Voicing Poverty Workshop and Information Session with TLH

by Jamie Warren and Mahatapa Palit

In this workshop, we began by inviting participants to turn their external scholarly gaze, at least for a moment, inward. Starting from the premise that, if our goal is to increase critical thought and knowledge among our students, we must first come to understand ourselves, we emphasized the necessity of engaging in the often discomforting analysis of our language, and our assumptions, our position, and perhaps most importantly what we mean we say words such as “I”, or “we.” What images of others do such utterances implicitly conjure for the mind? Who, exactly, inhabits the linguistic space, “You” or “them”? Moreover, how can this rather abstract process of self cataloging help us in our goal of bringing new knowledge on poverty to the center of our pedagogy?

Consider, the following three quotes, each produced in the mid-1980s, a period well remembered for it’s urban decay, Industrial fallout, and economic policies which sought to eliminate any remnants of the New Deal or the Great Society:

 “God is smiling on you, but he’s frowning too

Only God knows what you’ll go through.” Grandmaster Flash, “The Message,” 1982

“Born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground

You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much, spend half your life just covering up.”

Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA,” 1986

“Nobody was dreaming about me. Nobody was even studying me except as something to wipe out.” Audrey Lorde, in conversation with James Baldwin, 1984.

When I read these three artists along side one another, I am struck by an important difference in the words of Audre Lorde from those of the men. While all three artists are speaking directly on the suffering experienced by poor people in America, and two also point to the increased pain resulting from white supremacy, only one refrains from the using the word/idea “you.” In her articulation of the violence and symbolic erasure waged against the poor, importantly, Lorde used the word, “me.” Poverty is not elsewhere in her words. There is no universal, abstracted, and therefore meaningless “you” invoked so that we might perform a public display of our benevolence. There is no distance. Perhaps more importantly, when speaking to politics of knowledge and the dangerous epistemologies that undergird so much social policy on the poor, Audre Lorde offers no forgiveness. To study her is to destroy her. Thankfully, Lorde lived her life in careful diligence to own selfhood, self-naming, and protected above all else, her voice and her ability to say the word “I.”

As we each embark in the useful and important process of transforming our courses to increase our students understanding of the historical, structural, and political causes of poverty, it is crucial that we remember this lesson from Lorde. Put in very simple terms, when we teach on issues of poverty, we must find ways, both in method and in discourse, to resist placing the poor under the microscope, treating them as objects to be known. Given the fact that the vast majority of our students live daily through the very real pain and violence of being poor, we must teach them how to say “I”, to examine who constitutes their “we,” and to not think of themselves simply as things to be known, but as knowers. Only then can our classrooms become a place where those living in poverty can truly feel at home, and know on the deepest level, that our desire to eliminate poverty is not just different from, but actually at war with the desires Lorde named above—those which sought to wipe her out.

Summary of Jamie’s lecture & Mahatapa’s Assignment

My colleague, Jamie Warren, professor of history, presented at the workshop on Transformative Learning in the Humanities held at CUNY in March 2021, starting her lecture with this quote:” The act of doing history is fundamentally an act of empathy.” She used her own life story growing up white and poor to help destigmatize poverty and make the discussion of poverty and its roots natural and a way to interrogate the real problem of structural barriers. Through a close look at history, she discussed how she enabled her students understand how after slavery, during the reconstruction era, Blacks did well economically and in terms of social mobility, with progressive education, community activism, and learning about democracy. However, the Jim Crow era that followed led to great discrimination of Blacks and turned back the progress that had been achieved. Through the study of history, she questioned the myth that blacks were inherently low achievers because of legacies of slavery. Her goals for the TLH presentation were:

  1. To locate/understand students’ understanding of the causes of poverty.
  2. To explore how many of us unintentionally accept/reproduce biased and negative ideas about poor people.
  3. To help shift the focus toward structural barriers and the elite.
  4. To examine places in my own teaching/course design that unintentionally reproduced problematic myths about poverty.
  5. Relocate the position of the subject/knower.

As a business professor, my goal in attending Prof. Warren’s workshop on Voicing Poverty was to enable my students to look at business from a more humanistic perspective. My principal goal in teaching marketing is to help students understand the creative problem-solving process that underlies marketing practice. Typically, in my classes, I do not talk about poverty, nor the structural barriers that people in poverty face. My students like to apply the principles of marketing that they study in my class to solve consumer problems related to fitness, beauty, fashion, food, and the internet of things. However, is it not true that poverty is one of the biggest problems that society faces? Hasn’t the pandemic widened the gap between haves and have nots? Should we disregard it, and instead focus only on shiny objects? 

