Advertisements for a Habitat for Humanity event called “Box-Out” sparked a wave of controversy last week. Students and faculty denounced the fliers’ lack of sensitivity towards homelessness as well as what seemed to be trivialization of a serious issue. The event was cancelled following the backlash and replaced with a benefit concert held on Friday May 2.
The proposed “Box-Out” event was intended to be an outdoor campout, where students would sleep in cardboard structures in order to raise awareness of the plight of persons suffering from homelessness. The original advertisement for “Box-Out” showed a smiling boy giving a thumbs-up in a cardboard box, with a subtitle reading, “This event will be fun!”.
Many felt that this incongruous display undercut the message of awareness about a tragic situation by portraying it as entertainment. The poster also advertised a prize for the “most creative structure,” which was also seen as offensive to many students, faculty and staff who thought that the struggle to find shelter was not something for college students to emulate as an exercise in ‘creativity’.
“In my three years here, I’ve never felt more ashamed of the campus,” said junior Tosaka Thao. Thao has known people, including his family, who have suffered from homelessness. “This took the cake. ‘Win a prize. You’ll have fun.’ I thought that was really insensitive. That really showed your place of privilege and tunnel vision.”
English professor Rebecca Richards drafted an initial response to the fliers in the form of an open letter, articulating the offense that many people were feeling.
“As a rhetorician I study how words and visual texts have material consequences, even if you didn’t mean it that way,” said Richards. “That definitely happened,although I do not think that was the intent,”
Habitat for Humanity sincerely apologized in an open letter to the student body. The reasoning behind the poster, according to event organizer Jillian Riley and Habitat for Humanity co-president Cory Baughman, was to entice students who largely come from a place of privilege into spending their Friday night learning about an unattractive issue.
“As a former RA and org leader, I know that to get people to come to particular events you typically have to offer something enticing. Our intention was not to trivialize or mock those living in homelessness,” Baughman said. “Our intention was to make this event attractive to many types of people to get the message out to as many people as possible, but we now recognize the complications with this strategy and have learned our lesson.”
“They wanted to make it fun,” Thao said. “But there’s a few things you can’t do in a nice way. You can’t talk about sexual abuse, for example, in a nice way. And you can’t talk about poverty in a nice way.” However, both Thao and Richards emphasized that this controversy doesn’t reflect on Habitat for Humanity’s general work.
“It was one mistake. They have a good heart,” said Thao. The benefit concert that replaced “Box-Out” raised $70 in donations, featuring campus bands Sikk Dood and Toast and speaker Northfield Community Action Center administrative director Kathy Bjerke.
One thing that everybody involved stressed was the importance of open and honest dialogue about important and uncomfortable issues.
“Students should be aware of [homelessness], and know that this can happen to anybody. It happens for many reasons,” Bjerke said. Oles interested in joining the fight against homelessness can join Habitat for Humanity, which is always welcoming new members, or volunteer at the CAC, which has volunteering jobs with a variety of commitment levels available.
Photo Credit: HANNAH RECTOR/MANITOU MESSENGER