At the beginning of each new semester, I contemplate what more can be done to help students make sense of complex courses. This year has been no different.
A view from my side of the city – December 14, 2021
For more than a decade, I taught courses about social welfare policy for undergraduate and graduate students. It was an arduous task, but often rewarding in unanticipated ways. Nonetheless, it took discipline to stay on top of often disheartening news about legislators’ continuing reliance on unexamined assumptions about economic inequality based on 16th and 17th century views of poverty in Great Britain – The Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601.
The U.S inherited the disparaging views of people who were poor. Even though there were distinctions between the “worthy” and “unworthy poor,” poverty was viewed as an individual problem rather than the result of structural inequalities that benefited landed aristocracy at the expense of those who served them. People who were unhoused and unemployed due to rapidly shifting social institutions and technologies were forced to migrate in search of work. When they arrived in cities, destitute and desperate, reduced to begging for alms, they were viewed as a threat and nuisance. Their circumstances were attributed to their laziness and immorality. Their “pauperism” was seen as a cultural class deficiency that was passed down through the generations. Only strict punitive laws and interventions would “save” them and their children.
We can see the same views playing out at all governmental levels in the U.S. today as legislatures argue who is deserving of “welfare” assistance. They willingly bail out banks and corporations while ignoring the situation for so many individuals and families who are unable to afford housing, food, and health care. It is important for students to know this history in order to critically analyze existing policies and work toward more socially just policies in the future. True, analyzing policy is not the most exciting work initially, but it can be rewarding to build partnerships to end and prevent unnecessary suffering.
I returned to an older post for ideas on how to help and inspire students and decided to share the post again. Sadly, the message is still relevant today.
Sitting on my back doorstep as I greeted yet another snowy morning, I was reflecting on my most recent neighborhood. West Duluth, the working class part of town. The side of town where the industries – manufacturing and paper mills – send plumes of putrid exhaust into the air. Some days the winds blow it eastward toward the lake, away from the children in my neighborhood who are walking to school or out on the school playgrounds. On the days the winds blow westward, I know it’s unwise to take more than very shallow breaths. Mine is the side of town where only those with few resources are able to find housing, the side of town where parents without choices send their children to schools with fewer resources and amenities. Even if I had more financial resources, I suspect I would still choose to live here, even though people in my neighborhood are not especially sociable – they’re too busy just trying to survive.
Perhaps it’s foolish of me, but I prefer to live in an old house that needs lots of work, with an overgrown yard that needs tending, on the side of town with the most diversity. So many people in the world live with far less. And it is the things that need transformation that attract my attention and inspire my creativity. I suspect it’s because of a different cultural frame. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance to the symbols of “nationhood” – fictive notions of fraternity – of us against the world. Instead, I realized this morning that I feel a sense of responsibility to people and my environment, not just Ojibwe people, but all my relations.
I have had the privilege of working for a state developing policies and programs for elders, and then working at the community level implementing and evaluating programs and policies for families and children. What I observed was a fundamental disconnect between policies developed by experts from a dominant cultural paradigm, what I refer to as “collectivities of strangers” like the residents of Duluth, and communities that were based on the foundation of enduring relationships. Raising the awareness of policy developers and academics to the importance of this distinction is not an easy task. So I have shifted my efforts to try to raise the awareness of students who will hopefully become the policy and program developers of the future.
From an indigenous perspective, the centrality of relationships is apparent. Tribal communities are characterized by centuries of enduring close family and community relationships among members and their natural environment, and members anticipate the continuation of these bonds for generations yet to come. The legalistic, impersonal approach used by the dominant Euro-American social welfare and judicial systems can best be characterized as “a collectivity of strangers,” designed to keep strangers from killing each other. As Jared Diamond (1997, Guns, Germs, and Steel) argues,
… the organization of human government tends to change … in societies with more than a few hundred members … [as] the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups…. Those ties of relationship binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who will apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. (p. 171)
What this means for the sense of responsibility members feel toward each other from these contrasting cultural paradigms can be simplistically illustrated.
What these distinctions mean for children can be described simplistically as well.
As I contemplate these contrasts this morning, I need to ground the philosophical questions in my present lived experience. Fortunately for my neighborhood, the gentle wind is blowing in from the west this morning, leaving the air clean and sweet. It was safe to take deep breaths and contemplate the possibility of building a sense of community that recognizes the importance of protecting the health of all our relations. In doing so, however, I am mindful that my privilege of breathing clean air this morning doesn’t mean the world is fair. The factories that provide jobs for people in my neighborhood are still sending forth poison plumes. It is others who are downwind who must breathe shallowly today. They are both strangers to me in one sense, and relatives in another. The challenge I contemplate is how to reach out to them so we can begin to work collectively to create a community that is healthy every day for all of our relations.
Jared Diamond (1997). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. W.W. Norton & Company.