‘As a global community, we all want to end poverty. Mia Birdsong suggests a great place to start: Let's honor the skills, drive and initiative that poor people bring to the struggle every day. She asks us to look again at people in poverty: They may be broke — but they're not broken.’
The meat and potatoes of this talk, is that outside policies and initiatives of the ‘war on poverty’ are largely ineffective, and for good reason: because the solutions to poverty are hidden in the poor themselves. Which, for anyone who has studied the French Revolution, Great Depression, or many other poignant points in history should come as no surprise. Yet, we still throw great sums of money at the issue, hoping that empowerment will trickle down. There is a very psychological reason that we do this, and that is the belief that poor people are lazy and flawed, which unfortunately all too often comes coupled with a racially biased component. Whether the prejudice stems from color, creed, or faith, the common denominator in all of these judgments is laziness as the cardinal sin. Let’s examine, shall we?
Firstly, no one is lazy. They may have different priorities than we are able to discern, for example, someone opting for fast food rather than cooking from scratch, because they don’t believe themselves to be proficient in it and perceive the time investment to learn it to be too great. That is NOT to say that the time is not allocated to something else entirely productive, it is basic human nature to play it safe and stick to ones strengths. This is a very powerful force for good, because once someone has determined what their strengths are, putting the time into amassing a surplus of that can be the jumping off point for a business or career. The main challenge of poverty is that it is so much more difficult to determine what those strengths are, it is a lot of experimentation and guess and check, and even people who began with seemingly limitless possibilities may still need to get halfway through school only to pull a 180 and switch majors to discover their true passion. This is the fundamental struggle of all humanity, and it is very HARD.
How do we take away some of the anxiety for experimentation, how do we create a space in which it is ok to make mistakes, and learn, and be human? The first step is reservation of judgment. We need to create an emotional sphere where it is ok to do things just for the sake of learning, where there is no test score or grade to hold them accountable for the value of their experiment beyond the learning it provides them. Sometimes the greatest lessons come from collaboration, and being paired with people they wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with, and being put to some challenge. Overcoming challenges creates a very unique chemical response in our brain, vastly greater than simply being satisfied or having what we want. If we had to fight for it, it means a lot more to us, and has more lasting learning for our future progeny, that is why we use myths and storytelling to teach our children values. The hero only gets to greatness by overcoming some mighty foe, which often times is a mirror of himself and his own fear, Joseph Campbell explains this nicely in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
This point of view changes everything about the poverty argument, and gets to the heart of what Gandhi tried to convey and we have a very hard time relating to in Western thought. While the virtue of poverty is well conveyed in the Bible and many Western teachings, it is a long way from being internalized or taken to heart. When you lose one sense, such as hearing or sight, the other faculties are able to focus sharper and overcome the function that was lost. It works the same way with our general awareness and empathy toward one another, once you walk a mile in someone’s shoes it opens up a whole new perspective and ability to relate. We are hard wired that way! The only limitation placed on us is our scope, our attention span, we can only take in so much information at one time without developing a wider range of focus. This is entirely trainable, and a lot of it is attained during childhood. As a society we have done a lot of harm, and essentially put blinders on to train certain attributes that lead to greater success in specialized fields. However, specialization leads to dependence, and too sharp of focus makes us lose sight of the bigger picture.
In the Talk, Mia emphasizes that she is the exception to the rule. That her abilities, ingenuity, and drive are not unique to her, but in combination with luck and privilege she was able to build a prosperous life for herself. But she adds, this is not to disdain herself, as she is awesome, and this is EXACTLY the mindset that will lead to greater clarity! It’s not that any one of us works harder, or deserves it more, we are all a lot more awesome than we are given credit for. Humans are incredible creatures, and our ability to adapt and survive is legendary. The tools for independence are ever at our disposal, and the concept of poverty simply doesn’t do this justice. We shouldn’t focus on poverty as some problem to be cured, what we really need to do is stand in awe of how many ingenious solutions there are, and how validating to the human spirit it is to cultivate all of these little triumphs rather than applying some blanket policy that will dictate ‘ok now nobody is poor anymore!’ Nothing is more powerful for dispelling the mistaken belief of privilege or deserving, than real victories, however small. We are all winning, and we are doing it together, and that means something.
Children are so uniquely resilient to poverty, not just because they have no basis for comparison, or their needs are simple, or these other myths we are fed about being poor. They are resilient because they haven’t closed their minds off to generalized skill, to making mistakes, for finding a better way to do things, or simple generosity in the name of fun. Through play and exchange, children level the playing field among one another, as Mia references in her anecdote about the child ‘borrowing’ her moms tablet and using the translator app to interact with her Spanish speaking neighbor, and eventually teaching her English. There is no price tag attached to this, it wouldn’t occur to her that this a service or program with a cost associated. She simply saw a problem, found the tool to solve it, and went about doing it. The bridge here is the tablet, a fairly commonplace tool now, but to the very poor still largely inaccessible. The girl didn’t want to own the tablet, simply use it for good, volunteering her time and energy, so how many problems can be solved by simply making the tools available to those already generous of spirit?
In her inspirational conclusion, Mia got a little bit steampunk as she specifically addressed people of color:
“Let us remember what we are capable of. All that we have built with blood sweat and dreams, all the cogs that keep turning and the people kept afloat because of our back breaking work. Let us remember that we are magic!”
We have incredible collective power, ‘we belong to a bundle of life’. Steampunk is not just a hobby for the affluent, it is the closest thing we have to a globally cohesive art movement, and it has unifying effects beyond our wildest dreams. It stretches beyond color, gender, and age, in ways unlike any subgenre inspiring generations of people to reengage, or become engaged for the first time in this incredible machine we have built, that now needs to be converted to a new power source. What we fuel it with, love or hate, is up to us, I think we should build a machine to challenge the boundaries of our bodies and awareness, and soar to new heights of humanity!