What Would I Do? How Do I Live Out My Values?

Theodore S. Gonzalves is associate professor and chair of UMBC’s Department of American Studies.

Theodore GonzalvesThe BreakingGround initiative is has turned out to be a wonderful platform for the kind of learning community I’m interested in helping to foster.

I first started teaching a course on the history of U.S.-based social movements when I was offering American Studies classes in Honolulu. Over the years, scholars and activists have had to fight to get the histories of various social justice and anti-colonial movements onto college and university campuses. At one point in our nation’s life, it was novel to think about the specifics of a history from below — by people who rarely leave behind archives or who have stories written about them — histories like the African American freedom movement, or the struggles waged at Stonewall, or by Latino students in the Southwest, or by Asian Americans protesting the Vietnam War. [Read more…]

Who Are the Poor?

Greg Rosenthal, a community organizer and human rights educator, is a graduate student in UMBC’s Intercultural Communications program.

Greg Rosenthal

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 rosgre28@gmail.com.

From the Archives: The Bitch-In of 1968

Lindsey Loeper ’04, American Studies, is an archivist at UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery.

One event that has embedded itself into UMBC campus lore is the Bitch-In; at times described as a social protest, a public forum, or a student debate, the Bitch-In has come to symbolize the power of an active and vocal student body standing up and encouraging dialogue about campus problems. Many of us who arrived at UMBC decades later assumed that this protest was targeted at the campus administration. But in fact any topic was welcome, and the campus administration supported the event.

The three-hour Bitch-In was one aspect of UMBC’s participation in Time Out Day (October 29, 1968), a national event organized by the National Student Association (NSA).  Student Annette Stadd, who organized the campus chapter of NSA, intended the day as a time for [Read more…]

Women in Politics!

UMBC’s Women Involved in Learning and Leadership (WILL) will host a panel discussion this Wednesday, October 10, called “Women in Politics!,” featuring campus, state and national leaders (7:00 p.m., Lecture Hall 4). Kelly Martin Broderick and Cassandra Morales, UMBC undergraduates who are among WILL’s co-leaders, tell the story of their inspiration to plan and host the event.

WILL (Women Involved in Learning and Leadership) students are committed to bringing issues of gender equality to light in addition to actively working to resolve these issues. Within our group, we have maintained an equal-power structure, in which no member, including the co-leaders, has a bigger voice than the others. Most of all, WILL remains a safe space to talk about every day confrontations with gender inequality. WILL is a student group, but we are also supported by the GWST program and have a Living/Learning Community in Harbor Hall. If you are interested in WILL, please contact Kate Drabinski in the GWST Program.

Cassandra reflects:  

This past June, WILL’s co-leaders participated in the United States National Committee-United Nations Women conference at George Washington University. The final panel focused on why it was important for more women to be in politics. The panelists discussed obstacles women face in politics, including the fact that when a woman is asked to run for office, she has to be asked three to five different times before she even seriously considers it. This is a significant statistic because a man barely has to be asked; all it takes is being approached once. This is why when asked what advice she would give to women, Erin Prangley, the Associate Director of Government Relations for the American Association of University Women (AAUW), simply stated “RUN. FOR. OFFICE.” This was repeated four more times—encouraging every woman at the conference to get out there and run for office. It doesn’t matter how big or little the election, just get out there and get on a ballot. [Read more…]

Service-Learning Conference in Baltimore, 9/23-9/25

UMBC is co-sponsoring the 2012 International Association for Research on Service-learning and Community Engagement (IARSLCE) conference, to be held in Baltimore, September 23-25. Registration is $475 through 9/7 and $500 from 9/8 onward. The graduate student rate is $350.

Partners from IARSLCE’s Community Fellows program—including representatives from non-profits, community based organizations, schools and local government agencies—will share their experiences at the conference. Professors Harold McDougall and Katherine Lambert-Pennington will provide keynotes that challenge our understanding of research, reciprocity, learning and community activism (see keynote PDF). Faculty, students and community activists are all welcome to attend and join in the conversation.