Paralyzed In Poverty, Part II

This is the second part of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, a first-person account of living life in poverty from the perspective of Andrea Harper.

Harper, a former presidentially-recognized mathematics educator from Springfield, OH, was put on the road of redemption after falling victim to a combination of circumstances which left her struggling in poverty and having to reclaim her good name when left subject to the judicial system.

Currently earning her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Wright State University, today, the former Princeton Review professor is a licensed chemical dependency (LCDC II) counselor and serves as a poverty-alleviation training facilitator and speaker for Think Tank, Inc., a federal partner of the Corporation of National & Community Service (CNCS).

In case you missed it, please read Part I.

The following are Harper’s own words.

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“Mom, why would you tell him we were ghetto-rich?”

My 12-year-old was shocked and embarrassed that she found out we make way less money than her uncle, my brother. I have literally built my life up from ground-zero poverty twice in my life. I mean poverty in every area, except intellectual, and sometimes, that spoke of the wheel even felt broken due to the heavy amounts of mental health medications I had to take at the time.  

Together for a family of five, we make $24,000/year and that includes the $700 monthly social security check and the $5000 of cash odd jobs we do throughout the year.  Our credit is good, so we buy new cars, both of us, my husband and I. Our house is paid off, but on the borderline of being condemned, due to damage to the foundation and malfunctioning windows in the home. We don’t have to pay a mortgage — just $110/month for insurance and taxes.  We all have new cellphones, iPads, and computers in the home. We pay cash for braces for our 12-year-old.  

My husband’s family comes from deep generational poverty and thinks we are well off. It is only because I can navigate the resources and know every program that can give me a break or benefits to offer. We don’t pay for childcare, but we have to leave our precious baby — the most important thing in our life — with someone we met once and has mediocre childcare.

We don’t pay for gas for my car. Or food. Or medical expenses. We all have name brand wardrobes. But, we have no money for vacations. We live off our tax returns for high-price items throughout the year.

Poverty comes with a great deal of stress with having to have all your documents and receipts and proof of attendance all in a row, and at the right time, because having one thing off means a benefit is cut off — just like that. My children don’t have to be without, and they get mostly what they ask for. So, by some of our families’ standards, we have it all together.     

Poverty is relative. Middle-class values, work ethic, and organizational skills can make you successful in the navigation of the resources available to those of us in poverty who think ‘middle class’. But, the system is not set up for those with a generational poverty mindset. The appointment and documentation and organization and tricks of the trade are way too much for someone who lives only in the moment. It is too much to manage for someone who does not have transportation or has a crisis in his or her life. We have a system that sets some up to be ghetto-rich (if they have the knowledge to become so) and others to fail miserably, trying to survive.   

How do relationships play a part in this real-life story…my real-life story? An employer allowing flex-time for appointments, or letting me leave an hour early to go home to clean or grocery shop before I pick up my kids. Someone who is willing to pay a living wage that would allow me to let go of the social security check (which has personally become my security blanket, if you will). A family member who would do childcare for you; a member of the family who would help a lot with the cleaning and cooking. One person, one relationship, can lighten the load — it can really make the difference.

So, the system, it may stay the same, so the individual may stay the same, but the relational interaction of just one person can be a game-changer in very small ways or very large ways. A relationship can move a family from living ghetto rich to middle class.

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by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Paralyzed in Poverty, Part I

This is the first entry of the Rethink Community original mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, a first-person account of living life in poverty from the perspective of Andrea Harper.


Hi, I’m Andrea, and this is my first-person account of how it feels to suffer from the effects of poverty, to learn to live in it, and to struggle to climb away from it.

Once upon a time, I was an educator, top-rated and vetted by my school district, my state, and even my country. Some bad decisions and other complex factors led me to becoming a felon and I had to rebuild my life, but not before entering into extreme poverty first.

This short narrative is what has been crossing my mind as I continue my journey out of poverty.

My mind races with the following thoughts.

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I got my LCDCII (licensed chemical dependency counselor) licensure in the mail today — a crossroads and pivotal moment is in front of me. This could be my way out of poverty.

Why am I even contemplating staying where I am?

Why am I paralyzed in poverty, I am seeing a possible way to financially get out of it?

How in the world do I get out of this?

Do I have the courage to look over the cliff? Is there a way out without hurting too bad?

I have been tenacious and determined to figure living in poverty out. I have used my intellectual gifts to navigate every resource. My experience with material poverty is situational.


My situation today includes — recovery in addiction and mental illness, a bachelor’s degree in education that is of little value (because of my conviction) and every subsidy you can access as an under-resourced mother of three (medical, food stamps, housing, social security, the list goes on…).


I was raised with strong middle-class value system around saving money, having work ethic, and paying bills on time. I believe in higher education.

