For the last 50 years, a lot of smart, well-resourced people — some of you, no doubt — have been trying to figure out how to reduce poverty in the United States. People have created and invested millions of dollars into non-profit organizations with the mission of helping people who are poor.
They've created think tanks that study issues like education, job creation and asset-building, and then advocated for policies to support our most marginalized communities. They've written books and columns and given passionate speeches, decrying the wealth gap that is leaving more and more people entrenched at the bottom end of the income scale. And that effort has helped. But it's not enough. Our poverty rates haven't changed that much in the last 50 years, since the War on Poverty was launched. I'm here to tell you that we have overlooked the most powerful and practical resource. Here it is: people who are poor.
Up in the left-hand corner is Jobana, Sintia and Bertha. They met when they all had small children, through a parenting class at a family resource center in San Francisco. As they grew together as parents and friends, they talked a lot about how hard it was to make money when your kids are little. Child care is expensive, more than they'd earn in a job. Their husbands worked, but they wanted to contribute financially, too.
So they hatched a plan. They started a cleaning business. They plastered neighborhoods with flyers and handed business cards out to their families and friends, and soon, they had clients calling. Two of them would clean the office or house and one of them would watch the kids. They'd rotate who'd cleaned and who'd watch the kids. (Laughs) It's awesome, right?
And they split the money three ways. It was not a full-time gig, no one could watch the little ones all day. But it made a difference for their families. Extra money to pay for bills when a husband's work hours were cut. Money to buy the kids clothes as they were growing. A little extra money in their pockets to make them feel some independence.
Up in the top-right corner is Theresa and her daughter, Brianna. Brianna is one of those kids with this sparkly, infectious, outgoing personality. For example, when Rosie, a little girl who spoke only Spanish, moved in next door, Brianna, who spoke only English, borrowed her mother's tablet and found a translation app so the two of them could communicate.
I know, right? Rosie's family credits Brianna with helping Rosie to learn English.
A few years ago, Brianna started to struggle academically. She was growing frustrated and kind of withdrawn and acting out in class. And her mother was heartbroken over what was happening. Then they found out that she was going to have to repeat second grade and Brianna was devastated. Her mother felt hopeless and overwhelmed and alone because she knew that her daughter was not getting the support she needed, and she did not know how to help her. One afternoon, Theresa was catching up with a group of friends, and one of them said, "Theresa, how are you?" And she burst into tears. After she shared her story, one of her friends said, "I went through the exact same thing with my son about a year ago." And in that moment, Theresa realized that so much of her struggle was not having anybody to talk with about it. So she created a support group for parents like her. The first meeting was her and two other people. But word spread, and soon 20 people, 30 people were showing up for these monthly meetings that she put together. She went from feeling helpless to realizing how capable she was of supporting her daughter, with the support of other people who were going through the same struggle. And Brianna is doing fantastic — she's doing great academically and socially.
That in the middle is my man Baakir, standing in front of BlackStar Books and Caffe, which he runs out of part of his house. As you walk in the door, Baakir greets you with a "Welcome black home."
Once inside, you can order some Algiers jerk chicken, perhaps a vegan walnut burger, or jive turkey sammich. And that's sammich — not sandwich. You must finish your meal with a buttermilk drop, which is several steps above a donut hole and made from a very secret family recipe. For real, it's very secret, he won't tell you about it.
But BlackStar is much more than a café. For the kids in the neighborhood, it's a place to go after school to get help with homework. For the grown-ups, it's where they go to find out what's going on in the neighborhood and catch up with friends. It's a performance venue. It's a home for poets, musicians and artists. Baakir and his partner Nicole, with their baby girl strapped to her back, are there in the mix of it all, serving up a cup of coffee, teaching a child how to play Mancala, or painting a sign for an upcoming community event.
I have worked with and learned from people just like them for more than 20 years. I have organized against the prison system, which impacts poor folks, especially black, indigenous and Latino folks, at an alarming rate. I have worked with young people who manifest hope and promise, despite being at the effect of racist discipline practices in their schools, and police violence in their communities. I have learned from families who are unleashing their ingenuity and tenacity to collectively create their own solutions. And they're not just focused on money. They're addressing education, housing, health, community — the things that we all care about. Everywhere I go, I see people who are broke but not broken. I see people who are struggling to realize their good ideas, so that they can create a better life for themselves, their families, their communities. Jobana, Sintia, Bertha, Theresa and Baakir are the rule, not the shiny exception. I am the exception.
I was raised by a quietly fierce single mother in Rochester, New York. I was bussed to a school in the suburbs, from a neighborhood that many of my classmates and their parents considered dangerous. At eight, I was a latchkey kid. I'd get myself home after school every day and do homework and chores, and wait for my mother to come home. After school, I'd go to the corner store and buy a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli, which I'd heat up on the stove as my afternoon snack. If I had a little extra money, I'd buy a Hostess Fruit Pie.
