Originally published on December 12, 2019
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.
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 later, his grandma died from cancer. His non-biological "grandpa" then raised them but within months, he passed away from cancer too. By the time he was fourteen or fifteen, he was orphaned many times over. The night before his mom took her life, she called him and told him to graduate from high school. He did. But in the meantime, he struggled with poverty, homelessness, and balancing the need to eat and pay bills with the desire to attend school. Ultimately, he committed a crime and is incarcerated because of it. In comparison, his sister went on to West Point, graduated, and is excelling in the military. Two people-same family and same experiences-but two different outcomes. One, you could argue is a product of his environment and the other is not.
A second inmate, Dyjuan is in the same prison as Rodney and both earn a BA from Bard. Unlike Rodney who is the only sibling who was incarcerated, both Dyjuan and his brother Kanan were. Kanan went to a prison that didn't offer any educational opportunities beyond a GED. Kanan is released from prison and the documentary shows how Kanan's choices and pathways are impacted by his prison experience. While in prison, Kanan just waited out his time until release. Dyjuan used his time to prepare for a life after prison. Whereas Kanan felt hopeless and bored, Dyjuan felt motivated and determined to get on a different path. In the case of Dyjuan and Kanan's time in prison, you could argue both are products of their different environments.
Later in the series, there is a discussion among the inmates and Dyjuan shares, "I didn't come to prison to go to college, you know. I came here and I got really, really lucky and did some things right. But, at no time do I want to be some type of poster boy for like, 'look at what prison can do for you.' It's a very stressful and kind of disgusting place. You know,
it's a bad place. If I had to choose to go to college, I would not do it here." His peer responds, "You framed it as, you don't want to be an example of what prison can do for you. It's not what prison is doing for you; this is what education is doing for you." The point the second inmate is making is that if your environment is one that values education, your
outcomes can be positive even in the face of other environmental challenges. This is what I can't stop thinking about. The power of education on outcomes.
We have no control over the environment our students come from. We are so fortunate that most of our students' home lives are relatively low on a trauma scale and relatively high on an economic scale. Most of our students come primed to care about education because their families care about education. However, no matter what background our students come from outside of school, I deeply believe that we have an amazing power to help them through the work that we do as educators. It is this belief that gives the ultimate meaning to me for the work that we're doing. We have the power to create, not just an educational environment, but one that is innovative, experiential, supportive, one that honors choice and voice, creativity, and embraces the students' interests. We can be run-of-the-mill or state-of-the-art. We have the power to shape our students. They are the product of the environment we create for them as much as the environment created for them by their families. For this reason, I'll give the last word to one of the most famous prisoners I know, Nelson Mandela, who said,"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the