Who is Allowed to Fail?

By     Mar 16, 2016

A few weeks ago I helped one of our community chefs fill out a $5,000 loan application to kickstart his own business. I emphasized to him that his proposal would be scrutinized by a board of directors of the funding organization. He needed to thoroughly think through his application, if he could do that between his double night shifts, because any questions about his application meant he might not receive the loan. This is because the funding organization had decided the first three ventures they funded could not fail.

At various points in the process, I just wanted to throw up my hands, march over to the nearest bank, and use my own near-perfect credit to take out a loan of $5,000. It would be so much easier for someone like me to access a loan, then for someone who migrated to the United States after living in African refugee camps. I felt frustrated, and angered, that someone like me could take out a loan of thousands of dollars (thank you, higher education), without so much as a question being presented about my ability to fail.

When presented with this question of failure, I ask myself a lot of times who gets to fail and who doesn’t get to fail. When Wall Street spectacularly failed millions of Americans in 2008, they were presented with a federal bailout. But if someone here fails to pay their rent on time, they are faced with eviction, and then homelessness. There is a Sudanese homeless person who lives behind our building, and I often wonder how the refugee resettlement process, and how we as a community failed him.

My gut response to whether or not we are allowed to fail is a paradoxical reaction of “Yes, we should be allowed to fail”, coupled with “I’ll be damned if some artist thinks they have the right to fail a community”. What this reveals more than anything, is how failure is linked to power. The status quo enables people in positions of privilege and power to fail. People living in marginalized circumstances, however, are often the ones being failed without the privilege of making mistakes.

Perhaps I’m most comfortable defining failure, then, as the lack of consideration for the lived experiences and challenges experienced by those in society who are rendered most powerless. Failure then, is not an option. But hopefully, by this definition, most of us are not failing.