When my dad lost his job in the steel mills, he bounced around before landing a job as a corrections officer at a maximum security prison in rural Pennsylvania.
My dad is a mild-mannered fellow, good natured, kind and often a man of few words. He’s also 5’7 and about as imposing a figure as my 10-year old basset hound…
One night, when I was 12 years old, my dad wasn’t yet home from work and I could sense that my mom was worried. I was picking up her anxiety and matching it with my own when we were both jarred by the piercing ring of our rotary telephone. My mom answered the phone, said a few words, before returning the living room, pale faced.
“There’s a bomb threat at the prison,” she said. “Dad can’t come home yet.”
I’m sure I don’t know half of the stresses and situations my dad dealt with in his years before retiring from his job. I know it changed him, I know he grayed earlier than his brother who is eight years his senior - and I know retired as soon as he could.
I asked him once, a few years ago, what it was like to work around people whom you know have committed horrific crimes.
“Most of those guys,” he said, sipping his coffee and looking out the back window of our kitchen. “Most of those guys didn’t stand a chance. They didn’t have the privileges you guys had,” he said, referring to my brothers and me. I nodded, but didn’t know quite what to say.
I don’t often think of myself as growing up with privilege.
We didn’t have a lot of money. There were some tough times especially when my dad lost his job. But one of the best descriptions of privilege I ever read is “if you don’t have to think about it, it’s a privilege.”
Well, there were plenty of things I didn’t have to think about, and that I still don’t have to think about.
Privilege doesn’t mean we haven’t worked hard or overcome obstacles. But recognizing that we have privilege can fundamentally change the way we see our lives as they are now. I have the privilege of being able-bodied. I have the privilege of living a middle class life. I have easy access to community, education and health care.
I write about this today because, as I try to make sense of what is happening in this world - some of which has affected my hometown of Pittsburgh, I wonder what it will take to help facilitate peace and kindness in places where peace and kindness seem so far away.
And I think about my dad, and his words to me.
I have been afforded many privileges in my life. It’s up to me recognize those privileges, and make the most of my opportunities. But it’s not just being grateful and appreciating what I’ve been given.
It’s also about using our privilege to help create opportunities for people who haven’t been afforded those same opportunities.