President Ray’s essay links a personal reflection on poverty to The Poverty Project at Elmhurst College, the college community’s yearlong exploration of the everyday scandal of material poverty. The piece aired Monday, February 15, on 91.5-FM WBEZ. His essay will be the first of several more, written and recorded by Elmhurst College students, scheduled to air on “Eight Forty Eight” in the weeks to come.
For more on The Poverty Project at Elmhurst College, please visit www.elmhurst.edu/povertyproject.
Here is the full text of Dr. Ray’s essay:
My name is Alan Ray and I am the president of Elmhurst College. We are a small liberal arts college in Elmhurst, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago. This year, our students are studying poverty. Not poverty in the abstract, but as it exists in the lives of people around us, especially here in DuPage County. At first glance, DuPage is not the sort of place where you would expect to find poverty. The County comprises mostly middle-class and upper-class communities. But look closer and you’ll see families on the brink and over it, working women and men who have lost their jobs and homes. The American dream is up for grabs in DuPage County. Some people here are achieving it. Others are not. This year, Elmhurst College is looking at those who had it and are losing it, as well as those who are still reaching for it.
I am not a poor person. My roots are middle class. Though I am a Native American and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and indigenous peoples’ communities are among the poorest in the United States, I was raised by well educated, white parents. But I come from Oklahoma, where poverty casts a long shadow, a shadow thrown over an uneven historical terrain of racial segregation, a boom-and-bust economy based in agriculture and oil, and a public faith that education married to hard work is the way out of the shadow, once and for all.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, in a small, country town called Guthrie, every now and again during the summer men without homes passed through my neighborhood. I remember these men. They were solitary figures of indeterminate years, not especially peculiar but looking pretty beat, and always white—in Oklahoma towns of the early ’60s even homelessness seemed subject to Jim Crow, and my parents lived in an all-white neighborhood. My mother, being kind, occasionally let in these strangers to the house to eat a simple lunch—a sandwich, a glass of water, maybe an apple. My father, when he learned of this, became irate, and told my mother never to do this again, to let in “drifters” as he called them, since they could hurt or rob us. Lunch for the drifters stopped. I suppose my father was right. Yet what I remember most is how detached from everyone and everything they were, these men, how without community, how alone. Without my mother, I thought in my child’s way, who would feed them? If no one interacted with them, they were invisible.
Pierre Bourdieu, the philosopher of cultural theory, says every society takes for granted certain things in order to operate. What is assumed to be normal, he writes, “goes without saying because it comes without saying.” My dad wanted to protect his family from a perceived threat, but he also wanted the drifters gone, invisible, not part of our lives. Kinds of people, like statements about the world, can be taken for granted, and will be, if it helps things run smoothly.
Today, as I sit in my comfortable president’s office, after a good lunch, and anticipating a pleasant evening at home with my family, I am reminded that around me, in DuPage County and places like it all over the country, things are not running smoothly. The breadwinners of families like mine are losing their jobs in record numbers, and with those jobs, potentially their futures and those of their dependents. Like the drifters, they are becoming increasingly detached from communities that would care for them, and are at risk of becoming loners—whole families, whole neighborhoods of loners.
But before they drop out of our statistical and emotional sight, before they become taken for granted as “just the way things are,” I think it’s important for students at my College to get to know some of these people, to listen to their stories, to spread the word, and to help us stay connected. For they are connected with us already—we just fear inviting them into our literal and figurative homes. What might they do to us? What might they ask of us?
What this recession has shown us, of course, is that there is no “they.” When you or I at any time could join the ranks of the unemployed, the evicted, those without healthcare, it becomes clear that the poor are “we.” The fragile middle class, as bankruptcy law specialist and professor Elizabeth Warren has called them, are becoming visible to us right now through their predicament, but when their problems can’t be solved easily, it’s a good bet most of us will lose interest, and move on to other things. Who are the real drifters?
In the coming months, Elmhurst College students will report on poverty, in places expected and unexpected—what it looks like, what it feels like. Our students will think about how we have responsibilities to help those struggling with poverty to remain in communities and flourish; and how some people, including our students and faculty, are living up to those obligations.
At Elmhurst College, we are obliged to prepare our students for life in a complex world, both an outer world and an inner one—the self—and believe that we should never shrink from that complexity. Examining poverty, in its causes and effects, means looking hard at the contraction of opportunity. What we do about what we discover depends on how we as a community answer my childhood question about the drifters—who will feed them?
Listen to President Ray’s reading on WBEZ