I was working with some colleagues in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina to design a flier to attract potential Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World participants from poverty— called “investigators” — for an upcoming Getting Ahead workgroup series that helps people get a handle on understanding poverty. The flier had been developed by one of the Bridges Coordination Team members, and I thought it would be quite effective. I wasn’t sure, though, and I took it out into the waiting room of the organization where several women were waiting for bags of free food. With gas prices at peak levels, many people in poverty or within 200% of the poverty line find themselves coming up short.

I sat down next to one woman and asked her if she would mind helping me for a moment. She graciously agreed, and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Sarah. I showed Sarah the flier and asked her if she thought it might attract someone to come to a group for 15 weeks. “Well,” she said, “this says you get paid $25 for coming to the group.”

I said, “Yes, every week,” and explained that the workgroup would be investigating the conditions of people in poverty in the community and analyzing the community, and that the community thought the end product was worth paying for.

Sarah was surprised. She said the community doesn’t usually ask people in poverty or pay people in poverty to talk. I said that was the case in most places in America, but this workgroup was different. People are not told what to think or do. It is an exploration of life in poverty in this community and some key ideas about how to begin building personal resources to “get ahead.”

I asked Sarah about one particular phrase in the flier. The phrase asked if the potential investigator would like to begin on the path to a better job. I suggested to Sarah that “better job” might be changed to “a job that pays more money.”

Sarah was adamant. “More money,” she said, her tone drenched with disdain. “Anyone can get a job that pays more money! What people need is a job that has benefits. People need health benefits.”

I amended the flier as she suggested. I asked Sarah if she had a job that paid benefits. She said yes, she was a certified nurse’s aide, but she worked double shifts to make ends meet. “I have never been to this place before,” she said about the agency where she was waiting, “but my friend brought me here because I didn’t have enough food until payday. I had something come up that took a little extra money this month. I don’t like coming here, but I don’t like being hungry neither.” She said this with calm acceptance. There was no anger in her voice.

“What’s poverty like here in this town?” I asked her. “Let’s say there’s a woman named Denise; what kinds of things does she deal with if she is in poverty?” I drew a circle to create the pie chart of “Life in Poverty.” Together we filled the pie with slices of what people in poverty deal with every day: transportation, childcare, working long hours, food, paying the bills, family duties, health. I observed that it was a life that deals primarily with the present. I asked Sarah if she agreed. She did.

“Does Denise go to cash advance places to get cash when she needs it? Should we add that to the pie?” I asked.

“Oh no,” Sarah said. “She went there when she was younger, but now she won’t go near those places. They’ll get you in a hole you can’t dig out of.”

I wondered why Sarah had not told me to add housing as a slice of the pie. I asked her about that. “Denise,” I said, “probably struggles with affordable housing. She might have to move a lot, and may have to ‘double up,’ staying with someone else for a while.”

Sarah told me, “No, Denise doesn’t have to do that.”

“Oh,” I said in surprise.

Sarah said, “She lives on heirs’ property.” Our eyes met for a moment. I can’t really convey the depth of what passed between us. Two women of the same age, from enormously different places. We were both in second grade when JFK was shot, in eighth grade during the Vietnam War, we heard the Beatles on the radio and danced to The Supremes. Then I wondered if she had gone to dances and had a radio. What was her school like compared to mine? How did her teachers treat her? How did she get to school? Who went to school there? Had she lived in the same house her whole life?

I had been briefly invited into the life of an African-American woman whose ancestors had survived the terror of slavery and the years that followed its demise. She was still living on the land that her relatives had “claimed” generations ago, along with many others. However, people who live on heirs’ property are potentially threatened with losing it due to the fact that the property is passed by intestate succession rather than under a will. I had read about heirs’ property, but it had never shown up on any “Life in Poverty” pies that I had seen. I noted that “heirs’ property” was a deceptive phrase, seeming similar to “old money.”

“Hardly that,” Sarah said. I agreed. We shared a pair of rueful smiles.

I asked, “Who is this Denise, then?”

Sarah chuckled. “Why, of course, she’s me!” Her smile was bright now.

“Sarah,” I said, “the other people who come to the Getting Ahead sessions could benefit from your voice. Do you think you might like to come?” She said she thought she would. The Getting Ahead facilitator had joined us several moments before. I introduced her to Sarah and could tell they liked one another at once. Someone got a Getting Ahead application form and gave it to Sarah along with a stamped envelope.

“Sarah,” I said, “you are waiting here. Why not fill it out and turn it in now?”

“No time like the present,” Sarah said.

Sarah is now in her fifth week of Getting Ahead. I hope to see her again at the graduation dinner in December!

Go to http://www.heirsproperty.org to read more about heirs’ property in South Carolina.

-Terie Dreussi Smith