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Elmhurst College Launches New Program to Explore Poverty Issues

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Issues of poverty and gentrification are top of mind at Elmhurst College in Illinois. The school has embarked on a year long initiative using classroom assignments, extracurricular activities, and cultural events to explore issues of poverty. The goal is to open-up students' eyes to what's going on in their communities and beyond. College President Alan Ray explains how his own upbringing gave him the idea.

Stay tuned to Eight Forty-Eight for regular essays from the students at the college, who will share their experiences exploring poverty in their communities.

I am a Native American and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and while some indigenous peoples' communities are among the poorest in the Unites States, I was raised by well educated, white parents. My roots are middle class. I am not a poor person. But I come from Oklahoma, where poverty casts a long shadow, a shadow thrown over an uneven historical terrain of racial segregation, a boom-and-bust economy based in agriculture and oil, and a public faith that education married to hard work is the way out of the shadow, once and for all.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, in a small, country town called Guthrie, every now and again during the summer men without homes passed through my neighborhood. I remember these men. They were solitary figures of indeterminate years, not especially peculiar but looking pretty beat, and always white—in Oklahoma towns of the early ‘60s even the homelessness seemed subject to Jim Crow, and my parents lived in an all-white neighborhood. My mother, being kind, occasionally let in these strangers to the house to eat a simple lunch—a sandwich, a glass of water, maybe an apple.

My father, when he learned of this, became irate, and told my mother never to do this again, to let in “drifters” as he called them, since they could hurt or rob us. Lunch for drifters stopped.

I suppose my father was right.

Yet what I remember most is how detached from everyone and everything they were, these men, how without community, how alone. Without my mother, I thought in my child's way, who would feed them? If no one interacted with them, they were invisible. My dad wanted to protect his family from a perceived threat, but he also wanted the drifters gone, invisible, not part of our lives. The philosopher Pierre Bourdieu says that every society takes for granted certain things in order to operate, and what is assumed to be normal “goes without saying because it comes without saying.” Kinds of people can be taken for granted, and will be, if it helps things run smoothly.

Today, as I sit in my comfortable president's office, after a good lunch, and anticipating a pleasant evening at home with my family, I am reminded that around me, in DuPage County and places like it all over the country, things are not running smoothly.

The breadwinners of families like mine are losing their jobs in record numbers, and with those jobs, potentially their futures and those of their dependents. Like the drifters, they are becoming increasingly detached from communities that would care for them, and are at risk of becoming loners—whole families, whole neighborhoods of loners. But before they drop out of our statistical and emotional sight, before they become taken for granted as “just the way things are,” I think it's important for students at my College to get to know some of the individuals and families, to listen to their stories, to spread th word.

Elmhurst students will reflect on their obligations to those struggling with poverty and, to the extent they are able, help those on the edge to remain in communities and flourish. In so doing, they will help us all stay connected. For the poor are connected with us already—we just fear inviting them into our literal and figurative homes. What might they do to us? What might they ask of us?

What this recession has shown us, of course, is that there is no “they.” When you or I at any time could join the ranks of the unemployed, the evicted, those without healthcare, it becomes clear that the poor are “we.” After this realization, what we do depends on how we answer my childhood question about the drifters—who will feed them?

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