In the last two days I attended the Poverty Institute. This is a work related event for me but it something I would have wanted to do even if not. However, it was nice to do it for free.
If you are not familiar, and I wasn't until recently, it's basically a two-day seminar to educate those of us who work with people in poverty on how to be more aware. It's designed and put on by a woman named Donna Beegle. You can catch up on who she is here: http://wfae.org/post/generational-poverty-and-mobility. I encourage you to listen, because the post will make a lot more sense if you do.
Anyway, we are supposed to write about our reactions and what we hope to get out of this experience and I'm fumbling through this, so this post will be long and a little unkempt.
The structure of the event is 'non-structure', which is nothing I would choose on the onset, but surprisingly organized and cohesive somehow. We aren't given times for anything, and our lunch was 90 minutes long. I think the idea is to have us all be on a journey together, not clocking in or out for sessions as we see fit. Perhaps also it is to mirror the experience of poverty.
We did a version of the privilege game, similar to this on buzzfeed: https://youtu.be/hD5f8GuNuGQ. I've actually wanted to do this in some context. I think was basically relieved to see that I wasn't towards the absolute front of the group. Especially since in our version all the questions were related to class, as opposed to race or gender. I was in the front half for sure, but not the top quartile. I've been pretty aware of my own privilege for the last few years and I'm not entirely sure how to process it. It was interesting because my Dad went back to college when I was four and for that year of my life my family experienced situational poverty (we lived without health insurance, ate off WIC and wore hand-me downs out of necessity not affordability), however had he not gone back to college he would not have a four-year degree which afforded me a lot in life.
I was also thinking about my Papa and how he was one of the first in his family to go to college, not just college but his mother had not even finished high school. Not only did he go to college, but he then went on to get nearly a PhD (Education Specialist), and how him doing that has probably brought a lot of privilege into my life. Education has always been regarded very highly in our family, and my Papa has been super supportive of those endeavors in my life.
It was genuinely awkward to learn where others stood within the group. Among the people that came from my work I was near the back, which oddly me feel slightly better about my relative professional standing. None of the black people who attended were in the front half (and none of the questions in our game were specifically about race). Absorbing that. Also, a woman who I was finding very annoying all morning, she was shouting out things and being generally obnoxious ended up being basically at the very very back, which definitely made me question how I perceive things and wonder about how very sheltered I am.
We've talked about how different classes have different styles of communication. Middle class tends to use print communication and poverty class tends to use oral communication. In short, we have different ways of looking at time, money and information. We also took an inventory to determine which communication style we tend to use... and unsurprisingly, I'm whole heartedly on the print side. I'm not sure how I am to process that. I wonder how many of my oral communicator students I've distanced through this approach. Oral communication styles are one thing I know I will implement in future classes. (Basically, I'm hoping to find ways to get my students to talk to each other more often)
Another item along those lines is that when you are in poverty you have the perception that no one cares, additionally all Americans are basically taught that we are the same. That the life experiences I have compare to anyone else's. Donna suggests that sharing about ourselves will help combat both these things. For instance, in her growing up experience she didn't realize that not everyone's family got evicted or had the lights turned off. It wasn't until a middle class woman shared her story that she realized that some people were given advantages that she did not have... also that middle class people are real human beings. We were encouraged to self-disclose with our students so they can see that we aren't just magically making it somehow, but are real human being with actual challenges. That's something I've done a bit already, but wondered how useful it was.
I was also struck by how wealthy we are as a country. Do you know that we spent 815 million on pet valentines last year? I've been hearing so much about how much we are in debt and there is so much rhetoric in the media about government programs being a waste of money, but we are not actually looking how that money is spent. Do you know that 80% of those incarcerated are illiterate? Would you say that's a cause or an affect? Do you know that on average we spent $44,000 to lock someone up for one year... how far do you think that would go helping someone become literate? I can tell you right now that's more than the average salary of an ABE teacher.
We did an activity where we tried to pay bills for a month on a minimum wage job. I created a spreadsheet on Excel (having access to a resource someone in poverty might not), got to work on the activity with a history of budgeting my own finances, and was able to make the decision in a non-emotional/crisis enviroment and I still found it impossible to pay all my bills. We are talking about water/electric/trash here. My coworker did point out that google sheets is free but I think was sort of missing the laptop / knowledge of computers / knowledge of free software piece that is not free or at least require connections that someone in deep poverty doesn't have.
We were also asked to go on a 'scavenger hunt' and different groups were given different tasks. We were given the task of obtaining SNAP and other benefits (like MFIP and so on)... I can not describe the logistical nightmare that this was for 3 people with bachelor's degrees let alone how it might be for someone who is illiterate. It reminds me of when I was talking to a fellow volunteer at the homeless shelter I occasionally serve food at. This individual has their law degree and works in international taxes, so very comfortable paperwork, but had spent some time trying to help a homeless family find housing and was overwhelmed by the paperwork involved.
Sometimes information like this throws me into a heap of frustration... so what can I do and how can I actually dispel any of these myths about poverty to those I work with and have relationships with. I'm feeling that quite a lot actually, but I wrote this blog and that's a start.