The power of Thought, then Word, then Deed.

My posts last week were about language, and I sense that there is a theme growing. I just got finished watching Soledad O’Brian’s Black in America and I am so full of ideas that I am fit to bursting. But I’m going to write about that on Wednesday…letting those ideas marry and turn into something larger.

Two interesting articles came to my mind today. The first came from a fantastic article out  of a monthly magazine that I receive, profiling a woman who works with traumatized youths in India and around the world. Dr. Theresa Betancourt  has been working to change the language and discourse around creating and managing organizations that work with disadvantaged people around the world. Instead of seeing impoverished youth in dire situations participating in behaviors we may find unbelievable as “pitiful and needy,” deserving of a small donation but not a longer commitment, Dr. Bancourt is hoping that a change in thinking and language about these behaviors will actually bring about more effective strategies for helping people in disadvantaged communities. I’ll quote the magazine to give you a clearer picture:

“Betancourt seeks a wholesale shift in the language used by aid organizations and the philanthropic community, so that [a disadvantaged youth] might be seen as a resourceful figure, acting in ways that are understandable given his family’s limited prospects for economic success and education, and his own emotional and developmental needs. Collecting bottles, hanging out with older men, taking drugs to blunt emotional pain: viewing these as survival strategies acknowledges that all humans have the same needs. Instead of merely bandaging poverty’s symptoms (“These people act in ways we can’t understand, therefore we’ll never change their behavior”), Batencourt focuses on poverty’s causes (“These people are just like you and me, and will make healthier choices if presented with a better set of alternatives”).” –Elizabeth Gudrais, “Reclaiming Childhood“. Harvard Magazine Nov/Dec 2012  page 33.

Changing the perception of a youth surviving poverty as being resourceful rather than pitiful seems very simple, but is very powerful. When I read the article, and that portion in particular, it hit me like a sledge-hammer. What a small twist! I rarely if ever hear people talk about impoverished people that way!

But stay with me, because today the Washington Post featured an article about a young Tabitha Rouzzo from New Castle, Pennsylvania. Tabitha, working upwards of three jobs while holding down a 3.0 GPA in high school, was being recruited by colleges around the country. Running away from her mother’s existence of government checks and time on Facebook, Tabi started working at age 13, at the deer slaughterhouse, to start working her way out of her impoverished town.

Another quote to bring it home:

“The explosion happened on a Saturday night. Patricia was bigger, badder and louder than Tabi. But Tabi had resentment that went back years.

She said [boyfriend] Deric hadn’t brainwashed her against her family; the feelings were entirely her own. There was a difference between bad luck and bad choices, Tabi said, and she had grown up captive of her mother’s choices.

“You think you’re better then me, don’t you?” Patricia yelled. “I had five kids!”

“Mom,” Tabi yelled back, “you quit school. Does it dawn on you after your first [child] not to have a second one?”

It was a lethal blow, as only a teenage girl could deliver. Patricia got pregnant in the eighth grade, the same age Tabi was when she started at the slaughterhouse.”–Washington Post, In Rust Belt, a teenager’s climb from poverty December 8, 2012. 

How do these things connect?

It’s the idea of worth. Tabitha is a resourceful girl living in poverty. So resourceful, so strong and capable, she was worthy of a feature in one of the nation’s prominent newspapers. The ending of that article made me sad and a little angry, and then my mind went to the Harvard article. Tabitha is using another resource: Her goal was to get out of New Castle, and she did. The young man featured in the Harvard article, an 8-year-old named Badal, did everything he could to survive and ended up growing to be a conflicted role model for other youths in his community. Both of these young people are worthy of guidance, help and more resources. They are worthy of investment: Time, money, stuff. Badal and Tabitha are worthy. Not because they have less than you or I, but because they are human beings living and surviving as best they can and have done so in such a fashion that it has made them stronger. They are harbingers, news bringers, attention grabbers, who bring our focus not only to them as individuals but the communities and environment in which they survive. What, if anything, can we do for them? How can we raise the tide so as to help them and those that they love and care about?

The way that we talk about poverty in this country– just as we do about so many important and sensitive and urgent topics–holds us back from getting to what the true problems are and where the best solutions may lie.  These two examples are of poverty are specific and, in my point of view, more sympathetic to particular audiences: Tabitha is white in Pennsylvania, Badal is Indian and in India.  Could we garner the same sympathies and do the same with Black and Hispanic urban communities here in America? Communities that are given attention, but often with an agenda that isn’t necessarily consistent or prolonged in its uplifting power. How can we use language that is less judgmental, ideas that change the way that leaders, educators, and community investors see our needs? Can we do it in a constructive way that speaks to the strengths that we cultivate, the power that we hold, and the potential that we can harness and unleash when provided with a “better set of alternatives”?

I’m talking about something deeper than just doing away with negative words like “slums” or “projects” or even or “subsidized” housing. More than demanding more politically correct talk and the presence of particular leaders in particular spaces.  I’m not talking about sanitizing the conversation. I’m talking about reworking it and starting it again. I’m talking about seeing the single mothers who send their kids to the charter schools in Roxbury not as women who are “desperate” for an appropriate education for their children, but rather women who are making informed and empowering choices for their children and their future. I’m talking about respecting them as equal partners in a community’s future, powerful players who can make or break the function of a neighborhood. I’m talking about not deciding that the parents who dream of college for their children when they could not have gone themselves not as the parents who are “seeking to break the cycle of poverty” but rather, parents who are attempting to uplift the next generation of the family just as their parent’s generation did before them. Parents who can become powerful leaders for their children. I’m talking about seeing individuals as potential change agents on a micro and macro level in their communities. More than an easily won vote, more than a tax payer (or not), more than another brown person.

The people who choose to seek, to fight, to work, to grow and to live (even those who do so and didn’t have a choice), are not piteous people.  They are not people that we should write off because they don’t pay taxes or because they don’t own property or because they don’t shop in the same places others do. They are not people deserving of our pity because they live in communities segregated racially, culturally and socioeconomically. We need to take “pity” out of our vernacular, be it when we are giving, praying, or working to uplift. Even when we are speaking politically about people who live in poverty, using language like “giving families a break” denotes a an air of looking down upon. When we start the conversation by belittling, we not only discount the virtues and the worthiness of the people we are trying to uplift, but we hurt our legitimacy of agents of potentially powerful change.

Language is so powerful. Ideas behind language are so powerful. Some of the most well-meaning and powerful ideas end up being so muddled simply because the precious words that we choose have a way of completely changing the perception of the context in which we think and work.

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