the importance of service. For me the distinction between charity and social justice is clear. Talking with Alfred (pictured at left), I realized that the distinction between the two is not necessarily as apparent to others.
Alfred started coming to the TTL to use the drop-in lab in September. He had very little access and exposure to computers prior to that. Coming from South Sudan, where computers are not as integrated into everyday life and practice, Alfred had not received computer training nor had he had many opportunities to practice using them. At first, he did not consider enrolling in the classes. He only came to the TTL to read the news so that he could, “know how the world is going about.”
In November, Alfred took our Basic Computer Skills Course (BCS). He was planning to enroll in college, yet after coming to the TTL, he realized that it would be difficult without computer skills so he decided to take our BCS class. Later, he took our Intermediate Computer Skills Course (ICS). Through these courses, Alfred learned how to use email, write in Microsoft Word, and do basic functions in Excel. Alfred says that he has learned a lot. “I may not be 100% but for the first time [it] is enough. I needed the experience.”
In January, Alfred started classes at Heald College. He is on track to get an associates degree as a Paralegal. When I spoke to him, Alfred told me how happy he was to have found the TTL. There were other places he could have gone, but Alfred says he came here because he liked the community of people who work and come here. “Everyone is nice,” he said. When he comes, Alfred feels he can talk to the front desk staff. He likes them. He also often comes looking for me, to tell me about his classes, and to hear about mine.
Alfred attributes the welcoming atmosphere to the mission and values of the St. Anthony Foundation and San Francisco Network Ministries (SFNM), the two non-profits that partner to run the TTL. He says it is because we are a charity. I do not think he is entirely wrong in this but I also think there is more to it than that. There is a distinction between working for charity and working for social justice. Charity does not enter into the realm of morality. When you give a donation (monetary, time, or otherwise) out of charity, it can be a one time thing. Justice does not come into the equation. Social Justice, on the other hand, is about forcing a cultural shift. It is about changing laws, perceptions, and attitudes and preserving human rights and dignity. At St. Anthony’s and SFNM, our mission and our guiding principles are based in social justice.
The mission of the TTL is to provide residents of the Tenderloin and other nonprofits with important technology and vocational skills that increase opportunities for employment, access to essential community resources, and connections with family and friends. Our guests, visit us for our services, but we like to think they leave with a lot more than that. We share our knowledge and our time, but we also share a little bit of ourselves. We welcome everyone who comes in our doors. We know the names of our regulars. We talk with them, and help them when we can. We do not do these things for charity. We do them because everyone deserves a place to come, because everyone deserves to be called by name, to be greeted in the mornings, and helped in times of need.
The fact that Alfred sees us as a charity doesn’t matter. As an organization, we see the importance of social justice. Even if people are not overtly aware of this fact it is something we are consciously doing in our work, and that in and of itself makes all the difference.