My students know poverty well. 67% of BMCC students received federal financial aid in 2109. 70% of community college students face a combination of food and housing insecurity. I wondered what their experience would be if they applied marketing principles to solve problems related to poverty in their own communities?

Inspired by Prof. Warren’s presentation, I decided to set two new goals for my marketing class. One, to build empathy in the classroom where poverty and life could be discussed in a more human way; and two, to encourage my students to look at creative ways to solve social problems emanating from poverty, yet being careful that we do not stigmatize these problems.

Goal 1: Building Empathy

While some people think of business as a way to make profit, I tend to take more of a view that business is a ‘force for the good of society’ that can help keep economies strong and citizens taken care of with resourcefulness and creativity. I would like my students as future business professionals learn to work collaboratively and with empathy. To set this new tone, I planned to start the class by taking two minutes on Zoom having students check in with each other responding to two questions: (1) What are we grateful for today? and, (2) What did not go well? Students would post their own response on the chat, and, also, respond to some of their fellow students. In addition to building empathy, I believe this would create a sense of belongingness and community in the classroom. 

Goal 2: Solving Social problems

My second adaptation would be for students to introspect on social problems they saw in their communities and choose to creatively problem-solve one that resonated most deeply with them.

I would like to set the stage by having my students look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals that focus on the world’s biggest problems and go over a few innovative solutions that organizations have developed to address these “wicked” problems. 

In this new semester-long project in my Introduction to Marketing class, students would:

  1. Discuss types of social problems related to poverty: Gun/Gang violence; Homelessness; Joblessness; Education-gap among new immigrants.
  2. Go on a community walk to observe problems that were manifest in their neighborhood. 
  3. Research the breadth and depth of the problem and explore databases such as Infoshare and local newspapers to understand the significance of the problem in their neighborhood. 
  4. Brainstorm potential solutions with their team. 
  5. Practice empathy as they learn the basics of design-thinking for solving social problems.
  6. Interview people wrestling with these problems in their neighborhood to understand their needs. 
  7. Build empathy maps based on the interviews and discuss what the interviewees said, felt, thought, and did. 
  8. Check whether the assumptions that they had ahead of the interview on the perceived roots of the problem were validated or if there were surprises.
  9. Unpack the insights that they received from the interviews and consider if this would require them to modify their initial solutions? 
  10. Watch, as a team, the documentary ‘The Line: Poverty in America’ by Linda Midgett (2014) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHyNBGIFYl8  and then discuss the structural issues that were at the root of the social problems that they were tackling.
  11. Create a social media campaign to advocate for change to solve the problem.
  12. Present their findings on the needs of their community and their plans for a social media campaign to their local community boards, taking on the role of citizen-researchers.

Even as I pilot the assignment in my class this semester, I have begun to notice a few positive outcomes. Sejlan (name changed), a student with accessibility needs came to speak to me at the start of this semester.  He was nervous. It was his first semester in college, and he was not sure if college was for him. He chose to work on a project focused on Homelessness. Sejilan had worked as a RA at a Homeless shelter and felt that the residents would be more likely to stay in the shelter if they had freedom to cook their own food, invite guests, have recreational facilities, and learn some trade such as culinary skills or graphic design that could help them get jobs. He went through the initial steps of his project meeting with me quite frequently and as he completed his interviews, I noticed a change in his voice. He was beginning to sound more confident as he discussed the pros and cons of his recommendations. As he finds his stride as a citizen-researcher with strong roots in his community, I hope that he will not only complete this class and get his associates degree, but that one day, perhaps, he will take on a managerial role in running a shelter.

This entry was posted in Equity, Justice, & Social Change, Events & Notes, Self-Reflection on by .

About Jessica Murray

Jessica Murray received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at The Graduate Center, CUNY in 2020. She is the Director of Digital Communications for Transformative Learning in the Humanities (TLH), a three-year initiative supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She is also working on a web project with teaching materials about civil rights struggles in New York City, including disability rights history. She advocates for improving public transit accessibility in New York City for people with disabilities and chairs the Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility for New York City Transit.

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