I believe one of the most important elements of my Jewish upbringing has been the expansion of my empathy. From a young age I was taught that everyone deserves to be loved and accepted, no matter who they are, and that it’s the responsibility of the collective to take care of those who are suffering.
These values are interwoven throughout Jewish history and scripture, and also provided a great foundation for my understanding of privilege and my place within it. But while I was quite educated on sociological structures of privilege, I only understood it at a conceptual level. I wasn’t aware that my privilege and power could actively affect other people, and even threaten the livelihoods of others.
My group became very close with the indigenous Bribri family who hosted us. We all pitched in to do dishes after mealtimes, trying to keep up with the rapid-fire Spanish spoken by the women in the kitchen as we dried plates. After a long day of digging ditches for water pipes, the local boys would come meet us and try to flirt with little success, and a lot of teasing. Most evenings before dinner we babysat the two infant girls in the family: Pariana and Kaylili. Many nights I rocked little Kaylili to sleep before passing her off to her mother for bedtime. It was a culture of warmth, the kind I’ve never seen at home in the United States. It felt like a radical kindness, to transform strangers into friends and family in a matter of days. Despite language barriers and vastly different experiences, we were able to connect through our kindness and understanding. I fell in love with their love.
One night, the matriarch of the family, Doña Otilia, told us how only twenty years ago, the people of Yorkin were struggling. Before starting their educational program and tourism business, their main source of income was selling bananas and cacao paste. They were grossly exploited by large food corporations, paid only thirty colones per kilo of bananas (one dollar is about 550 colones, so about five cents a kilo!). But they had no choice, as other companies offered even less.
As Doña Otilia spoke to us, I realized that I was buying those bananas, those avocados and mangos, funding plantations dumping pesticides into rivers and paying their laborers literal cents. Truly, I was complicit.
It was a hard truth to swallow. Unknowingly, I was hurting communities like the one I loved in a very real way. It wasn’t enough to simply acknowledge the structures that kept these people down. The issue was in laborers’ rights. Money. Corporations. Capitalism. These were issues that couldn’t be solved by simply being informed.
So, what could I do to help protect other communities like Yorkin from exploitation and mistreatment? For one, I started buying from ethical producers. My family buys most of our groceries from local farmers’ markets or from Thrive Market, an ethically sourced food delivery service. I’m buying almost all of my clothes second-hand now to combat the gross mistreatment and exploitation of factory workers in the fast fashion industry.
Fresh off the plane from Costa Rica, I started talking to basically everyone I knew about what I’d learned from my experience. I encouraged my friends to check out the Mitzvah Corps site and consider going on one of the service trips offered this summer, to have the same life-changing encounter that I did.
I also wrote about my experience a lot. I wrote accounts of every day that I spent there to make those special, sobering moments come to life. I wrote with the intention of spreading a message. I have not published my work until now. This piece is a culmination of the events I recorded after my experience, and I hope my words inspire anyone reading this to interact with the repercussions of their privilege, and make changes to lessen that negative impact.
I am privileged enough to be able to transpose my thoughts onto a page and immortalize my feelings. I am privileged enough to have a platform from which I can send any message I wish to the world. I want to use my privilege to be an ally, to raise up the voices of those who have faced injustice.
Broadcasting that message of solidarity, that call to action, is my contribution to building a more understanding and kinder world.
Hannah Downing is a senior at Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio, Texas.