Greg Rosenthal, a community organizer and human rights educator, is a graduate student in UMBC’s Intercultural Communications program.
When you hear the phrase “poor person,” what image comes to mind?
What does the person look like: their clothes, their hair, their gender, race, age?
Why did this image appear and what feelings did it bring? Fear? Anxiety?
Is it connected to a particular experience? Are you universalizing that experience?
What would happen if you challenged that image; challenged that emotion?
The first step in combating poverty is breaking down stereotypes of who poor people are, challenging the negative emotions those stereotypes can generate, and getting in touch with the compassionate self that reminds us that all people deserve respect and dignity.
I had the opportunity to make this digital story in an introductory graduate class in the Intercultural Communications Program. The project allowed me to reflect upon a pivotal experience in my political development: bearing witness to the plight and fight of poor and homeless families living in Philadelphia. This experience, and my subsequent organizing work with the Baltimore-based United Workers, a human rights organization of low-wage workers fighting to end poverty, challenged many of my stereotypes about who the poor are and why I believed them to be poor.
A few of my reflections on the question, “Who are the poor?”
1.) Most homeless people don’t sleep on the streets or bounce from shelter to shelter. Rather, they stay for a while at a family members house, then a friend’s place and on and on. This is called “functional homelessness,” or by the more familiar phrase “couch surfing”.
2.) Contrary to popular media imaging, most poor people are not jobless. Many have jobs, but receive poverty wages. The fastest growing sector in the U.S. is services and tourism. Both of these industries have average wages that place a family of four just below the federal poverty line and even further from the state mandated living wage of $12.75. Moreover, the majority of poor people are children, most of whom are under the legal age of work eligibility.
3.) Many Americans are one paycheck or health incident away from poverty and homelessness. According to the latest Census data, 1 out of every 2 Americans is “not making it”, meaning they are in the lower income brackets and at high risk of falling into “deep poverty.” Think about yourself and your fellow students who collectively owe over $1 trillion in student debt.
5.) Poverty is not a personal choice or fault, but is instead reproduced because of political will. There is enough housing, healthcare/medicine and food for all. In Baltimore alone, there is a stock of over 40,000 abandoned homes. Compare that to the under-reported 5,000 person homeless population. Huh?
6.) Seek change, not charity. Dr. King once remarked that real compassion for the poor is not giving change to the beggar, but changing the very edifice that creates beggars in the first place. There is no right or wrong answer here, nor is this a commentary against helping people get their needs met. Rather I encourage you to ask the question with deep interest: Is this contributing to supporting or challenging a system that creates and reproduces poverty?
7.) Work with, not for. Poor people have agency. Don’t participate in taking it away from them. If you are a college student, then you are relatively privileged. How can you use that privilege to elevate and amplify the voice of the poor as opposed to speaking on behalf of another? Who knows better how to lift the load of poverty then the poor themselves?
8.) One person can make a difference. Your efforts DO matter, no matter the size, time or scope. I’m reminded of the children’s story about the starfish. A little girl and her grandfather are walking along the beach which is scattered with starfish. The little girl starts picking up starfish and throwing them back in the water. The grandfather quips, “No matter how many you throw back in, you can’t save them all.” The girl hesitates, looks at the starfish in her hand, and with a big smile on her face, says “well it matters to this one!” as she tosses the starfish into the ocean.
9.) Listen with your heart. If you do nothing else, listen with an open heart and mind. More than anything else, we all just want to be heard, acknowledged and seen, not as a poor person, but as a human being.
10.) Start small, then go big. You don’t have to start with ending homelessness tomorrow or feeding all the hungry. Begin where you are at. If all you can offer right now is a genuine smile and a “hi” to folks you see on the street, the people who clean your classroom or serve you lunch, your teacher or fellow students, then do that! You never really know people’s circumstances until you build a relationship, so don’t make assumptions about who is and is not poor. If you have time and energy, then go bigger. Volunteer with an organization. You learn so much about yourself through altruism and giving of yourself.
Contact the author, Greg Rosenthal, at firstname.lastname@example.org.