43 million people live in poverty in the US. Sadly (but not surprisingly), a disproportionate 1.8 million live in New York City. This past Monday, I had the opportunity to put a face, name, and several amazing stories to a few of these otherwise nameless statistics. I also had the chance to become one of the statistics.
The purpose of this post is to share a few things that I learned/affirmed/was surprised by/just need to get off my chest.
But first, a little background:
The 9 other Acumen Fellows and I came into the office Monday morning with the ambiguous instructions to wear comfortable shoes and vague guidance that the day was about exploring what it means to be poor in New York. We soon found out that this entailed individually exploring the effectiveness of social services provided by New York, from the perspective of poor individuals in the city.
Having written about the relativity of poverty in a global village just days before, I was extremely excited to further explore my theories; and after much internal debate, I decided this would be best accomplished by assuming the role of someone in a marginalized community. Ultimately, I believed this would encourage deeper conversations with marginalized individuals – and also force me to confront personal emotions, public reactions, societal stereotypes, etc. – in a way that I wasn’t able to during my previous two years living and volunteering in Harlem. I also believed the scenario I adopted – a recent transplant from CA who was struggling to establish himself – could easily be reality if one or two things turned out differently.
So – equipped with only 5 single dollar bills and a 2-ride metro card (i.e., no Blackberry, camera, iPod, etc.) –the 10 of us anxiously split up from our safe haven in the Meat Packing District, in hopes of better understanding poverty in NY. And after 7 tireless hours – and over 2 dozen conversations with people at places like the Urban Pathways drop in center, Holy Apostles Food Kitchen, Mainchance Shelter Home, St John’s food pantry, NY Human Resources Administration, Western Union, American Dental, a hot dog stand, a bagel cart and much more – we came back together to debrief/process with the Executive Director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero. Here’s a few AHAs I learned.