Leaders on a Hill: Battling the Opportunity Gap from Above

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I watched her with my hands clasped and teeth subconsciously biting at my lips. Her story was told from a shiny new conference room in the Northfield Community Action Center–echoed in an informative tone that didn’t fit such a dynamic plotline. I scribbled away in red pen across my notebook–determined to remember it all.

  • Married with three kids. Husband made $80,000 a year.
  • New house, a pool, friends always over. The American Dream.
  • Both parents get cancer. They move in.
  • Husband abandons, doesn’t pay child support, house sold.
  • No job, nowhere to live.

This was the introduction. In three minutes, our group of 18 “Leaders for Social Change” had heard about this woman’s split second transition from living the dream to homelessness with bent necks and downward gazes. She reminded us that those of us with family safety nets and checking accounts don’t have guaranteed comfortable lives. Her plot line of peaks and pitfalls terrified me completely. I always saw myself helping others, but I never pictured myself as the one being helped. How naive.

With slow hand gestures and direct eye contact that told us she’d practiced this version of her “empowered” story many times before, the woman in the black cardigan and heather gray slacks took us through her first visit to the Food Shelf. She spoke of the shame that came with pushing a shopping cart through the aisles of a stock room–monitored by a volunteer who ticked off cans of soup and pounds of rice the size and statistics her family “deserved.” The corners of her mouth twitched as she recounted the brownie mix laid out on the kitchen table of the “transitional home” where she’d moved her three adolescent children with the help of the Community Action Center–how incredibly small she’d felt seeing their faces light up at the presence of food inside of those depressingly dilapidated four walls. As she described legal battles with her ex-husband, the hard lessons her children learned as friends disappeared with the big house and fancy pool, and the struggle of swallowing pride as she accepted  the help of social workers and the eventual victory of a home from Habitat for Humanity, the recurring theme was; “I didn’t ever think this could happen to me.”

One moment, this woman was surpassing her own middle class background and raising her kids in suburban privilege. The next, her family was plastered across the front page of the local paper the week before Christmas–poster people for poverty and an anecdotal image meant to spur donations to a greater cause. Instead of buying brand name shoes for her children with a few clicks on her flat screen computer in a designer kitchen, she was standing in line at KMart, scanning three pairs of sneakers with vouchers as her kids ran for the car in shame and the ignorant teenage girl behind the cash register shouted  across the speakers of the linoleum tiled store; “How do we ring up these tennis shoes that are supposed to be free with this voucher thing?”

Eyes darting across the memories of stretched-thin holidays and the long hours spent returning to college in order to earn a degree while raising three children and clawing her way up from poverty, she sums up years in a matter of sentences. She sighs a little when she gets to the “happy ending,” the epiphany that she could come full circle. After trying her hand at nursing and then finding a calling in social work, this unnamed woman returned to the Community Action Center where she first came for help she thought she’d never need. Though she still fits the title of “working poor,” she has her own home, happily settled children, and a day to day job that gives her purpose. There is an uncomfortable possibility that she is happier than I’ll ever be. Her children are stronger for having been through what they have, her family is tightly woven, and she is changing a system with input from her own experience.

I respect this woman more than I can say. In some ways, I find myself feeling an uncomfortable sort of jealousy. I am conflicted–I would never wish the hardship her children experienced for my own  brood, but I also don’t want them to be in a bubble where poverty is disguised.

The Community Action Center is a place where Senior Center, HeadStart, Adult Education, the Food Shelf, Clothing Donation, and Scholoarship programs collide. Before the anonymous woman whose story was shared with me today found herself at the threshold of this establishment without any other options, she knew close to nothing about this place.

Why?

Why can’t we talk about income or class or the services that so many thousands of people rely upon daily? Why is it so taboo to ask how much someone makes–particularly the older and more successful you become? Why is there a culture of poverty–the feeling that if you “get rich” and “escape” the realm of the lower class and the “trodden backs” you are part of a twisted sort of betrayal? What the heck does a “poverty threshold” or “guideline” even mean? How is is that we have the audacity to define “asset poverty” as the seemingly arbitrary cut off of being unable to support yourself for three months? What if you can only make it to three months and one day? What then?

