Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gimmickry that Serves No One...Except John Frame

I saw the headline "Homeless at Harvard" in Sunday's Globe, so, like a sucker, I clicked on the story to read about Divinity School student John Frame's experiment with homelessness for this year's summer session. Basically, this 30 year-0ld who's working on his third Master's Degree and has plans for a doctorate is camping out in Cambridge Common and other spots around Harvard Square to try to understand the plight of the homeless. Or, maybe more accurately, to get 15 minutes of fame with a Globe story and a chance for a book deal someday.

To follow up on a piece I did last week about "Gotcha" journalism, which uses elaborate set-ups and hoaxes to try to prove how [insert synonym for 'reprehensible'] other people are, seeing the John Frame story made me realize how unimpressed and turned-off I am towards gimmicks like this.

Much like a person wearing a blindfold to experience blindness, or an aunt and uncle *borrowing* their nephews to understand parenting, John Frame isn't really going to ever be homeless during this experiment. At any moment, he can just walk away from his situation, which really makes him the total opposite of an *actual* homeless person resigned to his or her fate.

I think if John Frame were going to really sell all of his possessions, take a vow of poverty, and decide to actually live in the Great Outdoors -- to suffer through the harsh New England winters as well as its beautiful (albeit humid) summers, I would be more inclined to at least give him some credit for follow-through, even though I still don't know what it would prove.

But I just don't think this sort of stunt is going to help any actual homeless person. It may not directly hurt any actual homeless people either, so in a sense it's harmless.

But it still smacks of exploitation.

8 comments:

Bryan said...

Can you spell C-Y-N-I-C-A-L? I notice that you do not put your name on this article. If you really knew the person of which you seem to be critical of, John Frame, you would not say the things you say in the article. What John is demonstrating is something you quite obviously are not able to grasp. His purpose is to reach out to other human beings - the way that Jesus wants us to - and not judge them based on what we think we see in them. You have judged John Frame without even taking an opportunity to get to know him. John is trying to understand "some" of what they go through, but at the same time, he is trying to get to know "the homeless" as individuals. I urge you to take some time from your busy day, in your "comfortable" office, and go out and get to know John Frame. I know you will be humbled, and more importantly "blessed", after you get to know the one whom I am honored to call my friend - John Frame.
Signed,
Bryan Dunkman
Carlisle, Ohio

The New Englander said...

Bryan,

Thanks for the comment. I'll admit to having made a judgement about John Frame without having met him. I wrote my response after seeing the Globe article and then seeing how the website "homelessatharvard.com" was dedicated to the project. To me, I would say that if you're really just trying to understand the issue, why not do it in a more subtle, less self-promoting way?

As far as the judgement goes, you are right in that I did it, but you should look in the mirror. My "comfortable" office for much of next year will be far-flung parts of Afghanistan. That's not because I'm pretending to be in the military, but because I'm upholding an oath that I've taken and a conscious choice I've made with my life.

best,
Greg Page
Lowell, Massachusetts

Bryan said...

Greg,
The look in the mirror did point out that I didn't read your first post enough times. I let my mind race a little when you said he could just "walk away from it at any time". So the "comfortable office" statement was too judgmental. I understand how someone could think that John is "self-promoting", instead of just doing it, but he is also trying to awaken some sleeping Christians - who do nothing except throw money at problems instead of living out their "faith" and doing something about the problems. If you get a chance to know John, I am sure you will discover that his mind set is not to bring attention to himself, but to draw attention to this issue by better understanding it.
I applaud you for whatever you are doing in Afghanistan, as long as it is a noble thing, but I also hope that if someone comes up to you, and asks if they can record and report some of the things you are doing, that you will not say: "No thanks, I prefer to do this in a subtle, less self-promoting way". It goes back to the old saying; "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make any noise?" Do what you need to do, but make sure that people hear of it, so in the future, others can help.
I understand about the "banging the gong" and "clanging the cymbals" concept because those are biblical cautions, but I hope you don't confuse that with "getting the word out about the problems that exist"? Thanks for mirror lesson.
Bryan Dunkman
Carlisle, Ohio

Renee said...

