I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I knocked on the Gonzalezes’ door. When I signed up for a program to tutor an at-risk elementary schooler, I hadn’t thought it through enough to realize that kids tend to come with families—and that this family would now be a part of my life to some degree, too. Would they regard me with skepticism, seeing me for the naive college student that I was? Would they welcome me politely yet hold me at a distance, the way I probably would in their position? There was only one way to find out.
When Stacy opened the door that day, I was surprised to be looking into the sparkling eyes of a woman barely older than myself. This was the mom of a second grader? Already I realized how different our lives must have been; and indeed, I would find out, she got pregnant young and was unable to finish high school. Her husband likewise did not have the education to afford him marketable job skills, so their family of five had always struggled to make ends meet. Yet as Stacy invited me in and we sat down to chat, I gravitated towards her immediately. She was warm, joyful, and full of life. She loved to throw parties and loved to go to church.
It might be an exaggeration to say that Stacy Gonzalez changed my life, but only a small one. You see, until then, the entirety of my experience with the working class was through some kind of ministry or volunteer work. And while I was serving as a tutor for her daughter, my relationship with Stacy almost immediately went far beyond that; she accepted me as a friend and treated me as such.
Although only five years older than me, Stacy had infinitely more street smarts, and I learned something new from her every day. She was a tender and loving mom to her three kids, and her delight in them made a deep impact on me—to this day I can only hope that my own kids might feel as adored by me as her children must. I relied on Stacy for advice on everyday matters; it seemed she always had a random trick that would work to fix whatever little thing had gone wrong on a given day. I almost never left her house without a plate of food; her generosity to everyone she loved knew no bounds.
This was the first time in my life that a friendship truly crossed a socioeconomic divide. Sure, I’d had authentic friendships with people slightly higher or lower on the middle-class scale than I, but becoming close with Stacy was different: her life experience had been vastly different from my own.
Since the day I met Stacy nearly 15 years ago, having friendships that span socioeconomic positions has become a priority to me. Whereas I once thought that those with less wealth “needed” the things I had to offer, I have come to see that I also need to learn from others. I need to be reminded that my own small experience of the world is not the only one there is. I have come to realize that what we all want is reciprocity—to have friendships that are not one-sided, but truly go both ways.
Fear and Friendship Don’t Go Together
I think a lot of women today sincerely want to have those friendships, the kind that bridge a gap that we long to see mended. It's hard to know how to begin, how to cross those invisible but very real walls that society has erected between people. Sometimes fear is the only thing holding us back. We may be fearful of saying the wrong thing and offending the other person. We may fear being seen as a caricature or stereotype. We may fear that our sheltered middle-class lives make our efforts feel forced and inauthentic. We may fear that if we jump in over our heads we won’t be able to draw healthy boundaries in the future, should the need arise.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we might also fear that those of lower income or education levels will be dangerous, use offensive language, or have addictions or vices that make us uncomfortable. At base (although gravely mistaken), we usually fear they simply will be too different to find commonality with.
The thing about fear is that it is often unsubstantiated, so why let it control us? We can all think of things that scared us before we jumped in but are now the best parts of our lives: things like applying for a challenging grad school program, moving across the country for a job, taking a risk on a romantic relationship, or becoming a mother. Perhaps the difference is that social conditioning has taught us those things are fears that should be overcome. But forging friendships with someone who is “other”? We’ve been conditioned to believe that particular fear shouldn’t be challenged.
That being said, friendships that cross socioeconomic class might make us uncomfortable but they shouldn’t make us unsafe. It’s important to honor our own need for safety and respect by using smart common sense about the positions we put ourselves in. Parents might feel particularly worried about exposing our children to lifestyles or values that differ from our own, and again, common sense is key; but remember too that your children benefit from these friendships just like you do. And, within reason, encountering differences can provide excellent conversation starters between you and your child later at home.
We Can Make Space in Our Everyday Lives for More Relationships
But it’s not always about fear. Sometimes the barrier that keeps us from reaping the benefits of such friendships is simply the busyness of life within our own little spheres. Many of us feel we don’t have space to add an entirely new social circle to our lives, so how exactly are we supposed to meet these new friends and cultivate close relationships?
The answer is to start right where you already are—just open your eyes and look around. Try noticing the people you haven’t connected with at work, on campus, in your place of worship, neighborhood, or at the public library. If you’re a mom, it’s even easier: you have a natural point of connection! City playgroups, neighborhood parks, your kids’ school or extracurricular activities can be built-in opportunities to meet other moms who fall all over the socioeconomic map. The simple fact of human nature is that we tend to look for the folks who seem the most like us. But there might be an unlikely friendship waiting right under your nose in the very places you already spend the most time.
Speaking of where you already spend your time, it’s a good idea to do a little evaluation of where exactly that is. Look at things like where you live, where you shop, where you dine, where you go for fun. Do they surround you exclusively with people who are more or less just like you? If so, what can you do about that? Even if you don’t make a new best friend by eating at a new restaurant, seeing the humanity of the place might just kill some of the previously held fears you had about people who present themselves differently than you do.
Building Friendships Through Volunteer Work
Can you make authentic friendships through volunteer work? I’m skeptical, but how can I say definitively no, given my experience with the Gonzalez family? Stacy was an exceptional person, someone who decided to see me not as a privileged do-gooder but as a potential friend. The hard truth is, many people who have been socially and economically disadvantaged are more distrusting of middle-class gals like me who claim to want to be their friend. And rightly so—in my experience, those stuck in the cycle of poverty have often been betrayed, let down, demeaned, and disappointed by people at a rate that does not equal my own experience in the least. It can be hard to build trust and break down those walls even in a seemingly equal situation (like toddler time at the library), much less a situation in which there is an unequal power dynamic—as there necessarily is with volunteer work and the “who is being helped and who is the helper” mentality. Yet sometimes meeting real physical needs is necessary, and when done well, it can certainly be done with the reciprocity of mutual respect and enjoyment.
No one wants to be a charity case. However you go about building friendships, the most important thing is to make it an equal one. Seek to learn from the other person, whether that be parenting tips, budget hacks, faith insights, or simply just a different worldview. Expect the other person to be a gift to you, not vice versa, and she will be.