Breaking the Silence of Extreme Poverty

The Center for Social Policy at UMass, the International Fourth World Foundation, Project Serve, and UMass Boston’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion cosponsored a conference at UMass on March 12. The conference featured several co-authors of a recently published book, Not Meant to Live Like This: Weathering the Storm of Our Lives in New Orleans. The book was written by 50 men and women who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Before the hurricane, the authors had been closely connected with members of the International Fourth World Movement, a network of people living in poverty and those from other backgrounds who work in partnership with them to overcome poverty’s exclusion and injustice. The authors in attendance were Kareem Kennedy, Dierdre Mauss, Robert Mauss, Allen Powell, and Maria Victoire.

Donna Friedman, director of The Center for Social Policy, spoke first, welcoming the visiting authors, speakers and performers, as well as those in attendance. Pete Shungu, aka Afro D, performed spoken word poetry and played trumpet, including “We Shall Overcome” and “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Visiting author Maria Victoire then spoke about her experiences during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Ira Jackson, Dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, spoke about the graduate school’s namesake, John W. McCormack, noting that the former Congressman and House Majority Leader had grown up in extreme poverty in South Boston, scrounging for coal and losing four of his siblings to tuberculosis. Jackson reminded those in attendance that McCormack “remained deeply, fiercely committed to the urban poor and to social justice,” and commented that McCormack would have been “beaming” to see the conference taking both place at the school which bears his name and “preserving and refreshing his legacy with this extraordinary event.” Jackson went on to introduce William Julius Wilson as a “national treasure,” noting that “in the world of academic experts about poverty and poverty in the inner city, he’s in a league of his own.”

William Julius Wilson then took the stage and explained that he wrote the forward of Not Meant to Live Like This, which he referred to as “riveting stories” that “enrich our understanding of the race, class, and gender inequalities that existed in New Orleans prior to the Katrina storm and its aftermath.” He called the book “must- reading for those concerned about poverty and racial inequality in America.” Wilson spoke about social philosopher James Fishkin and his social philosophy known as “equality of life chances” explaining that the ability to predict a child’s future success based on race, gender or family background points to gross inequities in our society, in which some privileged individuals are able to develop their talents, while others “never really have a chance in the first place to develop their talents.” Wilson stated, “Somehow, we have to overcome a cumulative effect of chronic racial and economic subordination. But to achieve this goal, we have to understand and appreciate the problems of persistent poverty, especially the persistent poverty of inner city black neighborhoods revealed in Not Meant to Live Like This.”

Wilson also noted that many people who have not experienced poverty themselves do not understand the difficulties people living in poverty face, especially in terms of raising children, in the absence of a “strong institutional resource base that provides an extra layer of social organization in their neighborhoods.” Wilson pointed out that without strong social organization, problems such as crime take root, and that this lack of social organization is what distinguishes poor neighborhoods from others, and lead inner city youth into crime and violent behavior. Wilson also noted the educational inequality that exists in inner city neighborhoods, in which children’s ability to learn is affected by the poverty around them, and noted and praised the work of the Fourth World Movement’s New Orleans street libraries, which “stand in sharp contrast to the local public schools” in their success in teaching inner-city youth. Wilson finished his comments with words of hope, that readers would be moved by the stories in Not Meant to Live Like This and that the hopes of the authors, for better neighborhoods and lives via changes in social policy, would be realized.

The True Story Theater troupe then performed improvisational pieces based on on-stage interviews with authors Robert Mauss and Allen Powell, which were interspersed with readings from Not Meant to Live Like This. Christopher Ellinger interviewed the men on stage, asking them about their Katrina experiences as well as their work with the Fourth World Movement, after which their words were re-enacted by members of the theater troupe. A discussion with audience members followed. Speaking of the event, Donna Friedman commented, “Extreme poverty is very hidden…The experience of being part of the creation of [Not Meant to Live Like This] had a deep impression on me and I learned things…the depth of the reality of extreme poverty became real for me in the making of the book. We saw this as a real opportunity to engage people that we know in the community…to get outside our heads and inside the stories, and to really get it, about what happens when people are living in extreme poverty.”

—Melanie Temin Mendez

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