Where are all of the people living in “absolute” poverty–an insufficiency so thick that the risk is death? Is “quality education” (however we choose to define it,) really the key to success?

This summer, living with 9 other students designated as “Leaders for Social Change” (a loaded title if you ask any of us,) I have become accustomed to a certain tightness in my chest. This pulsing sensation that begins at the back of my neck is sparked at least several times a week by conversations and exposure to themes ranging from entrepreneurship to significance to poverty to hope. Nightly, we gather around a round table, kitchen sink, or living room carpet to dive headfirst into lilting rounds of dialogue that lead nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Unlike much of the student population at our mid-sized, high-priced, idyllic liberal arts college, we are willing to ask each other why–to call out the bullshit and demand real answers. Most of the time we end up miles from where we started. I look down only to find that the skin beneath my collar bone splotched with the red rash produced when the contents of my mind boil over and my brow permanently furrows.

Each week, accompanied by our faculty advisors and inspired by our various non-profit internships and “social change” campus research, the ten of us take on a new topic and 4-hour Thursday Seminar. This week, (as you might guess from the above list of circular questions,) the subject was poverty in America.

The night before each seminar, we are given articles and questions to discuss. Our conversations often extend until the moon rises. Last night, the first question on our list was “What are the causes of poverty?”

Crickets.

And then it begins. That swirling chaos that lived itself out two times over when I pounded out the syllables again during a late night run and as I curled up in the basement beside the vibrating lull of the washing machine and glow of my laptop.

This is what I wrote:

One seven-mile night run later and I’m still mulling over this discussion. As I listen to the washing machine hum its strange and soothing rhythm from a butterfly chair in our basement, I find my thoughts bouncing across the tangents of our 2 hour long discussion–reliving the hand gestures, quick words, and silences where the air was thick with ideas but the only sound was of forks on plates.I know that I will need to write about tonight because it was another one of those “epiphany” moments for me. There were no clear conclusions, but I felt challenged in a way I haven’t yet. I was hopeless and hope-filled at the same time…

Like we said, we can only create change within our lifetimes. Our efforts may be futile, or they may actually change the world someday. There’s no way to know. For now, we must be content with laying the tracks. We cannot give up. We cannot say “never.” Just like those families in medieval times–the laborers who devoted their lives to building one wall of an ornate cathedral they would never live to see–we need to learn to live outside of these norms of instant gratification and one-stop fixes. We need to take the blueprints and cross off mere chunks of the to-do list.

I have so many thoughts, but for now I’ll just share two articles that add to much that we talked about tonight. The first is “The Opportunity Gap,” an op-ed about America’s many divisions and how they might look in the future  This one is a tribute to all of the inequalities we outlined around our round table tonight–all of the privileges and poverties we are born into the ways they shape the maps of our lives. The gaping space between the rich and the poor is disheartening, and columnist David Brooks sees the answer to any possible solution in politics when he says; “Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them — less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem. It’s politically tough to do that, but the alternative is national suicide.”

Politics alone is not the answer, but we have to start somewhere. What will be the domino that leans just far enough to touch the next–setting off a chain reaction?

The next article is about American indulgence–our dangerous belief that more is always better, and the idea that “underindulgence” might actually be the answer. We believe that the key to our happiness lies in capital, but the fact (proven by various psychological and scientific studies) is that it doesn’t. Despite the ongoing argument that there is no true altruistic behavior, we actually get more satisfaction out of doing things for other people than we do for ourselves… (don’t believe it? Just read the article… babies want to give away their goldfish crackers)

Perhaps the answer to inequality is to redefine the definition of happiness and success–to harness theories like those present in this “Don’t indulge, be happy” article. Maybe we need to really start living by the less is more principle–killing multiple birds with one stone as we take on income inequalities and the need for “tracked” education to get high paying elitist jobs and downsize our consumption (in turn, contributing to the sustainability movement.) That being said, am I willing to give up what I do have? Even if that means making do with just a bit less? Or am I a hypocrite for suggesting it?

