Since this is my first entry: Hi, I’m Katherine and I’m teaching English to refugees in Richmond this summer. But in my first entry I’m going to talk about an adventure that had nothing to do with my internship, but it somehow reminded me of everything that matters about why I’m here. Last night, I was relaxing after a hard day’s work when my best friend from W&L, Allison, called. She just started a copy editing internship for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. And within her first full day in Richmond, her car got towed!!! She hadn’t yet had time to get a parking pass from her apartment, and… well, now her car was gone. Of course I said I would drive her to pick her car up, so I immediately got in my minivan and drove down Broad Street to her apartment. 

It turns out the towing company was somewhere on the Southside of Richmond. On my way to Allison’s, I called my mom to let her know what was going on; her obvious concern for my well-being, since she is a native Virginian, shook me up more than a little. She even suggested I call my 25 year-old cousin, who’s lived in Richmond since his freshman year at U of R, to ride with us. I assured her that nothing could possibly go wrong… and, except for the time we didn’t see a turn and kept going down Hull Street until we realized we’d definitely gone too far and then it took even longer until we found a place to turn around, we found it pretty successfully. But it was terrifying, and even the soothing voice of Ben Folds did nothing to assure me that I wasn’t going to get shot. 

We drove by a police car, lights flashing, outside what was obviously some kind of sex shop. We drove by at least five different men in baggy clothing sitting on street corners. We drove by run-down houses, on broken-up pavement. We even drove by two people fishing—at 11 pm—in the James River, off of Mayo’s Bridge. (Why does Richmond insist on naming places after condiments I dislike? The other interns live on Pepper Avenue.) We drove by countless people wandering that end of the city, visibly young people, although it was so late on a weeknight. I guess school is out, but still. 

Here’s what struck me (aside from “You and Allison really should have waited to do this in daylight, and what would Professor Beckley say if you got shot?”). I’m not squeamish about “bad parts of town,” really. I live in central New Jersey, and I’ve wandered Newark and downtown Manhattan at night by myself before. I’m pretty sure that my mother thinks that I’m more confident in my abilities to stay safe than I should be. But the Southside was unfamiliar, and so everything changed. The scary part wasn’t how I saw the people wandering around the Southside late at night, but how I thought they saw me. There are all these differences—barriers, really—between myself and the people on the streets. I’m from out of town, so I don’t really know my way around. I don’t wear the kinds of clothes they were wearing; I was wearing a T-shirt and yoga pants, and the pearls I’d worn to work. I drive a minivan, I go to a great college and I have different expectations for my professional future than they probably do. And I’ve always lived in a safe neighborhood with a family that supported me and my education. In many respects, I may as well come from a different world. 

And, on unfamiliar streets in the middle of the night, I was more aware of those differences than ever. 

Once I had followed Allison and her GPS back to the North Side, I found myself wondering about these barriers. I hadn’t noticed these things about myself when interacting with refugee clients at my internship. Why did I notice them when I was on the other side of the river? Nobody had bothered me at all. So why did the barriers make me so uncomfortable?

I guess there always are differences between people, and maybe you can’t help noticing them. You can’t control them about yourself, either. And really, it’s usually good, because you can learn about other people through your differences. But in the middle of the night, it felt like it meant that I “didn’t belong there.” One of my goals for this summer is to break down these barriers: to be less conscious of differences between myself and those I am serving, as well as to be more confident in my ability to reach past those differences in order to serve them.