“Generational poverty—I see it all the time,” the art teacher said. “You’ll see it too, in the pictures.”
A week into my new photography program in my middle school, I had driven over to the high school to meet with her and talk about the program. I was trying to give kids cameras, and I lived here but hadn’t heard that word in that context before, “generational.” A way to describe poverty that doesn’t end.
I sat in a webinar on poverty, offered by AmeriCorps. The woman, all passion and PhD, she could talk about poverty. She lived it, the generational kind. She saw her friends jailed, saw the drugs, and lived the homelessness. She said, “Teach kids. Teach kids in poverty about poverty so they can externalize the shame and blame.”
Around here, people here are resourceful, strong, close-knit, helpful, generous, hard-working. Everyone is. No one is poor. Or we don’t talk about it like that, using words like “generational.” No one wants to; we all have more dignity than that. It’s shameful to be in a position where you can’t feed your kid or heat your house.
When the woman in the video in the webinar, Dr. Beegle, said, talk about the poverty, I thought, this is exactly like sexual violence. It is an odd jump to make, but for years, my training has been in violence issues. This year with AmeriCorps, it has been about poverty. For the first time, I was able to tie the two together.
Externalizing the shame and blame associated with being poor is the same as externalizing the shame and blame associated with being a victim. Externalizing: the one way to teach someone how to survive and thrive. It’s not your fault.
Shame. A victim of sexual violence is often blamed for her experience. She asked for it. She wore the short skirt. She drank the drink. Judgment. It’s a socialized blame.
Society also blames those living in poverty. Show a slide of a person with bad teeth and you say, druggie, alcoholic, they didn’t take care of themselves. The onus of responsibility is on the person, not the fact they couldn’t afford dental care. Maybe they didn’t have a car to drive to the dentist. Maybe the closest dentist is forty miles away. A person in poverty may not be able to get dental or health care or often proper nutrition but we blame them. They might not even have the education to empower themselves to use such services. Society says they didn’t take care of themselves. They didn’t try hard enough.
We frame how we talk about people and circumstances to assign blame. A kid in poverty that challenges authority, he is sent to the principal. A kid in privilege that challenges authority, he has leadership skills. We use the way we talk about people to assign them class, quality, and worth.
I heard once the quote, “Every society teaches its people what it takes to belong.” What are we teaching our kids about what it takes to belong in society?
Often in college, we talked about language that perpetuates rape culture, using words that are not sensitive to people and their experiences. Like using the word “rape” to describe something that’s really difficult. “That exam raped me.” The same for poverty. A woman working in a poverty-stricken school once described an experience where she used the word “spa.” The kids had never seen, heard about, or been to a spa. How about “sauna”? She began stretching to find a new word instead that they could relate to. How about when we tell our kids, “dare to dream!” or “be all you can be!”? When they go hungry over the weekend, “be all you can be” means something different. It could mean “forage for food!” Or they are sleeping on a friend’s couch because they’re sixteen and homeless. People who live on dreams don’t have to worry about these things.
Instead of saying “dare to dream,” we need to change our language. We need to motivate our children in ways that make sense, take the time to find out what the circumstances of that child is then find a way to motivate them within their context. Use words that make sense.
I dare you to tell a child to dream when they’re hungry. How would you say it so they can?
It’s hard. But then again, stretching to find a new way to say something so you can be sensitive to another person’s life experience, it teaches you your own privilege.
Maybe you don’t know what it feels like to be experience rape or poverty, but if you don’t know what it feels like, you are privileged. And you can learn how to talk about it.
My boss talks about the poverty all the time. The first days of work, I was learning from him about my job and the kids I would work with. He said, “Some of our kids don’t have a kitchen table, electricity. How are they going to do homework?” That sat with me.
I don’t usually know which students don’t have a kitchen table. No matter. I do know they all want to be celebrated. Every kid does. So we all play. We create safe places to be and to grow.
Sometimes, even when you’ve been living in it and not talking about it, one day, the hardship finds you, slaps you, saying, remember me.
The little boy starts to limp, sits down on the bleachers, and excuses himself from the game. If you ask him what’s wrong, he’ll take off his sneakers, which he’s long outgrown, to show you his bloody toes cramped up, blistered to the point he can’t walk anymore. All he needs are new shoes, four sizes bigger. I know “shoe-people,” Carrie Bradshaw, 300 pairs in the closet. I wish they could see his feet.
My co-worker told me that story at work one day. We have to tell the stories to remember we’re doing good just being here. She bought him two new pairs of sneakers after that.
It hits you and you have to learn how to be in it. Not assuming children have coats in winter, food at home, running water.
I wish I could illustrate the extent of the hunger. For example, we have a program where we deliver backpacks filled with food to kids on the weekend. We do this to get them through the two days when they aren’t getting meals at school. Normally, we give backpacks to all kids on free and reduced lunch. In my school, so many kids are on free and reduced lunch, we had to prioritize. I sat in the office writing down the names of kids on free lunch only. The list was huge. This is how it is: the kids on reduced lunch aren’t even poor enough to get priority for backpacks.
I wish everyone could learn how not to assume people have the basic necessities you assume any person should have.
