More than any place I’ve ever lived, locals in San Antonio, Texas, tend to understand their city in terms of its four cardinal directions. News outlets here write the parts of town in title caps: North Side, South Side, West Side, East Side. Ask most people raised in San Antonio what those parts signify, and you’ll get the same answer:
North Side—white and wealthy
South Side—Hispanic and working class and/or poor
West Side—Hispanic and poor
East Side—black and poor
Of course, most people are wrong—truer and better things can be said about each of those sides of town. But the stereotypes persist as a rough description of the severe economic segregation that ranks San Antonio with the most inequitable and impoverished large cities in the United States. Here, neighbourhoods of boundless opportunity are a short drive from neighbourhoods that lack basic infrastructure. Some zip codes in the city hang a twenty-year gap in life expectancy between them.
Inequity has local features, local consequences, a local past that extends into the present. It’s right in my backyard.
When my family moved to San Antonio six years ago, I didn’t know any of this. Like most newcomers with kids, my wife and I landed in the North Side with the algorithmic help of Zillow and GreatSchools.org. But when I finally got to know my new city, I came to see that the algorithms were driven by a history of racial injustice that had shaped who could live where, which neighbourhoods were subsidized and which were not. I began to understand that what we call “the system” is not only very large but also very local, down to my street and my own home.
In my early days as a new resident, I spoke to an elderly woman who has lived in one of San Antonio’s inner city neighbourhoods since the 1960s. She told me stories about trudging through muddy streets after big spring rains because the city had never seen fit to lay pavement or construct proper drainage. “When did they finally build sidewalks and pavement?” I asked, assuming she was speaking about a time decades gone by.
She thought for a moment. “It must have been 2002,” she said. “Maybe 2003.”
The more I learned about San Antonio, the more familiar her story became. I was paralyzed by this knowledge. When you grapple with a personal moral problem, you can repent, ask forgiveness, learn to do better. What do you do when you grapple with a social moral problem? Who do you repent to? How do you do better?
Around the time I was moving into the North Side, Charlie and Jenn Foltz were moving out. They were newly married, he in his late thirties and she in her early forties, both on the other side of first marriages with children. They were also diving deep into their newfound Christian faith. Charlie had found Jesus in the ashes of some self-destructive behaviour that had ended his first marriage a few years prior, and he had the zeal of an adult convert: Jesus’s admonition to “sell everything you have and give the money to the poor” was something that could have personal application. The Foltzes sold their house in a gated community and moved into San Antonio’s East Side.
The Foltzes set themselves up without much of a plan beyond knowing their neighbours well and being mentors at the local schools. They founded a nonprofit, SA Heals, with headquarters directly across the street from a public-housing complex known as Wheatley Courts, home to hundreds of families but also regarded as the centre of the city’s drug trade. Thanks to an Obama-era program intended to redevelop troubled communities, in 2014 the Courts were razed and replaced with mixed-income housing, which—well, don’t get Charlie started.
Or, rather, do get him started, and this is what you get:
“They told everyone that they were going to improve the homes and keep everyone here. They told everyone that they were building new homes for them. That’s not what they were doing—this was never going to be for the neighbourhood. It wasn’t for our neighbours. It was for whoever is coming next.”
Charlie is talking to a small group of people standing in a rough semicircle. None of them are from the neighbourhood. Mostly, they’re from the North Side, and they’re here for what’s called an SA Heals Immersion—a project of SA Heals designed to build awareness, empathy, and understanding about neighbourhoods like this one.
“They say over 20 percent of the people who lived here have returned, and those who didn’t either couldn’t be tracked or just didn’t want to come back,” says Charlie. “I don’t buy it. None of the people we knew have returned.”
The East Meadows complex is fronted by a shiny new park boasting a colourful playground and pristine outdoor exercise equipment. The park stretches out for the length of a football field, and it is gorgeous. It is also, as Charlie points out to the Immersion participants, completely empty.
“No one is ever here,” says Charlie. “We don’t ever see anyone using this stuff. When they built this, they didn’t ask anyone who is still here what they’d actually want and use. Exercise equipment? With no roof? No trees? We’re in Texas! It’s hot!
“If they had asked anyone in the neighbourhood what they wanted, they would have built a splash pad. No one who lives around here is ever going to use this stuff.”
SA Heals Immersions run from the morning into early afternoon—four-plus hours of listening, learning, experiencing, and plenty of conversation. The Foltzes present as intense, even unapproachable—Charlie with a footlong beard, Jenn with beaded dreadlocks spilling from a headwrap—but they manage to put many people at ease with self-deprecation, sincerity, and a moving story of their years in this neighbourhood, the people they’ve come to know and love, the little boy they adopted from a local mom, the other kids they’ve fostered and taught and fought for. They work to shed the appearance of saviourism, saying they’ve learned more than they’ve taught.
