For some reason this blog post has taken me a considerable amount of time to write. I struggled with how best to frame what I think has to be a shift in our thinking when it comes to tackling poverty, and the effects of poverty on everyone.
In a recent episode of the NPR broadcast, This American Life, New York Times Magazine reporter, Hannah Nicole-Jones produced one of the most powerful and moving pieces I have read or heard in a really long time. In the episode, The Problem We All Live With, Part 1, she chronicles the events leading to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson and the effects of segregation in schools. The episode goes on to describe integration as the key to education reform and success. In fact, she goes so far as to say that integration has been the only real lasting reform solution.
What we know here in Tulsa (and in the country), is that the strongest predictor of low academic achievement is whether or not a child lives in an area of concentrated poverty. This contradicts what is often perceived that poor children are receiving poor education. In fact, we see some of the best teaching happening at some of the lowest performing schools! Further, these areas of highly concentrated poverty are also disproportionately represented by children and families of color.
So the question is, why is this the case? What we know from the social sciences and social network theory as chronicled in books like Scarcity and Connected are two key issues. The first, is that people in poverty, particularly, struggle with the cognitive bandwidth to look past the immediate needs and issues that are in front of them. Their current needs (think Maslow’s Hierarchy) provide substantial barriers to create the space and operations necessary to promote their children’s best growth. This is why it is often so critical to have wraparound services at our schools, like Communities in Schools, in order to help free up the family’s bandwidth to focus on other more profound issues, instead of shelter, food and security.
The second, is the fact that most of our behaviors and our “norms” are strongly influenced by our social network. In fact, if you are a person who exercises regularly, the odds are extremely high that you have a significant number of individuals in your network, up to three degrees of separation, who also exercise. This is the same with maladaptive behavior, such as smoking. In fact, there are large amounts of documentation that suggests that many, if not most, of our behaviors are, at least, strongly influenced by our social network. Now, think about what this means if you live in an environment where everyone is struggling financially. What if that environment, due to multiple generations of the same, is highly challenged with criminal behavior? Moreover, think about how slowly your own career would have taken off or not at all if it hadn’t been for the connections you leveraged to get where you are. What if you didn’t have access to an upwardly mobile network or to those connections? Not only would you have to fight immensely harder to move up the chain, but you have very few examples around you of what it even takes. This isn’t even factoring in the often additional challenge that people of color experience, just by the nature of the color of their skin.
That brings us back to the broadcast and Ms. Nicole-Brown’s assertion. Is integration the only way? We certainly see examples of that in Tulsa Public Schools. But I propose that it only takes us so far. In fact, I don’t think it is the school’s responsibility to be the ones to create a more just, integrated society.
How do we disrupt concentrations of poverty? By bringing in the resources of those of us with means into the community. I am often struck by the conversations around “food deserts” and how we often try to focus on charity and policy as the solution. I pose that when there is significant disposable income in a community, a grocery store will come.
What I am about to articulate I acknowledge isn’t for everyone. Further, I understand that everyone’s circumstances are different. However, I am particularly speaking to those of you who are deeply concerned about justice. I want to pose, what I have concluded has to be a significant part of the equation if we, as a people, are going to see justice for all. I pose that there is no greater decision that will have a greater impact, for better or worse, on justice than where we live. Yes, I am proposing moving and living among the poor. However, don’t just move in, connect. Get dirty. Get close enough to the struggling to be of service. To lend a ride. To lend your network. To employ. To create justice.
Before I get accused of seeing whites and/or the wealthy as being “the answer” let me just share this with you. My family and I, 18 years ago, decided to move to a struggling neighborhood, a neighborhood which recently was identified as one of a half dozen pockets of “extremely concentrated poverty”, I thought we were going to change the community. However, what we experienced was a dramatic change in ourselves. In fact, I am a better man as a result of the amazing friendships I now have, most of whom are in very challenging places. My children are better people and, I believe, are going to be better citizens as a result. In fact, a recent NPR article documented this effect in other places. There is tremendous challenge and heartache in my community, to be sure. But, I have found that there is even more beauty and love. Integration, then reconciliation is the answer – for all of us.
Moving into a struggling community? Put my kids in the community school? That’s crazy talk! It may be. In fact, maybe it is only what is right for my family and I. I don’t know. However, what I do know is that our collective efforts to address this issue have shown accelerated progress but likely won’t get us over the finish line. I think that it is because a mindset has to be changed. One that sees this life as one of mission, of intent, and of tremendous purpose. Further, I see our lives through the lens of the African word “Ubuntu”, which means: “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.” It’s dangerous. It’s risky. But, it could, possibly, be the answer. I guess I have always been too stubborn at solving a problem to not go all in. I would love for you to join me.
Kirk Wester, Executive Director, Growing Together
Join the conversation on Twitter @kirkwester