When I was training to work the local domestic violence hotline back in October, I had to do this, to learn how to frame everything without assumption. When creating safety plans, it’s always important to learn about a woman’s support network. But I can’t ask, “Do you have a neighbor you trust?” I ask, “Do you even have a neighbor?” Or are there miles between here and help. I ask, “Is there a path through the woods you know that you can take to escape him in the worst of situations.” Do you have doors in your house? You can’t even tell her to call the police because sometimes the closest dispatch is forty miles away. Women even call from the islands where the ferry comes three times a week and everyone knows who gets on it. She can’t ride the ferry without him seeing her leave, stopping her. One woman scrimped to buy her own boat to escape the violence. If a woman is lucky, a fisherman will sneak her off the island, if he’s not friends with her abuser, but everyone is friends in a small town.
Domestic violence in rural areas is about not assuming. Before, when I worked with domestic violence in Paris, there were metros, taxis, trains. Women showed up on our doorstep from cities across France. Not that the fleeing was easier. Women told us of stories locked in apartments, breaking windows, crawling out—but I can almost imagine the isolation is deeper when the woods are so dark and there’s no one around to hear you scream. When you have nothing, then even less.
How do you not assume? What does homework mean for a kid that doesn’t have a home? It takes adjustment. For months, I treaded lightly, didn’t talk too much because I had my wide eyes open, to learn. It took adjustment. The first abuse case I saw, I came home and cried and cried and cried. I was also ashamed of my own privilege. I could waltz in like a savior, AmeriCorps! Once, I was shoulder-to-shoulder with a child, tutoring, leaning over the homework, and I was so ashamed that I was holding my own breath because the child smelled so bad. The stench was nauseating.
It takes adjustment. Now, I hug the children tighter because of the smell. Now, in fact, I don’t smell it. Maybe they got cleaner or I got less stuffy. When the teachers say, watch out, don’t hug that child. She’s lice-infested. I listen to that child more closely, hold her tighter and say, I’ll take the lice if she feels the love. I’ll take the lice.
Poverty, the generations, externalize. It’s not your fault.
The thing is, none of this feels as dramatic as it looks on the page. The other day I was telling my friend about the photography project and just saying, oh, I’m so excited! I got cameras, I’m teaching some things, the kids love it! She replied like, wow, working with kids in poverty and buying them cameras to give them a creative outlet! It sounded so grand. But life isn’t dramatic until you write it down. We’re all just living and doing the best we can.
I’m not even giving that much to the children in comparison to how much they give me. They have the brightest generosity. I call it a generosity of spirit, how some of them can have nothing to give but give anyway. They have a soulful love, sparkling eyes, the playfulness, the gratitude. They give me more every day than I could ever give back. It’s the deepest love, and my heart is filled with their hearts, how much they have to offer, and hoping they have the chance to see their own light.
It makes me realize: those who have nothing know what it means, so they give it away. They give what they can and that’s usually themselves. It’s usually a piece of soul. It’s usually the spirit.
At Christmas, I was again at the high school. Our staff went over to help wrap gifts for the high school kids in our afterschool program. We gift-wrapped coats, gloves, pants, joyfully. One teacher was talking about the Angel Tree, which high school students can donate to in order to help other kids at Christmas who cannot afford presents. She told us about one student. The student lives in a trailer, no heat and water. Yet, she took two tags off the Angel Tree. The teacher’s face opened up with awe. She said, “She spent her whole paycheck on it.” Working her way through high school, to eat, in a meager home, through cold, and two weeks before Christmas, she gave a paycheck away for the other kids who might have a worse Christmas.
I choked up as she told the story. I cry if I think about it too much—I can never, never, never understand or have generosity that huge. To give, even when you yourself are in need—that is a depth of goodness that I can only witness in as beautiful place as where I live and work now.
These are the stories we tell at work. This is our own country. We are living in dire times, and there is so much pain, poverty, violence, circumstances we cannot avoid or close our eyes to.
Last night, I finished writing a portion of my book from an interview I did with an African woman who lives and works in France. She deals daily with the most brutal of sexual mutilations, helping women. As she works with them, she lives past her own past and her own experience of FGM. At the end of an hour-long interview, when I asked her if she had anything else she wanted to add, she said “It’s true, it’s difficult when you have someone in front of you who says, I am suffering. I lived this. You need to be really trained to be able to hear it.”
So this is where you get a break. You, dear reader. You don’t need to hear it directly. You don’t need to sit in front of the person who says, I am suffering. I am in pain. I won’t make you look into their eyes. You don’t need to be the one trained to do that. I’ll do it. I’ll get myself trained. I’ll ride the forty miles. I’ll do it.
All I need is your support. I especially need your support in my latest endeavor to raise money for those healthcare providers working in even more dramatic and terrible circumstances around the world. They are doing it. I want to help them. I want you to help me help them. There is so much good in the world you can do by supporting those who do the difficult work. Download a donation form. Or visit my page.
And if the seventeen-year-old girl living in a trailer without water or heat can take two tags off an Angel Tree in the middle of a Maine winter, you can give, too.