As the morning goes on, one or two guys from the neighbourhood drop by and join Charlie and Jenn at the front of the room. One is Ben Brooks, a former drug addict who used to run these streets and now works to help get people off them through a non-profit called Pay It Forward. Another is Mike Brown, owner and operator of Tank’s Pizza, a local business, which later will serve delicious calzones to Immersion participants. Mike lives in another part of town now, but he spent part of his childhood in the East Side and hopes to move back as soon as he and his wife can swing it.
Depending on the morning, Ben or Mike might tell stories about their childhood. They might tell stories about troubling interactions with law enforcement. Mike talks about what it took to open Tank’s Pizza across the street from a convenience store, the Hays Food Mart, whose parking lot was the site of drug deals and shootings. Ben and Mike are clear, confident, compelling. Immersion participants lean in hard when they’re talking. No one so much as coughs.
Then, they walk the streets of the East Side. They see the new housing built on the former site of Wheatley Courts. They see dilapidated homes with boarded-up windows and pockmarked roofs. They see potholes that languish unrepaired; sidewalks that stop, randomly, at the places where the city just stopped laying concrete. They also see new-build homes that look as if they’ve been airlifted into the neighbourhood—“spaceships,” local teacher Francisco Cortes calls them—the early signs of the gentrification that is most certainly coming. They learn what gentrification actually means—the re-peopling of a place. As one woman said to me after an SA Heals event, “I always google ‘gentrifying neighbourhoods’ when I travel to a new city, because that’s how I find out where the good food is. I never once thought about the people who lived there before the neighbourhood changed.”
Over the course of four-ish hours, North Side people undergo these experiences, and they become convinced: inequity really is a problem. And it is our problem. It should be a priority concern for everyone in the city, including North Siders. It’s not enough just to be concerned about the wealth gap in the United States overall, or about global poverty. Inequity has local features, local consequences, a local past that extends into the present. It’s right in my backyard.
Inevitably, near the end of the time, someone asks the question that everyone has begun thinking: “How can I help? What am I supposed to do about this?”
The conversation slows. It’s a disruptive question, turning attention from social sin to personal responsibility. Who do you repent to? How do you do better?
It’s hard to deliver a satisfying answer. There may be some talk about non-profits like SA Heals needing more support. Someone might mention a local policy proposal—something about affordable housing or education. Mike usually invites everyone to come eat at Tank’s Pizza, which for most Immersion participants would require a genuine effort—it’s a pizza place out of the way for North Siders, even if it boasts the best calzones in San Antonio.
Ben and Mike seem the most comfortable in these moments, perhaps because they expect the least. “I’m just glad we’re having the conversations,” Ben told me after one of these events. “That’s not something I’ve ever seen happen before, and that’s a place to start.”
SA Heals Immersions are run independently by Charlie and Jenn Foltz, with contributions from neighbours they draw in on an ad-hoc basis. But I’ve had a chance to help SA Heals shape the program through an initiative called The Narrative Change Project, which is supported by the H.E. Butt Foundation, where I work. For the last couple of years, I’ve been part of a team creating educational experiences for folks to learn firsthand about the history and current-day reality of inequity in San Antonio. We’ve produced some small-scale media and learning opportunities with the hope of shifting perspectives and increasing the chances that people of means will seriously prioritize local inequity among their chief concerns.
As we planned the SA Heals Immersion experience, we were prepared for the people we invited to disagree on the facts. We thought hard about how to present the case about why extreme neighbourhood-based segregation exists and persists in San Antonio. We figured our audience would think poverty comes down merely to people’s personal choices and moral behaviour. That’s part of the narrative we sought to change.
We do get occasional pushback and questions along those lines, but it’s pretty rare. In this setting, people are quick to understand the social-structural explanation for poverty and inequity. The facts are plain. You show them a map of San Antonio commissioned by the federal government in 1934, and they see the legend telling banks where to provide mortgages based entirely on race (see map), and they realize that these neighbourhoods are pretty much racially organized in the exact same way today, almost a century later. Even when folks are hearing this stuff for the first time—I had no idea is a common refrain—they begin nodding in assent pretty fast.
What’s harder is knowing what to do about it. The problem is so big, and so rooted in the past, that it’s hard to know how to catch up to it, or who to blame. Am I, personally, one of the people accountable to this problem?
Who do you repent to? How do you do better?
In late 2019, the H.E. Butt Foundation sent more than twenty thousand households a survey on poverty and inequity. Our goal was to gauge how people in our network—mostly churchgoing folks living in affluent neighbourhoods in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas—think and feel about the persistent and growing economic disparities in our state.
