Project AWARE, a troubling look into our biases


September 06, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

I tried to meld into the background, to avert the discussion leader's eyes, to do all the classic things we learn in school to avoid being called on. It worked for perhaps 15 minutes.

Then, my stomach twisted into a knot, as one group member asked me a question.

I tried to speak, but all that came out was gibberish, distorted words that were a result of a disabling childhood disease that forced my tongue to stick to my upper palate. I blushed, and I tried to avoid words that accented the impediment. For someone as verbal as I am, the simulation was a horrible, frustrating -- and richly rewarding -- experience, courtesy of Project AWARE.

Through this activity, follow-up discussions and a visit with people with disabilities working in a sheltered workshop setting, I confronted more of my biases about the disabled in three hours than I ever had.

And that's the way it goes for participants in Catholic Charities' Project AWARE, one of the most innovative and effective programs to come out of a charity in years. Each of the four, three-hour sessions may include some painful insights into community needs, difficult social problems, and our own biases and stereotypes. Yet, even with the heady list of topics addressed, the compassionate, dedicated staff always creates a spirit of warmth and humor within which participants feel comfortable examining these issues personally.

Project AWARE was created to help people from throughout the community -- not just Catholics -- understand major social issues that affect us all. The best way to accomplish this, according to Jack Bovaird, who coordinates the program, is to get participants to confront biases firsthand, in real-life agency settings. You share your experience with 10 or 12 other community members, staff and clients. You develop bonds, you build bridges, says Bovaird.

Our individual biases, fed all too frequently by superficial media coverage, create stereotypes that make solutions to community problems even more difficult. Take homelessness and hunger, for example. The good news is that Baltimore is fortunate to have organizations like Our Daily Bread to feed the homeless. The bad news is that our community needs organizations like Our Daily Bread to provide the most basic of sustenance to some 1,000 people every day.

The Rev. Tom Bonderenko, who runs homeless shelters for Catholic Charities, told us of the increasing numbers of elderly clients, single mothers with children and the unemployed that his agency serves. It staggers credibility to see that one out of every three people in homeless shelters is a child.

The key to the enormous success of Project AWARE is in the way the staff helps participants get a feel for the problems faced by its clients. At St. Jerome's Head Start facility, we worked in small groups to simulate a budgeting session for a single mother on Aid For Dependent Children. Forced to choose between clothing and food for our children made our middle-class group more than slightly uneasy. A follow-up discussion session with a group of women on public assistance also helped to break down stereotypes.

When I signed up for Project AWARE, I anticipated a valuable experience, interspersed with commercials for Catholic Charities. There goes another stereotype.

In 12 hours of discussions, I never heard a plug for Catholic Charities or any of the agencies I visited. Instead, our diverse group was given the agency site as the place to explore a wide range of social ills. We repeatedly heard the message that what was happening at this site was being repeated by other agencies in other contexts.

My hats are off to Catholic Charities and the staff of Project AWARE.

My advice would be for local corporations to make time for their people to experience its lessons. Those interested in Project AWARE should call Jack Bovaird or Catrese Brown at Catholic Charities at 547-5498.

(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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