Heather, a peer support worker, has just started supporting her new peer, Melissa. Melissa is studying part-time because she has to work twenty hours a week to make ends meet. Most of her income goes towards groceries, and she doesn’t always have enough left over for all the textbooks she needs for her program.
Heather and Melissa are both studying film, and for one of their classes they had to take photographs to experiment with shadow and light. During one of their meetups, they decide to take photographs together of interesting architecture around campus. Heather showed up with her new expensive DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera, while Melissa took photos on her five year old phone. As they walked through campus taking photographs in the changing light, Melissa described her frustration about feeling like she wasn’t doing well in her classes, and how her mental health was also suffering.
“I understand completely what that’s like,” Heather said. “I really struggled with my courses in the first semester and was constantly feeling down on myself. I ended up hiring a tutor which really helped.”
“Yeah. That’s cool you were able to improve. I feel like I should have gotten my life together by now.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll get there too. What do you feel you want to change?”
Melissa talked about wanting to live a healthier lifestyle.
“That’s a good place to start,” said Heather. “I’ve really been enjoying learning how to cook healthy meals lately. And if you want, I can give you the name of my yoga studio.”
“That’s okay,” said Melissa. “One of the big problems is that I can’t focus enough on school because my serving job is really stressful, and I just feel so tired after a shift. I don’t even have the energy to cook or do anything else.”
“Yeah that sounds tough. Can you ask for fewer shifts?”
“Not really,” said Melissa.
Later, they looked at one another’s photos. Melissa was impressed by how professional Heather’s photos looked, compared to the ones she had taken on her old phone. “I wish I was as good as you are.”
“Well, the nice camera sure helps,” laughed Heather.
As they continued to meet up, Melissa shared a bit more about her circumstances. She wanted to focus on school full time but didn’t have the money, and her parents were in no position to help her out financially. While she wanted to do more to support her mental and physical health, she didn’t have the money to buy a lot of fresh produce or to pay for yoga classes or tutoring. She had also experienced a great deal of racism within the mental health system and didn’t always feel safe reaching out for help.
Heather realized that despite having similar struggles, she didn’t really have any understanding of what Melissa’s unique struggles were like because of her own privilege. Her parents had always been able to help her out financially through school. Since she was white and part of the dominant culture, she hadn’t experienced racism in the mental health system and felt relatively comfortable advocating for what she needed. She also had the resources to make healthy lifestyle choices and do things to support her wellbeing that Melissa wasn’t able to afford. The next time they met, Heather didn’t try to over-relate. She had a new respect for Melissa’s resilience and ability to cope in difficult circumstances. She offered to look up resources and organizations that delivered fresh produce to people with low-income. Once they had developed greater trust, Melissa asked Heather if she would help her sign up for the free counselling offered at the University, as she felt overwhelmed by the process. Heather agreed, realizing she was there to support Melissa as her own advocate rather than advocating for her.
Heather realized that by trying to make her and Melissa’s experiences the same, she was ignoring the intersectional systemic barriers that Melissa faces on a regular basis. Heather had no personal experience with those barriers. She was finally able to see her own privilege more clearly and choose to be humbler and more sensitive.
Once Heather began to realize this, her relationship with Melissa was able to grow and deepen.