The Most Powerful Weapon

Originally published on December 12, 2019

Happy Thursday,

Have you ever heard of the United Way's Poverty Simulation

"The simulation is designed to demonstrate one month in the life of a person living in poverty. It's reinforced to all in the room that this is no game: Poverty is REAL. Participants are assigned to a 'family,' and their goal is to use the resources provided to them to make it

through the month. From newly or chronically unemployed, to single-parent homes, retirees and immigrant families, all walks of life are represented because no family in poverty is 'typical.' Volunteers act as vendors, representing community resources such as food pantries, churches, the bank, schools, the pawn shop, and more." 

I've participated in this and I was not prepared for how impactful this two-hour experience would be.  In the simulation I was a single mother and I had access only to public transportation.  Due to that, I often arrived late to places and found they were closed or the things I needed were sold out. It was so frustrating because I was trying to do everything right and I was still falling behind.  A colleague of mine who is the biggest rule-follower

I know reverted to stealing and selling drugs during the Poverty Simulation. Most people who go through the simulation have feelings of high stress, anxiety, and sadness.  Keep in mind, this is only after just two hours of a simulated experience. 

Now, imagine what real poverty must feel like.  In 2019, the guidelines for what counts as poverty say that families of 4 who make less than $25,750 are impoverished.  Families of

4 who make less than $33,475 qualify for free lunches and those who make less than $47,638 can get reduced price lunches.  Think about that. 

I'm talking about poverty because there is both correlation and causation between poverty and education.  If we think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, we know that our basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, and sleep must be met before we can think about even things that are important like employment and health, which must be met before we think about things like education. Further, not having our lower-level needs met is traumatic and trauma has an impact on our brain functioning, life-style, and educational outcomes. Thus, it's not surprising that people who live in poverty may make different choices than people who do not; choices that people who have their basic needs being met cannot even imagine.  We're all familiar with the saying, "desperate times call for desperate measures."  I'm not saying this to excuse bad behavior; I'm saying this to explain human behavior.

So last week I spoke about being a product of your environment and I said that there was a specific reason why I was thinking about it.  Here's why...The Monday before Thanksgiving I was listening to NPR while picking up my son from his travel soccer practice and my daughter from her softball pitching practice (my kids and I are a middle class stereotype).  The broadcast spoke about a new miniseries called College Behind Bars, "a four-part documentary film series directed by award-winning filmmaker Lynn Novick, produced by Sarah Botstein, and executive produced by Ken Burns, tells the story of a small group of incarcerated men and women struggling to earn college degrees and turn their lives around in one of the most rigorous and effective prison education programs in the United States - the Bard Prison Initiative."  (Click here or go to Netflix to watch any or all of the documentary for free.)  While I understand that listening to NPR, watching PBS, and/or talking about education programs in prisons can be seen as a political statement, please do not read anything into this.  I have absolutely no desire to be political here.  My desire is to share how this miniseries caused me to think about the power of education.

I want to specifically highlight the story of two of the inmates, Rodney and Dyjuan.  These two inmates are incarcerated at the same prison where they have access to obtaining a degree from Bard College.  They both take advantage of this opportunity while they are there.  The impact this has on them is striking.

You don't get the background story about Rodney until the second episode. In it, the viewer learns that he and his brother and sister grew up in Syracuse.  His depressed and schizophrenic mother lost custody of them and he was then raised by his grandma.  When he was twelve, his mother committed suicide.  Two years