Dear Montecito: Allison Lewis-Towbes
I do a fair bit of writing when I can work up the courage to face my laptop keyboard. Do you know the feeling you get when you’ve stared at one word for too long and it no longer looks right? In psychology, we call this “semantic saturation.” It’s the idea that prolonged exposure or familiarity with something renders the viewer somewhat blind. This was my first thought when today’s note arrived at my inbox.
In her letter, Allison Lewis-Towbes gives us a taste of the universal college experience: what it’s like leaving the nest, gaining self-knowledge and a potential caffeine addiction along the way. The Northwestern alum chronicles her experience meeting and becoming close with people from different backgrounds and confirms that culture shock isn’t out there in the big, wide world but, instead, waiting for us when we come back home.
I’m writing this from across the continental United States, from my studio apartment in a big, loud, smelly city – and still, I don’t feel far away from you. I never do.
When I left Santa Barbara to make a new home at Northwestern University six (six!) years ago, I knew exactly what I wanted: a change of scenery, a creative community, a college experience. I told everyone who would listen to me that was ready for my worldview to expand. Northwestern’s campus, which sits on the edge of Lake Michigan, had seemed so collegiate, so grown up when I’d visited that past summer. Chicago’s notoriously warm and vibrant artistic community, juxtaposed by the frigid Midwestern winters, intrigued me as well. Northwestern was daring and far away from everything I knew. All that potential in one place was thrilling. I was ready.
Even so, when I arrived in Illinois that September, my first impression was of how flat the landscape was. I missed the view of Saddle Rock from my window. I missed the way the air smelled like blossoming trees and sea salt. Illinois was not immediately the home I expected.
That first year in the Midwest moved along quickly enough. I experienced my first “real” winter, with snow drifts that reached well above waist-height; I made friends who’d grown up with vastly different life experiences than myself; I pulled all-nighters to study Shakespeare and drank my weight in black coffee to compensate; I briefly pierced my nose. Without even realizing it, I eased into a new groove. I started to love it: the seasons, the freedom to travel into the city on the train. I started referring to my dorm as home.
But, just as quickly as my freshman year began, it ended. When June arrived, I returned to Montecito, to my parents’ house tucked up in the foothills.
It was there, in the town I’d lived for over eight years, that I experienced culture shock.
Some unavoidable truths: as of 2019, 87 percent of Montecito is white. The average household income in Montecito is $146,250, well over the national average, and income inequality in Montecito, as measured by the Gidi index, is 0.5 – also above the mean (according to DataUSA.io).
I’d just come off of nine months in a place where being different from my neighbor wasn’t just expected, it was celebrated. I hadn’t realized how homogenous my worldview had been growing up in Santa Barbara. I hadn’t worked to expand that worldview either; I didn’t even know I needed to. But now, when I went to the grocery store or post office, when I walked around my own neighborhood, the lack of diversity and the wealth gap was clear to me. I wasn’t sheltered from it anymore.
My college experience wasn’t perfect or painless (no one’s is) but it was made undeniably easier because of my privilege. As a white, affluent woman, I was given allowances my classmates and peers were not. I never had to worry about how I was going to pay for textbooks or if I could go home for the holidays. Nobody threatened my safety because of the color of my skin. Even when I came out as bisexual during college, my experience identifying as a queer person was and has been far less complicated because I am cisgendered, white, and wealthy.
Growing up in Montecito, I took all of these privileges for granted. My parents – who are both role models for me, personally – worked hard to instill strong values in my brother and myself. We were taught to listen, to give, to include. But nothing I learned in Montecito helped me to understand just how many advantages I’d been afforded.
Our similitudes do not make us stronger – they make us feel safe and justified. I think it’s easy to get lost in your own narrow perspective and take it as truth. Change, however scary it can feel if you’ve been existing in the comfort of sameness, leads to real personal growth. Change allows for connection and empathy and expansion.
Montecito is my home. I love it more than I can even express, but I also ache for it to change, to address its systemic racism and inequities.
Recently, I’ve begun to see it.
I spent the first few months of the pandemic at my parents’ home in Montecito but returned to my apartment in New York City just before George Floyd’s senseless murder at the hands of three Minneapolis police officers. As protestors in cities all across the country took to the streets to say that no, All Lives Don’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter, I marched in New York while watching similar protests occur in Santa Barbara.
I grew up and went away from Montecito; I came back and could only see its flaws. Now, other young people who followed the same trajectory as I did are taking action. Organizations are beginning the long-overdue process of dismantling old systems and replacing them with anti-racists practices. And I am cautiously hopeful.