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If you ask the right questions, you may learn a lot.

Who Are You?

"There are no stupid questions." Do you remember being told that when you were a child?

Here's another: "How are you supposed to learn anything if you don't ask questions?" As adults, the odds are that we remember those words and we continue to ask questions.

The whole process of getting to know each other involves a series of questions: What's your favorite food? Where did you grow up? Do you have brothers or sisters? Or here in Richmond, one of our favorite questions is "Where did you go to high school?"

Sometimes we forget about a whole range of questions we can ask. Some questions are asked so often they become more like statements. There's probably at least one you can remember from childhood that you still find yourself asking, even though you already know the answer. How often do you hear this question in your head: Why did I have to go and do that? Is that a question or has it become more of a statement?

But asking some questions sometimes seems like making judgments and not rooted in a real interest in learning the answer. How about these common questions:

"Why doesn't she just get a job?" This frequently is asked about women struggling with the transition from welfare to work. Is that a question, or has it become more or a statement about how lazy we think these women are?

Let's try asking another even more basic question: What's her name? When we know someone's name, she becomes a person to us instead of just another statistic or stereotype. "Gloria," for example, changes the realm of questions from those about "the welfare population." Then, ask another: Does she have children to feed? Or, "What kind of support system does she have?

Do we refrain from asking these questions because they lead us to more complicated ones? Questions like: Is she homeless? Is she escaping domestic violence? Has she been in jail?

What happens when we discover some of the answers to these questions? We can never go back to our starting point. We find out that Gloria is not a lazy person. She might have a college degree or a master's. She might be living in a shelter for battered women with a scar on her neck running from ear-to-ear, with which she escaped from home after her husband left her for dead. She might have three children under the age of 12 to support and only two more weeks to find a job before all her benefits run out. Where's her family?

If you spent some time asking Gloria questions about her goals in life, her hopes and her dreams, she might tell you that she grew up in public housing. She might tell you that her father died when she was a little girl. She might tell you that even though her mother worked two jobs to support her and her siblings, it was never enough to lift the family out of poverty. She might tell you that even though the future looks uncertain for her, she's going through a job-training program hoping to get a customer-service position and forge a lasting, professional career.

Gloria, in turn, might have some questions for you. Can you help me find child care that doesn't cost me $1 for every minute I'm late picking up my children? How about reliable transportation that doesn't take two hours to go five miles each way across town? Why hasn't the court system forced my son's father to pay child support for the last five years? What am I supposed to do if I'm laid off from my new job because the company has to make cutbacks now that I don't have any welfare benefits to fall back on?

If used as intended, a question invites a reply. A question opens up our world to unlimited possibilities.

We are multifaceted creatures. We are complex like crystals. When the light hits all the angles, cuts and flaws, it's reflected back to us in a rainbow of the brilliant hues. What's the question? Go ahead — ask.

J. Brannock volunteers extensively with Dress for Success — Richmond, a local nonprofit organization that helps low-income women make tailored transitions into the workplace.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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