Poverty Tours


Art from Amplifer: Gregg Deal – Real Power Real People

Today was my computer and office day. It’s been much needed since I’ve been out of the office for most of the week and having just come off of the Thanksgiving break. It was nice to have some desk time. I took a break to check Twitter and saw a tweet from a policy conference. The tweet was sharing how a panelist talked about why representation from people of color with diverse backgrounds and experiences are necessary to forming policy. The speaker, a Black womxn, said she was tired of going on ‘poverty tours’ and seeing herself in the faces of the people she was meeting and having to promise the people she was meeting with that things would be different. This resonated with me.

Closer to home I’ve been working on a huge community-based survey project. Tonight, I joined a school at their literacy night to collect surveys. Our survey is long, it takes time to fill out, and even with translated copies, it takes a lot of effort to complete. It also takes a lot of trust for families, especially families of color, to trust us with their stories and data. They don’t want to be the paper version of a poverty tour. They want to know their information will be treated with care, valued, and we’ll use it for their benefit. While they didn’t say it directly in many ways they asked what will change because they took the time to fill out the survey.

Why Poverty Tours Need to End

We need to stop putting BIPOCs on display. We often preach on this blog and in other racial equity work that pocs need to be included, consulted, and inform and be informed. Some people take this to mean they do site visits, have diverse speaker panels, and bring in experts, or charter buses to go on tours. I’ve listened to many school board meetings where they talk about ‘student voice’ as being important — this ends up being literally student voice, “We want your voice, here read from this script. Don’t tell us your thoughts.”

A few years ago, a professor from a prestigious business school told a story about how every year the faculty from the influential business school goes on a learning trip. The trips are often to other countries so they can learn about emerging economies, trade, or other things related to their research and teaching. Instead that year, the faculty deliberated and through a serious of deep conversations decided they wanted to understand the experiences of Americans. They wanted to understand the great divide facing America. It made for a compelling story and I think they were proud of themselves for recognizing needs within their own country. They felt compelled to learn about their own, to revisit their proverbial backyard. Yet this learning tour and story missed the mark. What I wanted to hear but didn’t was how the tour impacted their work, how they built and sustained relationships with communities, how it wasn’t a one-way transactional occurrence. A fly-by of learning. Maybe they did these things but in the storytelling I missed it.

These poverty tours are damaging and in the long run hurt communities of color. We don’t need more people coming in to extract information to use it in their teaching and research. We don’t need people retelling or defining poverty and poc experiences. We definitely don’t need a bus load of white and pocs with privilege coming into the hood to gawk, nod, or to hold our hands with pity – this is awkward for everyone, especially the pocs who are closer to the people.

Charity programs are really good at poverty tours – present poor people, guilt people into doing something, donate money, and they feel good. No mess, no need to get involved, it is easy. Systems level change can’t happen with charity models.

Don’t pack for the bus ride, invest like you live there.

If we want to stop racial inequities we can’t rely upon poverty tours. We need to invest in relationships and recreating the ways we operate. We need to allow the people who are most impacted by injustices to define their own problems and solutions.

Community Led or Community Informed

The opposite of the business school story from above comes from a colleague and friend who leads an advocacy organization. Paola shared the question, “Are we community led, or community informed?” She went on to talk about how much of the policy work happening today, even from the most progressive organizations, is often community informed. I appreciate the distinction between the two dichotomies, and even with this there are gradations.

While community led is best, much of our work is often community informed. Being community led often means restructuring the way we work. It means suspending judgment and allowing the community to take us in new directions. Poverty bus tours do not exist in this world because the work is now embedded and a part of the community, not just a stop along the highway. Too often our work is still community informed – a stop along the way where we sit to listen to people who are impacted by injustices, maybe a stop to have coffee, then drive back to our offices to sit with the stories we learned and try to craft policies or adapt practices that tinker at the edges of their injustices.

Instead, we need to invest and support authentically built and sustained community led efforts. These organizations or sometimes even grassroots projects may look and feel very different than what we are used to seeing and supporting. As an example, I’m part of a Facebook group, Gifts of Hope-Seattle run by a local African American mom. Samona created the group to support families she’s met living in a tiny home village and in transitional shelters. Through her Facebook group, with almost 800 people in the group, she shares the needs of families and asks others to step in to help. Oftentimes, the asks are for simple things such as new shoes, a simple birthday party for a child, or providing hot meals to the community. While her organization isn’t an advocacy organization, she is their best advocate. She has the trust of the families and knows they need. Yet her work is often overlooked (or under-recognized) since it doesn’t look like most mainstream nonprofits or advocacy organizations. She’s helped close to 20,000 people last year. She knows her families and if we invest in her and her work she is a closer advocate then many professional advocates, board members, or policymakers.

When we stop and listen over time and build trust with people, we find new solutions. Our assumptions change, our beliefs can grow, and reframe our thinking. We can’t do this by whizzing through on a poverty bus tour.

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