A Story In A Single Image: Challenging The Myth of Meritocracy

Grand Central Station

What comes to mind when you look at this image?

In addition to being a reminder that we’re all headed somewhere, for different reasons, I am also reminded of the first time I visited New York City nearly eight years ago now.

I traveled there as a student participating in an alternative spring break trip through the youth services opportunities project. During the day, we would work on service projects and volunteer, particularly providing services for people who were homeless. At night, we could explore the city.

While today’s writing prompt of my blogging challenge involved looking at a single image and writing about what comes to mind, thinking on this memory even more caused me to dig up some old photos from the trip.

A younger version of myself at The Holy Apostle's Soup Kitchen: Largest in NY and Second Largest in the US. This is Clyde. He was the assistant director of the program at the time, and a pretty genuine person.

A younger version of myself at The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen: Largest in NY and Second Largest in the US.
This is Clyde. He was the assistant director of the program at the time, and a pretty genuine person.

Ending a day of service at the Neighbors Together Soup Kitchen

Ending a day of service at the Neighbors Together Community Cafe in Brooklyn

Leaving the New York Food Bank. Omar was a great guy.

Leaving the New York Food Bank. Omar was a great guy.

Me with my traveling partners from Oakland University

Me with my traveling partners from Oakland University

After a talk with Ms. Scruggs. She was a school social worker that I met during my trip. She showed me around, answered some questions I had about her experiences in Social Work, and allowed me to sit in on some of her facilitated sessions to watch her work. I would think of her often when I later went into school social work myself.

After a talk with Ms. Scruggs. She was a school social worker that I met during my trip. She showed me around, answered some questions I had about her experiences in Social Work, and allowed me to sit in on some of her facilitated sessions to watch her work. I would think of her often when I later went into school social work myself.

One thing I was reminded of again and again during the trip, was the myth of meritocracy.

As a child I would often hear narratives that said if “you just work hard enough, you can go anywhere, and do anything”. Those narratives persist today.

While it might sound inspirational on the surface, it implies that if you find yourself in a vulnerable position, you as an individual are entirely to blame for those circumstances.

It implies that if you are poor, that if you are homeless, it is because you are not working hard enough, or because you are not motivated enough.

While that approach succeeds in painting an inaccurate picture of what poverty looks like, it fails to acknowledge how life circumstances and power dynamics play a role in what happens to us.

Fast forward some years later, and I use this exercise near the beginning of each one of my classes to challenge the myth of meritocracy as it relates to socioeconomic status, and have also found that it can be used as a helpful lid opener to start dialogue on increasing awareness about other forms of privilege and oppression we may experience based on our social identities and their value in society.

 

Just because the rules may appear to be “fair”, doesn’t mean the game is.

Ubuntu,

From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW

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Written by

I’m a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities.

“Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian” is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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14 Responses

  1. Kathy says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Inspiring.

  2. kingsoracle says:

    Very Inspiring post,so good to know,you are giving back to others,what you have given along the line in this journey. Grace multiplied brother! :-)

  3. A. Michelle! says:

    A powerful read. Ubuntu.

  4. Thanks for sharing your perspective and experience — good to see that this Writing 101 prompt inspired you to share even more photos!

  5. Christina says:

    Thank you for sharing! I enjoyed reading this as well as seeing photos from your past experiences.

  1. November 9, 2015

    […] Day 4 Prompt-A Story In A Single Image: A Story In A Single Image: Challenging The Myth of Meritocracy […]

  2. May 20, 2017

    […] I mean, shout out to the students who are admitted to multiple colleges and receive millions in scholarship money collectively from those institutions. I’m able to celebrate them, and also interrupt when their narratives are used in ways that tokenize them, that explain them as “exceptions to the rule” of white supremacist belief in the inherent inferiority of Black people, and when they are used as props for supporting the false notion of meritocracy. […]

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