Not Everything, But Something

Yesterday afternoon, I met with a woman to discuss a church-managed program that provides a technological resource to impoverished kids. The kind of resource isn’t important to this post. What is important is what I learned from the conversation. The quotes, below, I attribute to the woman are not exact; they reflect my memories of our conversation.

Listening to the woman talk about the program she manages, the participants in which receive benefits of the church program, I was reminded that, often, people in poverty have grown up in environments in which “middle class values” are not modeled, nor taught. The concept, for example, of being on-time to a job interview or calling in sick when one skips work because of real sickness, is foreign to them because those behaviors were never modeled. Instead, these people might have been used to getting to school late because their mothers’ cars ran out of gas on the way to school and there was no money to buy more fuel. They were used to their fathers staying home sick and not calling their employers because their phone service had been cut off for lack of payment.

This woman told stories of people trying their best to stay employed but being let go because they couldn’t find a way to get to work. For example, a young woman who got a menial job on a late shift was fired because she did not have a car and public transportation stopped running hours before she needed to depart for work. Everywhere these folks turn, they run into overwhelming obstacles they have no idea how to overcome. They grew up in an environment of hopelessness and they are used to it. They don’t understand the expectations of a “middle class” world; their only experience with expectations is with expectations that they don’t have what it takes to lift themselves out of poverty.

“People see someone panhandling and they say, ‘Just get a job,’ but they don’t realize it’s not that easy. They may not have a telephone or transportation or they may be homeless and don’t have a place to shower and get ready for work. Things you and I take for granted aren’t available to them.”

She went on to say many of her program’s clients have no internet, no computers, nor computer skills; “Yet many jobs today require you to complete an application online before having a chance to be called in for an interview, even jobs in fast-food restaurants and entry-level retail. They are shut out of opportunity from the start.”

She told me many of the people she works with have never seen a household budget. They may never have had a bank account. They may have been taught that putting money in a bank is just a way for the bank to take away some of the money with overdraft fees. Things we assume “everybody knows” are alien to them because they live in a culture of poverty.

The intent of yesterday’s conversation with the woman was to gather information for an article I am writing. I gathered the information I sought, but the outcome was a little different than I expected in that I found myself drawn to the program in which she is involved. She invited me to attend a “graduation” ceremony for participants in her program, which will be held later this week. It will take place in a county detention facility, where some of the program participants currently reside. The participants in the program (both community-based and detention-center-based) must apply to participate. They must commit to attending a three-hour class every week for fourteen weeks.

“The program teaches them what middle-class society expects and how to meet those expectations to survive and thrive. But the program gives them more than life-skills. It gives them hope, something they may never have had before.”

I don’t know whether I’ll attend the graduation ceremony or not. I haven’t decided. It takes place at the same time another event to which I tentatively committed is taking place. And, at the same time another activity is scheduled, one involving political activism. I don’t know where my participation would be of most value. Nor do I know whether my participation will be of any value, regardless of where I might choose to participate. There are so many things that need to change in this world and I feel helpless to influence them. But, as I’m often reminded, “you can’t do everything, but you can do something.” I need to decide to do something. But what?

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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