Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Walking Respectfully in Others' Moccasins

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Walking Respectfully in Others' Moccasins

Article excerpt

FROM time to time last year Barbara Sabol, the head of New York City's Human Resources Administration, underwent a striking metamorphosis. Instead of donning her usual business suit, jewelry, and heels, she put on jeans, a sweat shirt, and a wig or scarf. Then she headed for the city's welfare centers, where she posed as a single, unemployed welfare applicant.

As she journeyed from office to office, Ms. Sabol was subjected to a long list of indignities, ranging from being sent to wrong departments and standing in endless lines to sitting in cockroach-infested waiting rooms and enduring scolding, condescending remarks. She recalls feeling invisible - "depersonalized."

Shocked by her new awareness of the treatment welfare recipients sometimes receive, Sabol returned to her own desk determined to make the welfare system better.

Is there anyone who hasn't longed, at some moment or other, to trade places temporarily with another person or to be the proverbial fly on the wall, watching and listening as others work or play? For most people, this silent-observer status is impossible. But for those like Sabol who can arrange to walk in another's moccasins, as the Indians put it, the experience can be both illuminating and sobering. In the best circumstances, it can also give a wider audience a heightened awareness of the dignity inherent in each individual and every job.

One of the most famous role-reversers was John Howard Griffin, a white man who in 1959 underwent a series of medical treatments to darken his skin temporarily. He spent six weeks traveling through the South as a black man, then turned his experience and his encounters with prejudice into a best-selling book, "Black Like Me."

More recently Jack Coleman, the former president of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, made a minor second career of learning other jobs. During one five-month sabbatical in the 1970s he worked variously as a ditch digger in Atlanta, a garbage collector in suburban Washington, D.C., and a dishwasher in Boston. He spent vacations laboring in a marble quarry in Wyoming, on a drilling rig in the uranium fields of New Mexico, and on a hog farm in New Jersey. …

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