Our survey was not intended to be scientific—it was just a first step in getting our network to talk about these issues. A strong representative sample responded to the survey, and boy did they ever respond. For weeks upon weeks, surveys returned not just with the multiple-choice answers completed but also with comments scribbled into the margins of the pages. Some attached extra pages to make room for more thoughts. People took the survey online too, and typed out line after line of response.
Who do you repent to? How do you do better?
That’s the first insight we gained from this project: people really want to have the conversation about inequity. Most of the households on our list are from majority-white, high-income neighbourhoods, and they tend to lean evangelical. The survey responses we saw give the lie to the stereotype of such Christians as people uninterested in these issues.
We also found that, by and large, our respondents do not blame the poor for being poor. Only 1 percent agreed with the statement “People in poverty have only themselves to blame.” Less than one-third agreed that “Rags to Riches stories prove that the American Dream is available to anyone willing to work hard enough for it.” Far from poverty-shaming, the respondents bemoaned the reality that while some neighbourhoods brim with opportunity, others seem built to block human striving at every turn.
“It just seems we can never get ahead” of the problem, wrote one person. “Like emptying a swimming pool with a spoon.” One person after another wrote comments like “We can do so much more” and “We can always do better even though my church is trying.”
One thing our respondents did not convey was much personal contact with people experiencing poverty. Poverty and inequity are topics most of us interact with through charitable causes more than encounter in our own relationships. And inasmuch as people are helping, it’s mostly through whatever programs churches are already offering: food pantries, a soup kitchen, some volunteering.
My boss often says most of us don’t know our neighbours, and that we’re nervous about what it might take to become more neighbourly. He’s not talking about people next door, but people across town, including the parts of town some aren’t so keen to enter.
But reading these responses, you get the unmistakable sense that there are lots of people out there—including these churchgoing Texans—who are longing for reconciliation, and who may be willing to help build a more equitable world.
Maybe one day, perhaps even someday soon, I will be able to write an article that leads to a large-scale-breakthrough moment—a lesson we’ve learned about what breaks the paralysis, what is the right mode of action that leads to lasting change. For now, what I can say is that the task before us is to keep these issues at the front of all of our minds.
Last year, America erupted in a reckoning over the legacy of racism, including structural, legally sanctioned economic inequalities like those we see in San Antonio. But America will move on, if it hasn’t already. Our work is to make these problems ever visible, to make them seem like a normal, reflexive issue for us to be addressing—a natural part of what it means to be a citizen, a neighbour, a Christian.
Poverty and inequity are topics most of us interact with through charitable causes more than encounter in our own relationships.
One feature of the racial reckoning last year was the rise of books, movies, and podcasts devoted to these issues, as authors like Ibram Kendi and Isabel Wilkerson and films like 13th shot to the top of the rankings. The more you absorb these materials, the more you begin to sense a religious aspect to this discourse. It’s as if they’re describing a deep social sin, one that has stained everyone, like a total depravity of the body politic. In fact, slavery and/or racism are often described as America’s “original sin,” meaning “original” not as in “first” but “original” in the doctrinal sense—a collective guilt, a sin that taints the country’s basic nature.
Yet, if all have sinned, then all need a path to absolution and sanctification.
Christian communities have long struggled with the challenge of forgiving the sinner without bothering to disciple the saint. We call it cheap grace—you get forgiveness, but you don’t get any help becoming a better person. Cheap grace is always dangerous, and always results in lapses, in what the Southern Baptist preachers of my youth called backsliding.
The only way to avoid backsliding is to become an actual disciple—one who commits to a new way of living, as bumpy and awkward and sometimes half-hearted as that commitment may be. Discipleship takes time and effort and help.
Another thing about the popular literature (and films and podcasts) on racism and inequity—a lot of them end in the same way. Essentially, they end not unlike an SA Heals Immersion: “Okay, how do we help?” And in effect, what the last chapters and epilogues of these projects offer is a kind of call to discipleship: Stay on the way. Keep learning. Keep growing.
The only way to avoid backsliding is to become an actual disciple—one who commits to a new way of living.
At the end of her book Caste: The Origin of our Discontents, the journalist Isabel Wilkerson spends a few pages making a call for “radical empathy.” Phrases like this can seem so loaded these days, and also so commonplace, easily tossed off in the growing fields of strategic bridge-building and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion consulting. But she means something specific: “putting in the work to educate oneself and to [develop] a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.”
In other words, she puts the onus for action on the reader, especially the reader who is just waking up to these challenges. Do what it takes to develop a place of deep knowing, she advises. Her implicit hope—her trust—is that the work of developing deep knowing will change who you are. And if you change, and if many more yous change, then eventually, we will change.