Sunday, December 10, 2006

Culture of Poverty Workshop

This was a 2 part workshop which had more eye-opening moments than I can ever remember experiencing at a learning event presented by MELSA. The workshop began with Jodi Pharr, a chaplain and certified critical debriefer for the St. Paul Police department, talking to us about the course itself, and what she hoped to accomplish during the workshop. She hoped to bring us to an understanding of the role our culture plays in creating and maintaining classes within our society, and how to affect change within this model.
To that end, we (meaning the class and Jodi herself) created what she called a “mental model” of poverty, which centered on the forces that drive people who are in poverty. The driving forces are centered around relationship and survival, rather than the equivalent middleclass worldview which is ruled by work and achievement. Using many great anecdotes about her own and other people’s experiences, Jodi was able to helpus understand what this entailed.

For example, how many times have you had a patron ask you for a particular librarian and be unwilling to “settle” for whoever was on duty? If your relationship is with a particular librarian (however tentative), why would you settle for someone you had no relationship with? Many of those in generational poverty are unwilling to deal with those with whom they have no relationship, since it rarely profits them to do so, and can be both painful and unrewarding to even try. So, building a relationship is paramount in any ongoing contact. For example, if “Pete” is told that he owes fines and that he will be unable to check out, it may not faze him in the least. However, if you know that “Pete” has a little brother who uses his card to help him do his homework, and you relate the loss of the card’s privileges to the inability of the little brother to use the library, you may get a totally different response! This is the beginning of understanding how relationship governs the lives of those in generational poverty.

Authority figures are not viewed in the same way as the middle class would, either. Just because “we” say something, doesn’t make it relevant in the life of someone who may not have the resources that are available to most of us. If, for example, you are asking a woman to pay a fine in order to be able to check out, and she is looking at the last $4 in her wallet, it is unlikely that she would choose to pay a library fine over getting food for her family. In fact, I know of no-one who would reasonably ask anyone to make such a choice. However, lesser choices are also clearly weighted toward the family and the survival of that family, through whatever means necessary. As noted before, if a relationship is in conflict with the needs of an institution (say, the library), guess who’s going to “win”?

Generational poverty is also matriarchal in nature, as the male contingent is often not in a position to take the kind of daily responsibility that the middle class assumes would be “normal. In my handouts, I have a diagram of a “family” which gives you a fair idea of how convoluted some family relationships can become in this type of poverty. In fact, I’m not even sure I would be able to do it justice in narrative form at this point. If anyone who took the workshop would like to respond to this posting with both diagram and explication, please do .

So many of the points Jodi covered over the 2 days relate to communication and how it differs both among peers and between classes, that I will simply give one example here. Jodi posited a situation in which both a middle class person and a person from generational poverty were giving a description of a crime witnessed by both parties. In the case of the middle class witness, the description of what they saw was linear, formal and had a clear plot line. In the second decription, it was casual, with no clear cut beginning or end, not chronological tolerant of what the middle class would call interruptions. I won’t even try to duplicate it here, let’s just say “you had to be there”.
Even as we laughed, we were learning.

I will end this ramble with a question that was asked at the beginning of this workshop by Jodi, talking about her clients:
“If you did everything your caseworker told you to do, got a job and kept it for a year, never missing a day of work, how much closer (if at all) would you be to being out of poverty at the end of that year than you were at the beginning?”
The answer (according to Jodi) is you would not be any closer. One of my favorite handouts in the three ring binder (which will be in the FYI basket on the 4th floor staff area) is germain to the question and the answer. It is called Key Points and covers some of the more salient points covered during this workshop:

Poverty is relative.
Poverty occurs in all races and in all countries.
This workshop focuses on economic diversity, not racial or cultural diversity.
Economic class is a continuous line, not a clear-cut distinction.
Generational poverty and situational poverty are different.
This work is based on patterns. All patterns have exceptions.
An individual brings with him/her the hidden rules of class in which he/she was raised.
Schools and businesses operate from middle-class norms and use the hidden rules of middle class.
For our clients to be successful, we must understand their hidden rules and teach them the rules that will make them successful at school, at work, and in the community.
We can neither excuse persons form poverty nor scold them for not knowing; as professionals we must teach them and provide support, insistence, and expectations.
In order to move from poverty to middle class or middle class to wealth, and individual must give up relationships for achievement (at least for some period of time).
We cannot blame the victims of poverty for being in poverty.
We cannot continue to support stereotypes and prejudices about the poor.

In summary, if they ever bring her back, for goodness sake…..GO! It was worth it.


No comments: