Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
What does poverty feel like? Summit tries to find answer.
“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 office, 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’ redefines 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 officer 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 difficult 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 first time, there was a $125 fee for attendance.
Even though there were scholarships for anyone who could not afford 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 offset 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.