Cherry. Not as good as a buttermilk drop.
We were poor when I was a kid. But now, I own a home in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood in Oakland, California. I've built a career. My husband is a business owner. I have a retirement account. My daughter is not even allowed to turn on the stove unless there's a grown-up at home and she doesn't have to, because she does not have to have the same kind of self-reliance that I had to at her age. My kids' raviolis are organic and full of things like spinach and ricotta, because I have the luxury of choice when it comes to what my children eat.
I am the exception, not because I'm more talented than Baakir or my mother worked any harder than Jobana, Sintia or Bertha, or cared any more than Theresa. Marginalized communities are full of smart, talented people, hustling and working and innovating, just like our most revered and most rewarded CEOs. They are full of people tapping into their resilience to get up every day, get the kids off to school and go to jobs that don't pay enough, or get educations that are putting them in debt. They are full of people applying their savvy intelligence to stretch a minimum wage paycheck, or balance a job and a side hustle to make ends meet. They are full of people doing for themselves and for others, whether it's picking up medication for an elderly neighbor, or letting a sibling borrow some money to pay the phone bill, or just watching out for the neighborhood kids from the front stoop.
I am the exception because of luck and privilege, not hard work. And I'm not being modest or self-deprecating — I am amazing.
But most people work hard. Hard work is the common denominator in this equation, and I'm tired of the story we tell that hard work leads to success, because that allows —
... because that story allows those of us who make it to believe we deserve it, and by implication, those who don't make it don't deserve it. We tell ourselves, in the back of our minds, and sometimes in the front of our mouths, "There must be something a little wrong with those poor people." We have a wide range of beliefs about what that something wrong is. Some people tell the story that poor folks are lazy freeloaders who would cheat and lie to get out of an honest day's work. Others prefer the story that poor people are helpless and probably had neglectful parents that didn't read to them enough, and if they were just told what to do and shown the right path, they could make it.
For every story I hear demonizing low-income single mothers or absentee fathers, which is how people might think of my parents, I've got 50 that tell a different story about the same people, showing up every day and doing their best. I'm not saying that some of the negative stories aren't true, but those stories allow us to not really see who people really are, because they don't paint a full picture. The quarter-truths and limited plot lines have us convinced that poor people are a problem that needs fixing. What if we recognized that what's working is the people and what's broken is our approach? What if we realized that the experts we are looking for, the experts we need to follow, are poor people themselves? What if, instead of imposing solutions, we just added fire to the already-burning flame that they have? Not directing — not even empowering — but just fueling their initiative.
Just north of here, we have an example of what this could look like: Silicon Valley. A whole venture capital industry has grown up around the belief that if people have good ideas and the desire to manifest them, we should give them lots and lots and lots of money.
Right? But where is our strategy for Theresa and Baakir? There are no incubators for them, no accelerators, no fellowships. How are Jobana, Sintia and Bertha really all that different from the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world? Baakir has experience and a track record. I'd put my money on him.
So, consider this an invitation to rethink a flawed strategy. Let's grasp this opportunity to let go of a tired, faulty narrative and listen and look for true stories, more beautifully complex stories, about who marginalized people and families and communities are.
I'm going to take a minute to speak to my people. We cannot wait for somebody else to get it right. Let us remember what we are capable of; all that we have built with blood, sweat and dreams; all the cogs that keep turning; and the people kept afloat because of our backbreaking work. Let us remember that we are magic. If you need some inspiration to jog your memory, read Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower." Listen to Reverend King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Listen to Suheir Hammad recite "First Writing Since," or Esperanza Spalding perform "Black Gold." Set your gaze upon the art of Kehinde Wiley or Favianna Rodriguez. Look at the hands of your grandmother or into the eyes of someone who loves you. We are magic. Individually, we don't have a lot of wealth and power, but collectively, we are unstoppable. And we spend a lot of our time and energy organizing our power to demand change from systems that were not made for us. Instead of trying to alter the fabric of existing ways, let's weave and cut some fierce new cloth. Let's use some of our substantial collective power toward inventing and bringing to life new ways of being that work for us.
Desmond Tutu talks about the concept of ubuntu, in the context of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process that they embarked on after apartheid. He says it means, "My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours; we belong to a bundle of life." A bundle of life. The Truth and Reconciliation process started by elevating the voices of the unheard. If this country is going to live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all, then we need to elevate the voices of our unheard, of people like Jobana, Sintia and Bertha, Theresa and Baakir. We must leverage their solutions and their ideas. We must listen to their true stories, their more beautifully complex stories.