Tuesday, February 07, 2012

"Of Course She's a Prostitute"

Yesterday I attended a meeting with the folks from The Mindtrust an Indianapolis based group that is working on education reform (among other things they act as a funder for some organizations). They have developed, in their words, "a bold plan to transform Indianapolis Public Schools." I was a part of a small group of folks from Christian congregations to whom they were presenting their plan "for conversation." What follows is my reflections on some of the gathering. I imagine that the folks from The Mindtrust would disagree with some of my characterizations of what was said. I only present them as my interpretation of what was being said and publish it here in the hopes that in as many ways as possible conversation can be engaged on the issues that they are raising.

Let me also say that I am proud that the founder of the Methodist movement, and subsequently the Methodist Church, John Wesley, was deeply committed to and involved with education - particularly among low income populations over 200 years ago. I hope that the Methodist movement can recover some of that original fire.

My central issue about this conversation is that it is trying to address directly urban education, and particular the challenges that develop around poverty - and yet do it by not talking about or addressing poverty in any way at all - except to say that "the answer to poverty is education." This seems to me to be an example of what Wendell Berry calls "superstitious thinking." While education has certainly helped some people out of poverty...we have pretty universal education in this country - but clearly still have a poverty problem.

During this conversation those who live in poverty were spoken about as people who "needed to be involved" and who would be (this was on a slide in the power point presentation) "informed" about the plan once it was transitioning into action. People talked about "programs" with "wrap-around services." One of the participants in the discussion, Seana Murphy, who used to run the 21st Century Scholars Program in Indiana, did an excellent job of asking how it was that the people they were talking about could be engaged in governance of this plan and hired to be part of the work that would be going on. No - neither The Mindtrust folks nor those from churches seemed to understand what she was saying.

The plan proposed that $188 million dollars a year would be re-allocated from the current administrative structure and be filtered down to the schools. There was a lot of talk from the presenters (as well as in the power point presentation) suggesting that this money would go to "new and creative and innovative" people from the outside coming into the community. There was never one reference to an investment in the parents (except that they needed to "get involved in their children's education") or to investment in creative and innovative people from within the community (even among low income folk).

And when the leaders of The Mindtrust spoke about what they were doing they told stories about the dysfunctional families that they work with - for example - one man told the story of how they had worked with a guy whose father was a drug addict and now "he's doing great in school." A little later he said, excitedly, "and I think his mother is a prostitute." Seana leaned over to me and said, "Of course she's a prostitute."

This is the way people who don't have much money (which is what being in poverty means) are talked about. As if this story proves anything. For an organization who talks a lot about accountability - there is very little accountability in their argument for why their proposal will work. And less the reader thinks I'm taking shots at these good folks, let me simply say, that this is how those of us in the church - and other religious institutions - talk about the poor all the time.

The pastor of one of the largest churches in Indianapolis (someone who was at this meeting) said to me in a meeting a year ago "poor families are so dysfunctional." I told him that I bet the folks in his congregation had just as much, if not more, dysfunction than anyone who I knew as low income. It is fascinating to me that in Christianity where we have a base line that says "we are all sinners" that we have no problem poking our fingers at people who are poor and talking about people in this condition as if they are different species.

One thing that made this really clear to me is some wonderful writing I came across this past year by two economists from MIT. Their names are Esther Duflo and Abhijit Bannerjee. They have written a book called "Poor Economics" and their introduction includes the text that follows below:

"If the poor appear at all, is is usually as the dramatis personae of some uplifting anecdote or tragic episode, to be admired or pitied, but not as a source of knowledge, not as people to be consulted about what they think or want or do.

All too often the economics of poverty gets mistaken for poor economics: Because the poor possess very little, it is assumed that there is nothing interesting about their economic existence. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding severely undermines the fight against global poverty. Simple problems beget simple solutions. The field of anti-poverty policy is littered with the detritus of instant miracles that proved less than miraculous. To progress, we have to abandon the habit of reducing the poor to cartoon characters and take the time to really understand their lives, in all their complexity and richness...

What is striking is that even people who are that poor [living on less than 99 cents a day] are just like the rest of us in almost every way. We have the same desires and weaknesses; the poor are no less rational than anyone else--quite the contrary. Precisely because they have so little, we often find them putting much careful thought into their choices: They have to be sophisticated economists just to survive. Yet our lives are as different as liquor and liquorice. And this has a lot do with aspects of our own lives that we take for granted and hardly think about."

I am struck that this language is used by economists and yet I can't think of ever (and this is stunning to me) - and I mean ever - hearing people who don't have much money spoken of in this respectful and clear eyed a way. And this is especially true among good religious folks. And I wonder why that is true.