Understanding the power of poverty
Published 10:54 pm Tuesday, April 26, 2016
I know the power of poverty. It encases our hopes,our dreams, our spirits, our lives so they can’t grow. I also know the power of escaping from poverty. I escaped, therefore, I understand how critical it is for us to extend a helping hand to those caught in the throes of poverty. I shared some of these facts in my brief remarks concerning poverty at the American Bar Association Conference on Poverty and Homelessness at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma.
I know poverty firsthand. I grew up in poverty. We were not just poor, we were “po.” At one point, 11 of us — nine children, a mother and a father — lived in a three-room house. I don’t mean a three bedroom house. I mean a kitchen, a middle room and a front room. There was no bathroom, no running water, no electricity. The middle room did not have heat of any kind. With two beds in a small room, there was no space for a heater. In the cold of winter, we heated rocks and smoothing irons, wrapped cloth around them and placed them under the cover to keep our feet warm. We were “po.” Yes, I know the experience of poverty.
I now understand that poverty was part of our circumstances, but not part of our spirit. It’s one thing to have poverty of circumstances. It’s an entirely different thing to have poverty of the spirit. My father, Sam Sanders, did not complete first grade and could not write his name. He usually worked for minimum wage. He truly was “po.” However, he did not have poverty of the spirit. He was a very smart man who worked hard on the farm before going to his job at the saw mill or to tap pine trees for turpentine. After coming home from his job, he worked at night by the firelight of burning wood. He was a powerful example of sheer determination. My father was “po,” but there was no poverty of the spirit. My mother, Ola Mae Sanders, had a seventh grade education. She was wise as well as smart. People came from miles around to seek her advice. While birthing a brood of children that eventually grew to 13, she never complained about what she did not have. She told us, “Take what you have and make what you need.” She lived by that principle. She also told us that she was at her best when things were at their worst. One time she had a baby and was back at her job in 36 hours. My mother was “po,” but there was no poverty of the spirit.
We were truly blessed to have parents who, in spite of extreme poverty of circumstances, did not have poverty of the spirit. It was the central force in our not having poverty of the spirit. The looming question at the conference was how to overcome poverty of circumstances and poverty of the spirit? Most people believe that changing poverty of circumstances will change poverty of the spirit. I believe it’s the other way around: change poverty of the spirit and poverty of circumstances will change.
The question is how do we deal with poverty? Some say we deal with the family. That will certainly help.
However, lifting whole families consumes so much effort, time, money and other resources. Others say we should provide mentorship to those in need. This is less expensive, and the time required per person is not overwhelming. However, our programs miss most of those in need of mentorship. Some say that churches are the answer, but most children in need don’t always go to church and churches don’t go to them. Don’t get me wrong, we need all these efforts and more. Poverty of circumstances and poverty of spirit are too great to pass up any effort.
Our school system is the only institution that touches virtually every child.
It has direct contact for seven or so hours most weekdays for nine months a year. However, our schools too often contribute to poverty of spirit for those already burdened with poverty of circumstances.I believe that our identity is critical to tackling poverty of the spirit. There was a time when identity was family based, church based, school based and neighborhood based. After learning one’s name, we wanted to know, “Who your folks?” What’s your church?” “Where you from?” Now, it’s simply, “What you do?” In short, what is your job? Our work has become far more central to our identity.
Since work is so central to our modern day identity, I wish we could provide a job for every young person willing to work.
Too many children grow up not knowing how to work. Work itself helps combat poverty of spirit as it helps forge a positive identity. The pay secured from work helps combat poverty of circumstances.
I also wish every school child in struggle could have a mentor.
I don’t know how this can be done. I wish each and every person could be submerged in a history with which they can personally identify, i.e., black history, Hispanic history.
I don’t know how this can be done. I wish, I wish, I wish. Do you wish? Our parents impact us in ways we don’t understand until years later.