Sunday, December 18, 2011

How the "Just Work Hard" Mentality Sells Poverty Short

If I Were A Poor Black Kid
This article, by Gene Marks, describes what he would do if he, a self-described middle class, middle-aged white guy, were a "poor black kid." Basically, he say would take advantage of a myriad of technology to educate himself, get good grades, and get into college. Problem solved! Marks doesn't leave room for the idea that maybe poverty is a little more complicated than that. Reading this left me upset by his na├»ve solution, racist overtones, and clearly limited understanding of poverty.
Obviously, the racist overtones of the articles are unsettling enough in itself - why did he feel the need to add "black?" Poverty is not limited to any one race. This is one of the first indications that Marks relies on stereotypes and sensationalized media for his knowledge of what poverty is like. But his reasoning, even without the racism, is incomplete, ignorant, and patronizing. 
For the argument's sake, let's say, that, yes, technology is the answer to pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. However, most kids in the inner city do not have access to the technology he talks about, or someone to teach them about the internet resources he mentions - I mean, I've never even heard of half the websites he talks about. Additionally, the chances of inner city kids have regular access to Wi-Fi is slim. Not only is getting the necessary equipment expensive and complicated, keeping internet service is not their parent's first priority for families who move frequently, which is very common.
But I think it is short-sighted to believe a knowledge of technology or even an education is the fix-all. In my class about developmental disabilities and music therapy this semester, my professor stated that most people's problems, when it comes to succeeding in life, are social, not academic. And a "just work harder" mentality about poverty shows that Marks knows very very little about the implications of poverty outside of an education. Working with kids in the inner city, I have seen many who from the young age of 7, 8, or 9 act as a protector and provider for their younger siblings. Extrapolate this out to when they're 18 - it's easy to understand that college may not be their first priority. And if they're suffering abuse or neglect (certainly not all do, but it does happen) survival takes precedence over grades. Another interesting tidbit: children who have lived in poverty before the age of 5 show biological scarring on their brain akin to that of a PTSD patient. This can affect their ability to learn and development of their frontal lobe (the center for decision-making and judgement) as an adult. All in all, there is so much more to being successful in life than good grades and technological knowledge. 
Marks himself says "Is this easy? No, it's not. It's hard. It takes a special kind of kid to succeed." But that's part of the problem. It's not fair that kids born into poverty have to be special to succeed when those born into a higher socioeconomic class, at the very least, have the road to prosperity paved more smoothly. Success should not be a birthright. And I don't have the answer to this dilemma; in fact, I doubt there is a complete solution is for this particular type of injustice. I do think there's things we can do to improve the situation, like more and better resources for schools, hiring qualified, caring teachers, free parenting and life skills classes, quality after-school programs, or a re haul of our foster care system. But the truth is that every kid living in urban poverty has different circumstances, with different challenges, and there is no one-size-fits-all cure. Marks reflects the attitude of the entitled and the self-absorbed; he simply sits on his suburban throne and decrees that the problem is the "poor black kids" just don't work hard enough. However, he doesn't work to change the system, and he isn't out in the trenches, so to speak, mentoring or tutoring or volunteering. I truly believe the only way to affect change for any cause is by getting out there and doing something, to practice what you preach. But until Marks does that, he doesn't have the right to offer solutions for problems he can't understand.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"We are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope...the more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you. But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions and character of your sin." - Timothy Keller

Dealing with sin is messy. But God's grace is overwhelming and his forgiveness immense. And for that I'm deeply grateful. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How I want to live my life.

(a starting point.)

To take the teachings of Jesus seriously.
To be constantly aware of my need for God's mercy.
To be hospitable and welcome others into my home.
To speak truth in love.
To have meaningful friendships with people I can rely on and be vulnerable with.
To have a husband I respect, admire, and love...a lot.
To create a safe home for my children where God's love is evident, compassion for others is expected, and creativity is encouraged.
To live in the city and be intentional about community in my neighborhood and church.
To have a career that is about redemption and facilitating change.
To hold my possessions with open hands, knowing they are impermeable.
To always be looking for ways to love and serve others.
To create and not destroy.
To seek God's will and be continually drawing closer to Him.

Friday, July 29, 2011

This summer, I've had the opportunity to live and work at City Union Mission, a homeless shelter in downtown Kansas City. Even though I've been around the Mission to some extent for my whole life, and my parents purposefully never shielded me from poverty, I still had no idea the vastness and implications of urban poverty and homelessness. And surely, I still don't. Living at the Mission this summer, I ate my meals and chatted with the families who lived in the shelter every day. However, as funny as it sounds, it didn't fully hit me that these people were homeless until a few weeks into my internship when I helped the shelter manager do daily room checks. When we started, I didn't think about who lived in each room until I walked into a room of a family I'd gotten to know pretty well. The six year-old's drawings were taped on the wall, and the teenage girl has made tissue paper flowers to hang on her bunk. I saw a stack of DVDs on the dresser, and remembered them saying they had a movie night Saturday. All their possessions, between the three of them, were neatly tucked away into the two dressers.

At that moment, I realized they really lived here, that this tiny room with dim lighting was home, for the time being. They had no place else to go. Perhaps this sounds like a obvious realization for someone interning at a homeless shelter. But it made me so aware of what a different childhood these girls were having, that their picture didn't go up on a refrigerator but the wall of a shelter, that they didn't have a big backyard to run through, or a kitchen to "help" their mom make dinner. At least for now, they not only don't have a house, but they don't have a home. And not a bit of it is their fault.

Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. And they certainly are right now. The average age of a homeless person in Kansas City is seven. Seven years old. That should be unsettling. We shouldn't be okay with that. To be a child and not have a stable home or family is a damaging thing, both academically, emotionally, and socially. One of the girls who attends the City Camp, the Mission's summer-long day camp, lives at New House, a domestic violence shelter near the Mission. She told me that she and her friends at New House call it "the mansion" because they don't like to talk about living in a shelter at school. "It's depressing, you know?" she said. I asked why specifically, and she said because they have no other options, and no way to get away from the shelter for a while.

But through it all I have seen change for the better. In spite of a setback in which the mother had to spend six weeks in jail, the family with two girls is moving into the Mission's long-term transitional living program. The girl from New House? Over the summer, I've seen her transform from a girl with an explosive temper and bad attitude to someone who is learning to control her anger and make better choices.

However, more than anything, I have seen the power of the Gospel. Not that it magically changes the consequences of mistakes already made, or makes life easy and carefree. But it gives purpose to the junk in our lives, the bad things we've done and the bad things that have happened to us. I have peace knowing that God works everything out for the good of those who love him, and uses our stories to make him known. God is about hope that doesn't disappoint, and overwhelming love, and radical redemption, and I have seen each of those things played out this summer in the shelter. He is faithful when we screw up, even though we do so over and over again. And that gives me hope, for myself and for the people in shelters and on the streets, for the hungry, for the abused, for the mentally ill, for the unemployed, and for the hopeless, because, without God, that's what we all are.