Look Again

Written by Stephanie Wu
June 26, 2015

During my first week walking through San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, I often looked down. Largely due to practical reasons, I liked to believe. I looked down to make sure I avoided the puddles of urine, to make sure I avoided the used condoms and syringes strewn on the ground, to make sure I avoided stepping on the sleeping bodies resting against the side of brick buildings. I had my reasons—reasons that masked underlying excuses. Now in retrospect, I realize that despite all these reasons I created, I looked down mostly to avoid making eye contact with the homeless people I encountered on the streets. I must have innately understood that making eye contact was the precursor to potentially undesirable interactions.

By looking down, I silently maintained all the negative stereotypes commonly held about the homeless. The deceptively simple act of looking downward was an outward manifestation of an ingrained, internal fear that the homeless might aggressively seek the cash in my pocket, or stain my clothes with the diseases, stench, and filth they carried on their bodies. Put simply, I feared the potential consequences that inherently accompany such stereotypical portrayals of homeless individuals. My judgment was clouded with unfounded fears, grounded in nothing more than the inaccuracies of societal gossip.

The homeless youth I have met and worked with at Larkin Street Youth Services have since made it impossible for me to continue to look down, in not only the literal sense of the phrase, but also the idiomatic sense. Unsuspectingly, I quickly began to look up. Unconsciously, I quickly adopted a new sense of normal.

I have enjoyed a humbling yet exhilarating time physically looking up and initiating interactions, breaking down all the stereotypes I have long-since carried within me regarding homelessness. The homeless youth I have spoken to are people who have effortlessly become my role models. They are young people who have become some of the individuals for whom I have the most respect. Their passions, talents, sensitive humor, and sense of responsibility for themselves and others are so admirable that I cannot help but to look up to them. These youth are some of the most non-judgmental, resourceful, forward-thinking people I have ever met. Never ceasing to amaze me, they are people who I have much to learn from.

The science underlying the formation of memory dictates that creating groups based on similarities—on a societal level, stereotyping—is necessary in order for us to keep track of new memories in relation to old ones. From this perspective, it is in our nature to think in stereotypes. However, a natural tendency to label “the other” does not validate the act. In order to stop creating boxes based on singular stories and portrayals, we need to delve into those communities in which we initially don’t belong. In order to discover the differences between one’s truth and the reality, we must immerse ourselves into these communities, leaving our presumptions and assumptions far behind.

The sun is on its way to meet the earth as we walk as a group back from the Haight neighborhood after a reflective session. I look up towards the sky, not having to look far to see the rainbow colors soak the clouds with undeniable passion, love, and life. The beauty of the scene washes over me, and I internally thank the youth at Larkin Street who have given me the chance to look up, rather than down.


a LOT has happened


Hello everyone!

Thanks for tuning into the first official blog post for DukeEngage in San Francisco! My name is Kaitlin and I am a rising senior and a neuroscience major at Duke. I am so excited to be on this amazing trip, especially because we still have 6 and a half weeks to go! Even though we’ve been here less than two weeks, a LOT has happened. We arrived in San Francisco on Thursday June 4th, and spent the first few days exploring the city, preparing for our internships, and starting to get to know each other and ourselves a little bit better. Even though all seven of us in the program are rising seniors, most of us didn’t know each other very well, and you would’t believe how tight we are now after only a couple of weeks. 🙂 I truly could not have asked for better peers to share this experience with; this group is open, diverse, respectful, intelligent, and hilarious. I won’t go into boring details but I can tell you we have had a lot of laughs. 🙂 Our fearless leader Sasha has been both an effective leader and a genuine friend, and we are very lucky to have her here with us!

Now I’m sure you’re wondering by this time about the actual work we’ve been doing. Jose, Maurice, Stephanie, Ji-Ho and I are all working at Larkin Street Youth Services doing a wide variety of things. Larkin Street works with homeless and at risk youth ages 12-24 to find them stable housing, employment, education, health services, etc, but most importantly is an invaluable support network for young people to help develop life skills and confidence. I’m sure you will get to hear about everyone’s personal experiences over the next few weeks, but today I’ll tell you a little bit more specifically about my projects. I am working full time at Larkin Street Academy’s Art Program, specifically with musicians. Every year, they put on a huge talent showcase, and I arrived just in time to see auditions and work directly with youth to prepare for the show. I will help coach about 15 musicians in voice, guitar, piano, music theory, songwriting, and arranging before the show in August. While I am probably not qualified to do any of that stuff, I really can’t tell you how rewarding it has been so far. For one, its FUN, which is incredible, because I could easily have ended up doing something valuable but boring, but instead I get to do a job that the art program is in great need of and do something that challenges me in so many awesome ways. I’m simultaneously very excited and nervous for the coming weeks.

Working with youth who are homeless has made me reevaluate my perceptions on what it means to be homeless and what it means to be strong and successful. For one, there is no profile on what a homeless young person looks like. The youth I’ve met come from diverse backgrounds and all got here for different reasons. They all want different things, and have very different personalities. Most of all, the kids I have met are NOT weak.  On their website and at events, Larkin Street frequently shares a few sob stories (perhaps to draw support of donors), but these stories can sometimes make me forget that just because someone has been homeless doesn’t mean he or she is simply a victim, or someone to pity. In fact, these kids (I call them kids even though many if not most of them are older than me) inspire me to work harder and be better. They’re so cool! At Duke and at home, it can be easy to forget how vastly different people are, because we all sort of play into a mold of some sorts. But at Larkin, people aren’t like that. No one is trying to be something they aren’t or try and fit into a particular ideal. They just are, and everybody just does them. It’s  very hard to explain. I have met such an array of inspiring, wacky, driven, and fascinating people in only eight days of work. I am so grateful to them for letting me play just a small role in their lives, because they will certainly leave an impact on me.