Why won’t I let this social security check go? It’s like a stronghold. I have been traumatized by the effects of losing it all…of being thrashed into situational poverty from the effects of the disease of addiction.

I lost my career, my home, my vehicle, my retirement, and every cent to my name. I moved into a home that should have been condemned while living off of $350/month and buying money orders at the moto-mart to pay my utilities (along with buying two cartons of cigarettes to last me the month) — that was my monthly ritual. I have used resources in poverty to make my earning power be as if I am middle-class. “Ghetto rich”, I call it.

I have the experience and license and education now to go on to full-time employment without the check — but damn, it’s $700/month gone! And 20 more hours of work a week away from my home and my children to be at the same earning power that I am right now.

Is the system a trap? or am I trapped, by fear?

Why not take the risk?


Getting out of poverty is not always this glorious move with rainbows and flowers. The change process is scary. The system offers important resources, but can quickly become a crutch to getting ahead.

Sometimes the pain of a comfortable situation is easier to live with than the ambiguity of the future.

That’s the pain. That’s the truth about poverty.

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by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

From Divisions and Differences, Radical Alliances

I was a newly-elected legislator with hard-wired opinions about ‘the poor’. He was an advocate for them. We both were stepping into a highly-charged policy discussion about poverty: one of the most politicized topics in America, and the first impressions were not favorable. All the signals of ‘left-wing do-gooder’ were flashing in my head about him. But, he probably thought that about me — no, I am sure he did — ‘heartless, right-wing conservative’. This is how we do it, you know — with our first moments of sizing up and labeling.

But, as we spent more time with each other, sharing our life stories and the like, we discovered a common bond and purpose in our work. We both felt that ‘the Great American Safety Net’ was keeping and trapping people into poverty, not liberating them from it– and the human cost of it all was devastating to our communities. Despite our very public political and world view differences, an odd couple was born, and together we helped craft legislation directed at solving the problem. A tiny step from a public policy perspective but a giant leap for a guy who had closed his mind to new ideas that didn’t properly fit into his ideological box.. I found an alliance in the strangest of places. A radical alliance.

What do I mean by “radical alliance”? A radical alliance is, simply, a relationship that cuts across ideological, class, ethnic/racial, or even theological lines for mutual benefit. These types of relationships may be the secret to laying the foundation and principles that will lead to lasting transformation for our cities and communities. It is our contention that the formation, development, and cultivation of radical alliances is the last best hope in alleviating poverty in a divided America. Alliances such as these — whether between institutions, organizations, or individuals — are radical, because they push against the prevailing norms, fixed ideas and established structures.

They may be new friendships with people who are very different than you. Perhaps they have values, experiences, ethnicities, lifestyles, neighborhoods, or upbringings that differ from your own. It could be unsettling and awkward at first, sweeping you away from your protected comfort zone. Maybe even a little risky and provoke comments like ‘what would people think’ or even ‘Why am I wasting time with this person? This is beneath me. Or, ‘This doesn’t add to my career or reputation if I align with them.’

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By intentionally and purposefully forming these kind of alliances, we just may be able to create positive, meaningful, and lasting community change. When we unite in spite of our differences, we just may discover the deep and sometimes hidden ties that bind us together around a particular cause, a mission, or a community project. It’s not only radical, but profoundly counter-cultural in an American civic environment. It carves us all into dozens of identity/political interest groups that intentionally pit us against one another.

The stories and narratives we tell ourselves about those so-called others, about their neighborhoods or their cultures, ethnicities, or political affiliations, can all come crashing down on us when we enter into relationship and discover that we have so much more in common than those things that divide us. We have to resist that gravitational pull away from people different than us and insist that a new approach of seeing others can deliver a powerful, spiritual, and personal rebirth that delight us when discovered. These moments of revelation can be transcendent and definitive, and have greater potential to shake us to our core, because they disrupt what ‘ought to be’ in our minds or the way things have always been. They can surprise us in their intensity and power, and beget fresh and new understandings.

As it turned out, this new relationship in my life inspired legislation to be passed and enacted. A relatively modest positive step in the grand scheme of things, but the process was in place for new relationships and new learning in how to impact communities engulfed in poverty. The lasting truths, however, for me and my own spiritual journey have been profound, notwithstanding some painful and humbling self-reflection. It took someone from the other side of the aisle, as they say, to shake up some assumptions and value judgements. I am a richer man for it, and I just bet you, he as well.

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by John White — to learn more about John’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Everything Has Purpose

Entering through the door, she held up a wrinkled Ziploc bag containing a five-dollar bill.

“You know, once I go back home, my uncle won’t take me back out for the weekend. Could we stop at the thrift store later? I’d like to get some clothes.”

