I’ve always had a very specific picture of what poverty looks like in my mind. I see a man that I came across when I was 7 or 8. It was a December night and I was coming out of a restaurant with my parents. On our way back to our car, we came across a bench with a man sleeping on it. He was wearing one of those awful Christmas sweaters and not much else. I remember being genuinely confused by his presence, and my mother telling me that poor people don’t have enough money for clothing and shelter. And from that moment was born my image of poverty.
This image has stuck with me throughout my whole life—my travels, my time at university, and even the contact I’ve had with people in poverty. Between my first exposure to poverty and the way the world sees poverty, it is no surprise that to me poverty has always been about a person’s financial situation. There is a consensus today that poverty is intrinsically linked to economic status. Poverty means homelessness, poverty means shoes with holes in them and dirty clothes, poverty is children in India begging for money in the streets. In my limited experience, I have found these pictures to be overwhelmingly present in the general population’s perceptions of poverty, and in development practice. Before my internship, I was without a doubt part of those who believe poverty is synonymous with a lack of money.
Working with ATD Fourth World has entirely altered my way of thinking—it has changed my snapshot of poverty into a much more integrative vision of what it means to be poor. In the beginning, to be honest, I questioned everything in terms of the effects I could see. How was collectively making a mosaic mural going to help these people get a job so they could support their families? How was playing a game of Jenga with a child going help him get to school in the morning when the school bus doesn’t come all the way out into the reservation where he lives? What I didn’t realize the first few weeks was that of course our actions didn’t make sense in the context of what I believed poverty to be. And so I had to question everything I thought I knew about poverty.
My readjustment was easy because the founder of ATD Fourth World, Joseph Wresinski, was very clear about what he believed poverty to be: social exclusion. At the very core of ATD Fourth World’s principles lies this idea that a lack of basic civil and human rights is what constitutes extreme poverty. By this I don’t just mean legal rights—I’m referring to the right to not be discriminated against, the right to not be judged for choices you make or past mistakes, or the right to be a child free of adult responsibilities. This allows ATD Fourth World Volunteers to reach not only a wider scope of people, but especially those who are out of sight because they are so disenfranchised. ATD’s mission and projects are specifically geared towards the inclusion of these types of people who are often “out of sight, out of mind”. Social exclusion adds a layer of complexity to poverty, but also opens up new doors for ways to fight it. In this context, the actions I have been a part of have begun to make sense.
Here in New Mexico, the team runs a Street Library at the local flea market. The vendors and their children are often from towns that are 2 or 3 hours away. Some of the children are not always able to attend school regularly or have to help their parents sell on the weekends. Giving them access to books or art in a public and communal space is a way to include them in the community in a variety of ways. They are surrounded by other children with whom they can interact. Many families here live in such physical isolation that their children do not get to see many other children. The children have a place where they can be children, and their parents are able to offer them something besides the daily hardships they face. The Street library becomes a reminder for both the children and their parents that they are welcome and wanted in their community.
The mosaic project has been one of the most obvious projects that focuses on fighting social isolation. The mural is being created on two walls at the entrance of a building that offers GED and ESL classes. A few ATD Fourth World Volunteers help out, but it is mostly the work of the students. This action is designed to include people who are likely to be looked down upon by others: the uneducated and the immigrants. It not only allows them to be a part of a project that typically isn’t offered to them, but is also a clear message that they should have opportunity to create and be a part of community projects. Judgment can often cripple people in ways that society does not understand. The criticism that comes with not having finished high school or not speaking English has obvious effects on the students at the center: it kills self-esteem. Creating art like the mosaic gives them pride and the knowledge that they have incredible skills and talent.
I have found poverty as disenfranchisement to be a difficult concept to grasp at times. It is not as concrete as economic poverty, and neither are its solutions. While someone in extreme poverty will never be able to afford private school for his or her children, fluctuating societal changes can easily alter their place in the community. This definition of poverty requires ATD Fourth World Volunteers to constantly question their approach and the efficacy of their projects. Although more challenging, I have found this vision to be more humanistic. It is a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by poverty stereotypes and pre-packaged solutions.