An Embodied Experience of Poverty and Privilege

I stood on a playing field with over 200 people. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a straight line stretching across the well-tended field. We were asked to remember our lives at age 18. We then responded to a series of questions: “If your mother had a college degree, take five steps forward.”   “If your power was ever shut off, take five steps backward.” “If you went to summer camp, take five steps forward.” “If there was ever not enough food, take five steps backward.”

In response to each question, people moved. People with whom I had been sitting around conference tables for the past three days were naming the reality of their life experience. The illusion of sameness shattered. After about thirty questions, the leader, Donna Beegle, asked us to look around. First I took in how far I was above the middle line where we had started. Secondly, I took in how widely the group spread out over the field. Some were at the top end of field and many were at the back fence. The rest were scattered between the two poles of difference. The considerable distance between us went into my body at a cellular level.

Each of us sees the world from where we are on that field and we make assumptions about everyone ahead of us and behind us. The distance between our lived experiences is filled with judgments and stereotypes. I own this truth.

Donna Beegle grew up in generational poverty and speaks candidly about her life: married with children when she was 16, earning her GED at 26, learning a middle class vocabulary and going on to attain her PhD. Donna conducts research on poverty and has identified the barriers that have to be overcome to obtain an education. She is a brilliant and transformational educator who over three days deepened my understanding of what I do not know. The experience also reawakened a personal commitment that lay dormant.

How often do I realize how little I know? How often do I realize that my worldview is so skewed? This is the third year that the Community Caring Collaborative of Washington County has brought Donna Beegle to lead their Summer Conference. Their leadership and work is changing the way individuals and organizations work. Can we commit to becoming poverty-informed? My answer is yes. I am making this commitment.

If you want to learn more about Donna Beegle’s work, go to her web site which is filled with resources: http://www.combarriers.com/Home.

~ Deb