It was an unusually warm February evening, and we had a few things planned, but I assured her that we could fit in a short shopping trip. Serena was entering that stage where girls become aware of the fact that clothes are suddenly more valuable than toys to them, as they awkwardly try to hang on to childhood while reaching for a more grownup identity.

We sat around the table eating pizza and talking about our day, as my daughter began to describe an all-too familiar experience for kids her age. Apparently, a clique of girls at school had shot nasty looks to she and her friend, gossiping and saying mean things about them. These kinds of episodes are pointedly painful for my daughter, as her people-pleasing instincts and fear of being alone cause her to internalize even the slightest hint of rejection. In a moment, the raw vulnerability that had been expressed opened the door for a flood of advice and sharing of her own experiences from Serena.

As Serena viscerally described the names that had been ascribed to her and the ways in which she had been bullied, sorrow welled up in all of us. I wondered, how it is that we’ve allowed the experience of poverty or condition of obesity to serve as justification to treat others as objects to be beaten down? If any justice could be found in the situation, it would be in the fact that a caring and no-nonsense principal was doing her best to foster a culture of affirmation and accountability among all members of the school — teachers and students alike. Still, no system can mandate love and even though her peers were forced to ‘behave,’ Serena knew what they really thought of her. After a bit of encouragement, the kids moved swiftly on to less weighty subjects and activities.

Quickly the evening passed, yet we had one last thing on our list to do. Nothing must be worse to a thrift store clerk than three hyper youth with a handful of dollars, streaming into the store just before closing. I quickly stepped into the role of sergeant, trying to keep the kids focused on what we were there to get. Then we began sorting through a pile of larger-sized clothes that seemed to be fashioned more for a 50-year-old than a young teen. Making our way to the back of the store, there were a myriad of random items sitting on a shelf. As a minimalist with a very strong aversion for clutter, I couldn’t help but think how awful all of this stuff was. Perhaps of the same mind, one of the clerks came back our way, putting an old candle on the shelf. Trying to make conversation, she said, “This candle is really ugly, isn’t it?!” And then…a magical thing happened.

Without missing a beat, Serena looked stone-face at the clerk, and calmly, but clearly, said,

“Nothing is ugly. Everything has purpose.”

It was as if the voice of God had just spoken to us. For a brief moment, all the clerk and I could do was look at one another, knowing we had been called out.

Youth have no use for cliches. What Serena said was a glorious truth that by grace had been revealed to her in her pain. And at that moment, the truth was not only meant to bring redemption to her own experience, it was also redeeming the clerk…and me. For all of the times I had arrogantly claimed beauty for some parts of my community and ugliness for others, I needed that truth. For the times I’ve looked at others with suspicion, contempt or didn’t even see them at all, I needed that truth. And in that moment, I was grateful for the profound truths that children have to share with us when we are present enough to listen.

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by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Listen

Today I picked my eight-year-old daughter up from her elementary school (we only live two miles away). I pulled up and she jumped in the car, as she was excitedly flashing a smile on her face. Before the car door was even closed shut and her seat belt buckled, she was talking 90 miles a minute. During the three-minute drive home, I was totally bombarded with the details of her day. Full blast.

I’ll be honest — it was exhausting to hear. The lunch room, her teacher, the playground…you get the picture. At one point, I turned the dial on the radio, hoping she’d take a breath — but she just talked louder. When we pulled into the driveway, I quickly dismissed the conversation and headed in the house to get our evening routine started.

Recently, I have felt similar feelings when surfing Facebook, watching the news, or having conversations with friends. It’s no secret that our political climate is full of social ambiguity and anger. People are talking 90 miles a minute, spewing their thoughts like third-graders all over social media and really any other platform they can. It’s exhausting. I just want to dismiss all the conversations and stick to my routine.

But what if I take a moment to listen? Not respond, but truly listen.

Communication is complicated. Sometimes, when we want to share our story or experience, we result to a rapid firing of every thought, every detail. When we feel others aren’t listening, we get louder. This is a result of not feeling heard (and truthfully, many times, not being heard).

During dinner, my husband asked the standard question, “How was everyone’s day?” Our daughter went to explain that she was excited about a class presentation that she was in charge of. I said, “Wow, that’s great — I didn’t know that!” And of course she said, “Mom, I told you all about it in the car!”

As exhausting as it can be, I encourage you to hear others. Listen and reflect. Because you may miss something important.

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by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Do We?

Communities are relationships.

We have a tendency not to think of communities that way, because of the corporate identity that they assume (or inherit, willing and unwillingly alike), but it’s simple — communities, just like relationships, require communication. Communication that’s sincere and honest requires trust.

