When "Nobody" Matters: Seeing the Unseen

The South Bronx, the Marshall Islands, Palestine. . .

These locations may seem unrelated, but they have something important in common. The people who live there have been referred to as "nobody." What do I mean?

Gentrifiers in places like the South Bronx and other urban locations often say things like "before I moved in, nobody would move there," as if they were building a cabin on uninhabited land. Some even call themselves "urban pioneers." And we often hear "Nobody would drive through that part of town!" when referring to a high crime area. In either case, the speakers mean to say nobody like them, but instead they don't acknowledge that the residents even exist.

And the Marshall Islands? The US carried out dozens of nuclear bomb tests in these Pacific islands despite the safety threat to communities downwind. The result was severe health problems, babies born so deformed that they didn't look human, and islands rendered uninhabitable. Children even played in the fallout as if it were snow. While those carrying out the tests knew what was happening, far away on the mainland the test area was seen as an exotic location where "nobody" lived. Indeed, the tests on Bikini Atoll inspired the name for the famous swimsuit. Quite a contrast to the devastation the islanders experienced.

How does Palestine fit in? Several years ago I saw a thought-provoking play by Jewish-American actors about the complexity of criticizing Israel's policy toward Palestine while still being deeply connected to one's Jewish heritage. As this is not my background, it was interesting to watch the play depict childhood Hebrew school lessons about how Israel was founded on empty land where "nobody" lived.

One of the most important roles nonprofits play is drawing attention to people who are unseen, whether they be the poor, an oppressed minority group, or the "enemy" during violent conflict. Injustice flourishes when no one no one is watching. Or, as with Israel and Palestine and many other conflicts, stories told on both sides perpetuate misinformation or even foster hate. Finding common ground during violent conflict is difficult, to say the least, but exaggerating differences or ignoring important information makes it even harder to bring an end to bloodshed.

Of course, we must think carefully about our own work and our own assumptions. Whom do we overlook? What information do we ignore? Years ago youth organizers from across town told me that nobody from my area cared about reproductive rights, so they turned down my offer to help them publicize an event. And while I like to think that I don't have these blind spots, I certainly do. Political affiliation can be one of them. I catch myself lumping people together because of their political affiliation, assuming that nobody from that group could be an ally in my work.

So as advocates for change, we need to consider -- who are our nobodies?