As I realized in the strobing thoughts that pounded through my head while reflecting on this incredible evening of conversation, it all connects. If we could see all of the connections–working toward a new view of happiness and changing policy and education and culture along the way–we might have a shot at reaching that ideal “head in the clouds” version of America that we alternately scoffed at and swooned over throughout our talk. It might take 100 years, but it’s worth laying the tracks. We can only hope that someone will follow them.

Last night, I was running on ideas. Today, I’m moving thanks to the fuel of those same fumes.

3 hours ago I sat beside a woman with an American flag bandana tied across the wrinkles of her forehead. My torso covered with a “volunteer” apron from Thursday’s Table, (a weekly community meal put on by the CAC,) I listened to her as she told me about what “love” means to her.

20 minutes prior, a man dressed in plaid explained to me how to make the perfect cup of “cowboy coffee,” lamented the neglect of 400 horses in Minnesota in the past year, and shared that he’d been eating at Thursday’s Table nearly every week since it opened four years ago.

Clearing beige plates and clinking glasses alongside my fellow volunteers, I realized that this wasn’t a space designated only for those who can’t afford a large hot meal. This is a place for building community–an intersection of high-minded ideas, everyday habits, and the little things that jump start change. Education, though it has become my passion and outlet for my personal “social change” ambitions, is not the single answer. We need to banish the stereotypes and the compartmentalization and the “perfect standard.”

As Julia Dinsmore points out in her renowned poem My Name is Not ‘Those People,’  We need to stop thinking in terms of the “other.” This is a distinction that swings both ways. Throughout my experiences with education and media and politics, attention has been drawn to the stigmatized vision of the “lower class”–the portrait of the bottom tier of the pyramid so often seen by opinionated conservative thinkers as “undeserving” recipients of welfare.

And yet, the same “those people” terminology is used by members of the population living the hard realities of poverty. Last night one of my housemates, who grew up in a low-income urban environment, expressed vehemently that he hates anyone from the upper class. Though he listened to my argument that I did not choose to be in the situation I was born into any more than he did (but that I intended to use my “privilege” for “good,”) he didn’t understand that the way he framed “us” versus “them” was also discrimination. With his chin jutted authoritatively outward, he shook his head when I told him the story of my Father–a man who came from a lower-middle class background, put himself through college, started his own company, and worked hard to become a member of the “upper class” so that he could support his parents in their old age.  He told me that he felt bad for my Dad’s brothers and sisters, sharing that if his own siblings got rich he would be quick to disown them–disgusted by their need to “escape.”  I wondered if this perplexing shame that comes with leaving a troubled past for something “better” is part of the cause of ongoing poverty. Again, there were no answers.

Similarly, when asked if she resented the rich mothers who inhabit the position she held before her fall into poverty, the woman from the beginning of this blog post noted; “No, I don’t think I feel any differently toward those people… I only know that if I could go back I would choose to have a smaller house and spend quality time with my kids.” She claimed to feel the same way about the stay at home mothers with $80,000 per year breadwinners, but still she referred to them as “those people.”

As I end this blog post and prepare to unwind before bed, I am nagged by the same threads of guilt and worry that press against my temples every day. I wonder how I can reconcile my “easy” upper class upbringing with my goal of understanding the complexities of the systems I am stretched between. I worry about my ability to influence anything when I’m viewed by the “other” class as nothing but a bourgeoisie member of the elitist spoiled brats. I feel the wind knocked out of me when I start to list the things I “should” be doing, and the many feats I know I will be unable to complete.

I am hard pressed to choose which way to spend my time–studying for a GRE that will get me into a graduate program with a PhD that grooms me for reform, reading a book that will inspire me, logging extra research hours that will feed my need to compete, working out to fulfill my summer training commitment to a cross country team, watching a TV show that will let me unwind and keep me sane,  catching up on news I know too little about, or making the effort to maintain relationships with friends and family near and far… all of these are good options, but none of them is enough. Together, they are overwhelming.

So, as usual, the question is; Where do I go from here?

Can I be a catalyst for change if I choose to lead from the top of a Hill I’ve been placed on by the perfect storm of born circumstance, motivation, and luck? Or do I need to be brought down to Earth?

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