Do we trust our communities? Do we trust each other in our communities? Do we trust ourselves? These are questions that we must ask, because if we are ever to make changes in our communities, in our communal relationships in which we are established, willfully or not, we must see ourselves as brothers & sisters and be keepers. And keepers keep in touch. Keepers communicate.

In the world we’re in today, in the country that we as Americans abide, we’ve seen how divisiveness based on hate, fear, indifference, and at the very least, disinterest, has created and continued a legacy maelstrom of maladies for which we are now having to address in legislation. We’ve bore witness to countless murders, pain and suffering of all sorts, and freedom ringing in such a way that our own ears ring daily with a plethora of messages of aggression, pride, and assumptions. We have allowed ourselves to be deaf to our partners, our neighbors.

When you listen to your partner, your spouse, you do so because you feel tied to the words, thoughts, and feelings of that person, and you probably desire to make known that he or she is valued and heard. You want to address that person with the sensitivity and respect that he/she merits, out of love. Why can’t we address each other with a humane respect and love that we need to survive and thrive in our world, our country, our communities? Why must we continue to persist that we are better when we keep our heads down and our ears plugged to the needs of our neighbors? It’s more than just mailing off monies to the March of Dimes or Shriners when they send donation by snail mail — those are great causes, but we must show empathy for each other, person to person, spirit to spirit, heart to heart, day by day. It’s far greater than an offering sent accompanied by a self-addressed envelope.

Do we care about ourselves? Do we? because if we do, we’d know that caring for ourselves is much easier when we keep the cares of our neighbors close to us, looking to bear each other’s burdens and being open to the needs of those who live among us. It’s prayer, it’s earnest search for education and knowledge about our communities, it’s a willingness to see the world from other perspectives, it’s a desire to see the humanity in those who may seem a world away. It’s about loving ourselves well enough to understand that when we are enlightened about one another, we can better serve one another.

Life is service, love is sincere and preferred service, and sincere service is about selflessness, and relationships of all kinds only work when we prefer the other in them, because that is a demonstration of love. And love demonstrates trust, love keeps others, love communicates the sincere intentions of the heart and manifests them.

So, the real question becomes not do we care about ourselves, but do we love ourselves enough to demonstrably care for one another.

Do we?

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by Sandy Dover for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Think Tank, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Dying To Live A Life Abundant

I didn’t want to write this blog.

It would be easy to make an excuse like writer’s block, when, in reality, I was probably just trying to avoid the message that kept coming to me.

In my life, I’ve found that most years offer a theme, a life lesson, if we’re conscious enough to hear it. And for me, the theme of 2016 was death. Thankfully not death in a physical sense, but death as the psychological and spiritual growth engine that moves us to higher places, if we let it.

This theme didn’t seem to square with what I was hearing or reading from popular leaders, CEOs, and inspirational writers. Their New Year’s letters were filled with seemingly more victorious topics, like ‘10 ways to be more effective, positive and successful in 2017’. Who doesn’t want to hear that? In reality, 2016 was a great year on many fronts and the future always offers an air of hope and promise.

So before you CLICK OFF the page, stick with me just a moment longer. Maybe, like me, you needed to hear this same message. What seems like a depressing topic actually turns out to be quite liberating (it is for me, anyway). Learning to embrace death actually comes with a surprising form of peace. Those who have spent time with addicts know that people in recovery possess a special authority. They can’t lean on a false sense of who they are. Their death journey puts them in a unique place to receive life, to experience transformation.

Death manifests itself in many ways:

  •         Living with failure
  •         Letting go of ego
  •         Living in a state of limbo or uncertainty
  •         Hitting the wall
  •         Dealing with unmet expectations
  •         Lacking answers
  •         Letting go of power or control

I recently had a conversation with a teacher that was working in an under-performing school district. The students he worked with didn’t connect with school. They only knew what it meant to live for today. They had been given many reasons not to trust others, especially those in authority. This teacher described the extremely-challenging school year he had faced trying to motivate these youth to connect with him, and the subject he was attempting to teach them.  

After many false starts, he finally found a way to make the subject relevant to their real-life experience. He tapped into something they cared about and before he knew it, they were owning their own learning. This teacher was seasoned, yet moving to a new environment forced upon him feelings of irrelevancy and even incompetency. However, as he allowed himself to die to what he knew, he actually discovered new life through the eyes of others.

2016 culminated in an annual celebration of a Christmas redeemer who modeled to humankind the paradox that, if you want to ascend, you first must learn to descend. Our innate drive is to run away from discomfort, cover over pain, and indulge in what feels good. And when the starry-eyed ambitions of January fade into the disappointments that inevitably come our way, may we lean into the lessons they offer and open our hearts to love a little more, knowing we’re on this regeneration journey together.

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by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org