Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

What does poverty feel like? Summit tries to find answer.

- Talis Shelbourne

“Think with a scarcity mindset.” That was the advice Lilliann M. Paine of UW-Extension Milwaukee County gave participan­ts in a poverty simulation workshop, “Just Neighbors.”

Paine and Amanda Kostman of UWExtensio­n Walworth County arranged the workshop to help participan­ts understand the challenges of poverty.

The workshop was one of several opportunit­ies participan­ts had to see how poverty and trauma interacted at the two-day 2019 Summit on Poverty and SWIM Conference, hosted by the Social Developmen­t Commission, Marquette University and Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM).

Last year, Marquette University and SWIM, a collaborat­ive group of traumafocu­sed organizati­ons launched by Marquette University Chancellor Mike Lovell and his wife, Amy, hosted a conference on trauma.

It fell on the same day of SDC’s annual summit on poverty.

This year, SDC CEO George Hinton and Lovell worked together to hold a joint summit.

Dan Bergen, who runs Marquette’s community engagement office, said the university brings research and a passion for trauma-informed care to an issue SDC has been working on for years.

“We want to continue to elevate awareness on the issues of trauma and poverty, racism and segregatio­n across the city,” he said.

The “Just Neighbors” simulation was part of the conference. Kim Brooks, a spokespers­on for SDC, said it helps dismantle false narratives.

“People think they understand what the face of poverty looks like,” she said, “but (they) don’t.”

‘Just Neighbors’ redefines poverty

Most organizati­ons examine what poverty looks like.

“Just Neighbors” explores what poverty feels like: urgent, frustratin­g, desperate and at times, hopeless.

There were more than a dozen volunteers — all SDC employees and service providers — posing as the “service providers” in the scenario: a banker, drug and food provider, mortgage/rent collector, pawnbroker, payday loan providers, utility collector, three social service employees, educator, general employer, pediatrici­an, police officer and child care provider.

Each participan­t was given a sheet with their number of children, assets, money and family circumstan­ces, such as parents with pregnant teenage children or prior felonies on their record.

At times, it was confusing and some participan­ts complained that they didn’t understand the rules.

Kostman said that was part of the real experience.

“Most people in that situation don’t know what to do,” she explained. “They don’t even get a sheet of resources.”

In fact, many volunteers had experience­d limitation­s created for the simulation: limited time and transporta­tion, lack of access to child care, rejected applicatio­ns for social services, scarce job openings, no Social Security cards, stingy pawnbroker­s and apathy from service providers.

Jermaine Allen, a supervisor at SDC in nutritiona­l services, said he didn’t realize he grew up in poverty until he participat­ed as a volunteer.

“It made me realize you can come out of poverty; it’s more of a mindset than a choice,” he said.

Allen posed as a general employer. He said even though it was difficult to adhere to the rule that anyone who showed up late lost their job, that’s how the real world works.

“I’m hoping they’ll take away that it’s not easy for those who live behind the line of poverty and help them get out and stay out,” he said.

Lorene Butler, a community adviser for the Amani Neighborho­od Associatio­n, was able to do that with her character. Her household started out homeless and her checks were being garnished for child support. Even though she was eventually able to get a job and an apartment, she said it wasn’t easy.

“It was really eye-opening,” she said. “You have to have empathy — listen more, talk less.”

Eve Shephard, another volunteer, wears many hats at SDC and says she’s been on both sides of the table: someone in poverty and a service provider to those in poverty.

She pointed out that many service providers are not far from poverty themselves, so it’s a big risk to bend the rules to help a client.

“There’s people who may want to help, but can’t; if they help you, they can be in the same situation you’re in.”

The presenters also added real-life setbacks: a parent whose child was banned from day care because of head lice, for instance, or families who were kicked out of a homeless shelter for staying too many weeks.

That happened to Kourtney Blevins’ character.

Blevins worked for SaintA for four years and is currently at Running Rebels, where she encounters people in poverty on a regular basis.

In the simulation, Blevins and her partner started out trying to get a job, but gave up after a lack of transporta­tion meant they lost their job; they ended up pawning items to buy a gun and rob people — something Blevins said her cousin did in real life.

“We had to go the illegal route because we knew we could make more money,” she said. “For my cousin, that was a reality; he was probably thinking some of the same things we were.”

At the end, there was a debrief, where many volunteers and participan­ts expressed a newfound appreciati­on for equity and compassion.

‘That was a good lesson learned this year’

The partnershi­p between SDC, Marquette and SWIM was not without controvers­y; for the first time, there was a $125 fee for attendance.

Even though there were scholarshi­ps for anyone who could not afford the fee, the presence of a price tag prompted some to deem the organizati­ons tone deaf.

“That was a good lesson learned this year,” Bergen said. “I think it’s important to continue to connect with community members, leaders and residents all the way up through institutio­nal leaders.”

Bergen said the voluntary fee was only imposed to help offset the costs of changing venues to accommodat­e a larger group.

The organizati­ons plan to continue working together.

“What I hope they walk away from is a sense of urgency around the work that needs to happen and a sense that they aren’t alone in advancing this work,” Bergen said.

 ?? MIKE DE SISTI / MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL ?? Pat McFarland, center, with Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, gets cash from the bank from Sheilah Lewis, a direct service provider for the Social Developmen­t Commission. Lewis plays a banker as Jennifer Russell, right, of Marquette University waits in line.
MIKE DE SISTI / MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL Pat McFarland, center, with Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, gets cash from the bank from Sheilah Lewis, a direct service provider for the Social Developmen­t Commission. Lewis plays a banker as Jennifer Russell, right, of Marquette University waits in line.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States