Quiet Riot–Understanding Poverty

February 6, 2008 Published by

I was presenting in a beautiful town. On my journey I saw only the well-maintained houses of the wealthy; however, the demographics told a different story, reminding me that poverty often gets hidden, and understanding poverty takes time. The professionals in my workshop told me of the poverty in the beautiful town. I was packing up, and suddenly there was a young man standing in front of me. I met his eyes. I was rolling and somersaulting back into memories. What was it? Zap! This was the troubled look I had seen in so many children that I had known when I was teaching. Same eyes. Quiet riot.

“My name is Kevin.”

Occasionally I get these moments of strange insight and clarity. For a few seconds things are somehow different. I call these moments “quiet riots.” They change everything.

For example, a few months ago I was in a different town, walking to dinner in an upscale urban area with my workshop contact. This man is responsible for ending homelessness in his state. He’s planning to end it, and he’s good at it—very influential. A ragged, younger man approached us. Here was a homeless man, facing the man in charge of ending homelessness. The poor man had no idea who the other man was. “Just 75 cents,” he said. They looked at one another for a moment. Zap! Quiet riot. It’s a Van Gogh frozen in swirling oils. Then they moved, interacted, and the moment passed. But I cannot put it out of mind. Quiet riots burn on. This time, it is the irony.

Snapping back to the present I faced the younger man, who had the eyes of my long-ago students from poverty. He said, “I grew up just as you said. My parents moved us everywhere, and often we didn’t have enough to eat. We had to learn how to survive the dangers of the streets, of living in the car, and of fighting and stealing here and there. How do you make it to school every day living in the car? I didn’t sleep, I had to watch over everyone. Now I have a family, we live in a house, and I work for a social organization. I am paid $15 an hour, and I am working my butt off and still poor. Living in this town, it doesn’t go far. The people at the top are getting $25 an hour. I swear they aren’t working as hard as I do.” He paused, his eyes now angry. “They’re just hoarding all that money, and we are not getting paid enough.” He paused and blurted, “They’re just hoarding!”

They’re just hoarding. Zap, zap! It was a sonic boom echoing everywhere. No, no one else heard. His voice was quiet, but his words were not. What a dare, what a challenge to almost every system! Not a popular viewpoint, not the kind that wins friends in high places, and not what some want to hear. But they don’t live where Kevin lives. Many would argue that the “people at the top” have more experience and more education, that they worked hard to get there. This argument could continue—this is a society where those that have knowledge and education prosper. They have earned their positions and would probably say that Kevin could do it if he tried harder. But Kevin had a different vantage point.

From this place, what Kevin was seeing was that as a child he was not given the advantages others had. He was working on building financial assets for his kids and was frustrated. How long would this disadvantage continue? How many generations more? How to end it?

I said, “Your voice needs to be heard.” Kevin looked at me sharply. “Do you see that man over there? He’s intense about getting people in poverty ‘to the table’ in this town.” I referred to the coalition table where policies, programs, and procedures are developed. John was my contact in the beautiful town. He works to build community capacity. “Would you like to meet him?”

Kevin said yes.

“John,” I said, “this is Kevin. He might want to get ‘to the table.’ Kevin, this is John. He wants to get all economic classes ‘to the table.’”

That day was John’s birthday. He was taking down a gazillion chairs and tables before we could leave. His family was having a party for him in one hour. He was tired and rushed. John stopped moving chairs. He looked at Kevin as if Kevin were the mayor or the wealthiest, most influential man in town. A fresh wind blew in through the open windows. They shook hands, and John reached in his pocket for his business card. “Call me,” John said to Kevin.

Kevin looked at the card, then at John. “I will,” he said. He nodded to me and left.

Does that seem trivial? It was a quiet riot, that meeting of two men who need one another to change systems. I’m writing this in the airport now. Outside it’s pitch dark and windy, almost midnight. A gate attendant is calling Zone 1—first class and elite passengers. Rain drips down the windows. I am moving to the next place, looking forward to the next quiet riot.

-Terie Dreussi-Smith

About the consultant:

Terie Dreussi-Smith, M.A.Ed. has served as Supervisor of Prevention Services at a community alcohol/other drug treatment and prevention organization for over nine years, and was instrumental in the organization’s redesign of programs and services for prevention and early intervention clients from generational poverty. She also co-authored Bridges Out of Poverty; Strategies for Professionals and Communities. She is a former public school teacher with years of experience. Terie served as adjunct faculty for several colleges focused on empowering adult students transitioning out poverty. In her recent consultant work as a grant writer and social program manager for youth-based service agencies, community coalitions and schools, Terie assisted communities to embed Bridges Out of Poverty concepts in redesigning policies and services for families and youth in generational poverty.

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This post was written by Terie Dreussi-Smith

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