I actually liked 'the New Englander's' original blog post. My father-in-law a retired professor, work with the local charity St. Vincent de Paul, he never had to 'live with them' to understand them. Now my father-in-law with a doctorate speaks five languages, he never had to get down to their level, to him we're already at the same level as human beings.

Never was homeless, but I don't have to be homeless to appreciate what I do have and be generous with the little I can afford to charity. To live as a homeless person, as a 'experiment' is in fact a bit dehumanizing, like Jane Goodall living with the Apes. Mother Teresa didn't have to experience the homeless for her work. I remember hearing one story of her, that she would give away her own lunch and she became so weak, she couldn't help. The other nuns told her, if you don't eat yourself, then you won't be able to help them at all.

The New Englander said...

Renee,

Thanks for adding the stories about your Dad and the Mother Theresa story. I get the feeling we reacted very similarly to the Frame story..

To Bryan, I also want to say 'thanks' because we've disproven a rule I've seen in 99% of cyber-disagreements, where things instantly fall to the level of name-calling and mud-slinging. We both offered constructive critiques, we both received said critiques, and both came back for another round. It's funny, I know I wrote early about usually just staying positive in what I write, and I've also just learned to stay that way in comments on other people's blogs...even people who are agreeable, reasonable, smart, and fun to discuss/argue with in person are sometimes so quick to go to the sandbox level of maturity when things are on-line, so I just don't make the effort.

All that said, just want to address your point about the self-promotion thing. Believe me, I would be the biggest hypocrite ever if I said no one should do that. In fact, your comment made me think about the issue to the point that I wrote a separate entry (The one about exploitation). Not only would I welcome the chance to publish thoughts and experiences from overseas, but I may actively TRY to do that. I agree with you that MORE people should tell their stories, esp. soldiers who are so quick to say the media unfairly portrays them (hey, if you can't beat 'em...join 'em). So before I sound like a hypocrite, let me say why I think my experience is different:

(1) I am not *inventing* my experience. It's not something I'm imagining, trying, or pretending. In fact, career military service is the central-most part of my identity...and it's my JOB.

(2) Second, and more important, there's a two-way street in what I do. I am working in a 'nation-building' capacity (Civil Affairs, 38A) for which I'm now spending hours each day preparing. So yes, if I ever did write a book about it, I would stand to benefit materially or socially, but there's a tremendous amount that I have given and will GIVE in so doing.

With Frame's case, I'm just not seeing it that way. The premise seems inauthentic, the website is way more about HIM than about the actual homeless of Harvard Square, and I don't see any real service to those people driving it.

At the end of the day, we may just have to agree to disagree. You know him and I know you feel differently.

I know I can't convey tone in this written format, but in the sincerest way I know how, just want to say how much I respect the civility of this back-and-forth, and I wish all cyber-dialogue could work like this..

best,
gp

Alex P said...

I agree with what you're saying up to a point, but this person will certainly experience homelessness to a larger extent than I will, or that most people are prepared to. Even if he's being a homeless "tourist", at least he's visiting some place most of us only hear about.

The New Englander said...

Alex,

Totally fair point there. He is willing to *go there* and if that somehow helps the bigger picture (i.e. if he becomes an advocate for homeless people, or if he helps explain the bigger issue to people now that he'll have a new perspective), I'd be willing to change my viewpoint.

Still, based on what I saw from the article and his website, the experiment just doesn't sit well for me -- the website is all about HIM (not the homeless) and it just seems really exploitative.

And other than a few diverted resources (i.e. panhandling money that would've gone to a real homeless person), I would also admit that his experiment isn't directly hurting anyone..

best,
gp

B-row said...

Hi Greg,
Just came across your post. I can understand your skepticism about John's intentions, but I am confident that attention-seeking isn't one of them. I knew John during my undergrad in Indiana and he is not in the least self-promotional. "Homeless at Harvard" was one in a series of learning-experiences that he's undertaken in relative privacy for personal reasons. The website was a response to the interest his lifestyle generated among his friends, many of whom have similar interests in social policy.
Thanks,
Nate