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UW Professors Lawson & Gillespe Examine Narratives that Inspire Compassion

Jun 19, 2017

In a recent article, published by the journal Gender, Place, and Culture, Honors Program director Vicky Lawson (geography professor, co-director of the Relational Poverty Network) and Kathryn Gillespie (geography professor, CHID professor) bring relational poverty studies into conversation with critical animal studies to examine what the bond between homeless people and their pets demonstrates about compassion. "My Dog is My Home": multispecies care and poverty politics in Los Angeles, California and Austin, Texas, considers the notion that, when it comes to solving big social problems, love really is the answer. In this case, love of our animal companions.

Researchers across multiple disciplines agree that empathy can motivate us to change our habits and make sacrifices, but without it, there can be no change. By featuring stories of homeless pet owners "My Dog is My Home" shrinks the imagined distance between those with stable and those without — drawing us into stories of human/animal friendship. using "love as a basis for building a collective politics of anti-violence."*

Shifting middle-class attitudes towards poverty away from victim-blaming and into an alliance mindset is at the core of Lawson's work. Building on decades of research and creative collaborations, Dr. Lawson teaches about the underpinnings of a growing poverty epidemic in the U.S. Earlier this year, Lawson led Honors students through an historical examination of the political, economic, psychological, and cultural factors behind Seattle's rapidly growing population of unhoused citizens. The course engaged residents of Tent City 3 as they were housed on UW campus, along with other local community builders, artists, and advocates. While coming to understand the root causes and systemic violence of poverty, students saw, often for the first time, how much they have in common with unhoused people — the undeniable shared humanity. 

This shift in perception is a first step towards changing currently dysfunctional systems to become ethical, effective, and humane. Lawson explains: "We need to start to think critically about how we villainize 'the other'; seeing homeless people as flawed and inadequate allows us to see ourselves as stable and good". Lawson's partnership with geography colleague Sarah Ellwood established the Relational Poverty Network (RPN) and has generated a host of collaborative breakthroughs across disciplines, institutions, and languages, all aimed at understanding and ending poverty.

Like researchers in the RPN, Honors students critique systems and cultural norms across many imaginary dividers. Lawson brought her passion for collaborative problem-solving into her role as Program Director, establishing the Global Challenges — Interdisciplinary Answers series where speakers convene on a topic selected by freshmen.

Students care about much more than preserving their comfortable lives, listing their top concerns as things like: health/poverty, systemic violence, inequity, climate change, and political polarization. Still, it is one thing to care about social inequity and another to see yourself as an agent of change. "You have to let the imagined distance disolve" Lawson says. "Once you accept that you are not inherently better than those without protection, then you can take action".

Check out Honors Interdisciplinary Global Challenges Series

More Lawson & Gillespe's article in UW Today

*excerpted from: My Dog is My Home": multispecies care and poverty politics in Los Angeles, California and Austin, Texas