Friday, July 2, 2010

A Discussion On Poverty with Author Julia Dinsmore (Part 2)

This is a continuation of yesterday's post from a recent interview with Julia Dinsmore. Much to think about.

Julia: We continue to blame individuals who have been trapped of the underbelly of America generationally. It does a great disservice to everyone really, all of us. We don't look at the structural issues. I like that woman who coins the term affluenza, a spiritual disease of wealth and resources being hoarded by a few, causing a great imbalance upon the planet. And that to your question about why I wrote my book, my poem, My Name Is Not “Those People,” which is world famous -- it’s studied in universities all over the world and it’s been translated into a bazillion different languages. Crazy. At one point my son said, "Momma, why do you have a world famous poem and we're still on food stamps? It’s just crazy. I even found it in a sociology textbook that was selling for 33 dollars a pop, while I was losing my home.

What happened is after that poem I began getting in to speak at colleges and different groups who are seeking to understand socioeconomic disparity. And you’ve got to remember, I've been functionally illiterate my whole life so to write a poem the first thing that I ever wrote that was longer than a song, that went around the world that was read into the floor of the United States Congress by Paul Wellstone, I got a golden box copy of the congressional record with my poem in it. The power of the poem, I mean I have so many stories about those poems. I have a whole chapter in my next book, The Not Those People Chronicles, dedicated to telling stories of my baby, my poem. But anyway what happened was I discovered every time I went speaking, especially in educational places, people kept remarking that they had learned more about poverty in the short time that we had together than all their studying. And that told me something pretty big, that it's very valuable for us from the silent underbelly, America's permanent underclass, to tell our stories, that our stories are sacred, number one, and number two that I decided to start valuing my experiences, learning how to share them with a creative voice in a useful way because people get so confused about class and they flip into their things.

We go to all kinds of crazy places when we start talking about the distribution of wealth and resources. And when we start talking about poverty, we get stuck in stupid places because we have a lot of baggage around that issue. So I kept hearing, “You know, if you would write a book, you need to write a book!” And I struggled for years, like how do I do that? I'm functionally illiterate? How do I translate my stories into this language that I don't even know? I was bilingual, I could speak bad English and I eventually learned how to speak good English.

E: So through this experience, I'm sure you've known and met a lot of people whose stories would be worth telling. What does it take? How do they share their stories or what are the challenges to sharing your story?

Julia: Well, that's kind of a two way street. Historically, Americans have drifted into this social divide, the haves and the have nots. And that gulf has grown so large that people became socialized like the rich people who experience social economic privilege have been socialized to not recognize the gift and the talent and the worth and the value and the brilliance and the spiritual fortitude and the wisdom of people from generational poverty. And they think because there's a lens that people have looked through of seeing us as deficient, incapable, useless, lazy, you know, all those words that I used in my poem that we are not. So then eventually, you know, a lot of us begin to believe the lies that are told about us and start acting them out.

What happened before people in America is the poverty industry taught us to take on the identity of victim. So that's how people were socialized to relate to us. What will save you, or will give you a few crumbs, you learn to take on this yolk of victim.

E: You start to see yourself the way you're being portrayed rather than the way you are.

Julia: Right. And we had to do that in order to qualify for our crumbs in the poverty industry, for our food stamps, our section 8 or whatever, our welfare. And because those systems have been practiced to living in an unnatural way, like for example the new immigrant people groups who have come into the neighborhood year after year, they have their whole intact extended family and they practice economics together, and they share their resources and they help one another and practice mutual assistance. But if you're trapped in the poverty industry, you're penalized for living in those kinds of ways and helping each other. So we had to unlearn all the creative survival tactics that poor people have always employed, like the underground economy of generosity. Even though we still practice generosity, it's illegal when we take in our homeless relatives. We could commit a felony.

E: Explain that.

Julia: The strings that are attached from getting one iota of any assistance program are first and foremost that you can't go against practicing mutual assistance. Doubling up. Pooling resources. There are systemic barriers built into the qualifications for obtaining assistance in America.

E: How did that happen?

Julia: It's criminalized. The practices that poor people have always done because the industrial complex, which is part of the poverty industry, said so and it has criminalized us. And it's horrible. It's horrible. And we're supposed to subsist on way below the poverty level type of maintenance income yet you will do what you have to do to feed your kids, so it creates this awful thing to have to provide in, it wears on you.

E: Is part of the stress just from the fear that they create because you're so vulnerable?

Julia: I don't understand that question.

E: If you're a recipient on the receiving end of government “kindness” or whatever they give you, the safety net, is there stress from always living in fear of begin cut off because you don't make the rules?

Julia: Right, and not only making the rules but inadvertently breaking the rules. Like for example, I cannot tell you how many people I know in the last 10 years -- this is really for background information only -- but I know who have been charged. It’s been kind of broad because either they don't fill out their paperwork right or, and this is happening more and more, but the poor workers, who get new guidelines don't do their jobs right and they blame the clients and they can easily lose paperwork out of their flies believe me. And the poor people end up getting charged because the workers need to keep their jobs. We have become...

E: You're telling me I can't write that?

Julia: Well, go ahead.

E: I feel like that's important. I mean we're not naming any names.

Julia: It's a dicey territory because people are so into blaming and scamming and scapegoating poor people out of their own fear of becoming poor. They've been socialized to do that, and it's a particular kind of hating. I can’t deal with it, it’s so disgusting, so abhorrent to me. it makes me sick to my core. Trying to dissect what is really going on… sometimes it feels like people don't really want to know. I always thought this horrible system we created, this safety net that's really more like a trap, would change if we ever had a big economic downturn a big crisis and middle class people were subjected to the same things we had been all along, that their outrage would cause a lot of social transformation but I'm not seeing that happen yet.

PART 3 is tentatively scheduled for tomorrow. Click to hear Danny Glover perform Not "Those People" and learn more about the movement to end homelessness.

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