“Do you want to play the game, too?”
The man next to me crouched and asked this question to his two young daughters, and it struck a nerve in me. I was checking into Seattle University’s Poverty Immersion Workshop, a three-hour mix of role-play and discussion, where each participant played a member of a low-income family.
The goal of the Nov. 19 event was to give us a glimpse into the lives of those who cannot make ends meet. Thinking of these families’ lives as a game seemed insensitive to me.
When I entered the workshop, I became Pablo Perez. Like me, Pablo was a 21-year-old in college. Unlike me, Pablo had to care for two 13-year-old sisters and one 3-year-old brother because his father was incarcerated and his mother had left the family. I met my 13-year-old sisters and we received our cloth-doll baby brother; he was stuffed with marbles to simulate the actual weight of a baby. The hour of survival began.
Each 15 minutes represented one week of time, and families were expected to be as realistic as possible. That meant carrying the baby around, not leaving my little sisters at home alone, feeding ourselves and preparing for what the next week might bring us.
The first “week” was a mess. After dropping the hefty “baby brother” off in the child-care center, I went to join other youths at school, and the only thing on my mind was how much time was being wasted. I had to buy groceries, apply for social services and obtain transportation funds for the following week — not only for myself, but also for three family members. My occupation had transformed from college student to parent of three.
It was common to compete with others who were also trying to provide the basic necessities. Time became one’s most valuable resource and lines were the dreaded enemy. Faced with the dilemma of waiting precious minutes to enter the bank or going to the swindling pawnshop, people frequently chose the pawnshop because it was a shorter wait.
By week four, I learned how to work within the system and had a good sense of what I should be doing. I picked up my little brother right after classes, rushed over to social services and let my little sisters pick up some groceries. Everything was getting done. At this point, I had learned how to play the game – if I had another chance, of course.
In real life, there are no “do overs.” You learn how to do things as you go along and you live with the mistakes you make. The father I overheard before the workshop was not wrong: the event felt much like a game. But rather than show insensitivity to the challenges faced by low-income people, it did provide a glimpse into their issues.