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This month, Teach For America staff members gathered in Tulsa, Oklahoma to think more deeply about the role we can play to advance the agenda Native communities have set for themselves. Since that retreat, a quote from Jacob Tsotigh III, Program Administrator, University of Oklahoma Outreach, keeps ringing in my head: "We live in poverty, but we are not poor."
This is the most positive statement of life in low-income communities that I have ever heard. On the news, we often hear about rampant drug abuse and violence in these communities. And even as members of an organization working to eradicate the root cause of these ills, we too tend to paint the picture of low income communities in feverishly broad strokes, highlighting the deficits.
I understand this propensity. I do. In an effort to make the clarion call we hope will wake the masses from a desensitized state, we talk about the challenges of poverty in shocking and abysmal terms. And though our intentions are more noble than chasing good ratings, the consequences are the same. As a movement that still lacks significant representation by the disenfranchised group it is fighting for, the way we view and talk about low income communities often unintentionally alienates the very people this movement is intended to empower.
Yet, listening to Mr. Tsotigh describe life in his community in Oklahoma and on other reservations, I was warmly reminded of my own childhood as an African American growing up on the South Side of Chicago.
He spoke of the elder women cooking. Cars stilled on cinder blocks. Children playing basketball. This sounded like my neighborhood! Growing up, I jumped double-dutch. I danced in streams of water shooting from fire hydrants. I ate Mrs. Jones’ homemade sweet rolls. And I’m not ashamed to say that many of the Chicago Bulls championship games were watched on front porches because our air condition-less homes were simply too oppressively hot in June.
And my friends and I were happy, and we had a good life.
We had luxuries that will never show up in our bank accounts—work ethic, responsibility, loyalty, respect—all from watching our parents work for each penny they earned, stick up for one another, and share and conserve resources. Sadly, these values are invisible against the flashing lights of blazing guns usually associated with Chicago’s South Side or behind the gloomy suicide statistics seemingly endemic in Native communities.
Mr. Tsotigh’s statement—”we live in poverty, but we are not poor”—urges us to wipe off the lens through which we view low-income communities and support the kind of education that honors the way they view themselves.
During the retreat, Mr. Tsotigh recounted how Native men returning from school could not hunt or build. They didn’t know the prayers or language. To him, the “education” they had received was of no value. Mr. Tsotigh’s perspective forces us to critically examine the role of education in going beyond just excellent test scores to place the appropriate value on all the richness of life he so eloquently celebrates with his simple words.
Stacey Mitchell is a born-and-raised Chicagoan and member of the 2003 Eastern North Carolina corps. She serves as the Managing Director of Staff Diversity and Inclusiveness at Teach For America.