Poverty Consciousness & Community Building

            I’ve got a hole in my pocket much bigger than a quarter.   A year ago in Abu Dhabi I lived amongst riches, slept between white crisp bed sheets that were laundered every day by mostly Indian or Thai hotel workers, who shamefully became a natural part of my backdrop—the way I grew accustomed to them taking care of me!  I was making money, taking care of my family back home though, so the money I made was spread thin around the globe like one spreads grape jelly on toast.  That was typical in Abu Dhabi.  Talking  to the cabbies and the girls that set the buffet table at our trainings, I learned that most folks working were taking care of somebody back home.  One salary, regardless of the amount took care of mothers or fathers, children, grandparents, siblings and sometimes good friends.  When I asked them how often they visited their families, they told me sometimes once every two years.  Once every two years?  Then they’d assure me that every moment, every penny is worth it because at least they’re eating and the kids can go to school.  “It gives me pride to know that I can do it.  Without me, they wouldn’t have anything.”

            Living in New York this year has been filled with elation and melancholy, poverty consciousness grows inside me like a weed as the bills pile high and there’s no sign of work.   My daughter sings every morning though and my son hugs me every day even though he’s already fourteen.  I see them grow by the millimeter, notice every subtle mood, make their lunch every morning and hide secret messages inside their napkins.  I’m surrounded by the joys of parenthood and in between our conversations about school where I’m given permission to interject (because I always have to), I realize that I am the most important teacher in their lives and I do a hell of a job at it too.  How much are our conversations worth if I compare them to the conversations children of privilege have at some private school?  I am after all a private, one-to-one, state of the art, PhD clad instructor on life, academics and social development, aren’t I?  Can’t afford to pay the rent this month, but I’m spilling every ounce of wisdom into my two babies’ ears, a luxury that last year I couldn’t afford because I was so far away making a living in Abu Dhabi.  I know this will not last for long.  I can’t afford to stay home. 
            My mind wanders to Up With Chris Hayes as he discussed the value of a woman’s work at home (or a man’s for that matter, because as many of you know my husband has been home raising the kids for years while I traveled).  Chris was outraged by Romney’s comment that we need to make sure poor people learn the “dignity” of work.  I’m reminded of how unfair our society is and how often we discredit the most important types of work, the work that sprouts up from the blood and sweat of a family, a community, a culture, a tribe, a passing down of a legacy, of hope.  The taking care of people.  The value of human beings.
            The Dwyer Cultural Center falters under the heavy pressures of the economy as does many other cultural and social institutions in Harlem, the Bronx, New York, the US, all over the globe.  I’m talking about the rattle and shake of the big boys pressing down on the few places working middle class and poor folks can go to for help and a sense of community.  The unions are disappearing and the schools are being locked up and sealed behind business cubicles, jobs are little to none and if someone is working—it’s often temporary consultant work where community building gets harder and harder.  Read Sennett’s work.  Where do people have these democratic conversations if everyone is worrying at home, isolated, desperately fighting off the onslaught of a depression that feels so much worse emotionally and psychologically than what we might see on the outside where garbage and broken concrete are accumulating?  Who has the energy to go outside when you’re bankrupt and the house over your head is falling and mostly, just like back in the day, in the Reagan years, it’s still mostly women and children who are falling.
            Voza Rivers the Chairman of the Harlem Arts Alliance (also the Executive Director of the New Heritage Theater Group) hands me a check to put in my broken pocket.  He’s been writing checks for years supporting hundreds of struggling artists of color.  It is who he is and he does it effortlessly.  As we drive down Lenox Avenue, he tells me the horror stories of what’s going on, which businesses are falling off the radar and how he and Lloyd Williams, the President of the Harlem Chamber of Commerce are discussing how the cultural institutions in the black community need to work together, merge in order to leverage their resources, create a united front as they navigate this flailing economic rampage, hardest on poor communities of color across the United States.  I look down at the check in my hands and I’m reminded of my own isolation and my own economic downfall, then as if he picks up on my energy he says, “Everybody’s going through the same thing.  We’ve all been there before.”  Then I feel a surge of hope born out of the admiration for the man.  He’s so different than what they say about black folk and poor people in general.  “We must continue to help each other and push aside our silly differences.  This is about the community, not about one man’s personal credit.”  Voza is the essence of community building.  Donate.
            When I get home, I flip open the book Voza lent me.  Panther Baby by Jamal Joseph.  In the first few pages Jamal writes:
            “In 1968 nobody was badder than the Panthers.  They took manhood rating to another level.  Not only were they willing to fight and die for “theirs,” they were also willing to lay down their lives for every man, woman, and child in the black community whether they knew them personally or not.”
            All of the images of blacks looting on television whenever there’s a crisis flashes through my mind and I think, this is so different than the black folk I’ve been taught to see.  Who are these people that in spite of poverty consciousness are willing to lend a hand and pick each other out of the ditch?  Just like workers in Abu Dhabi whose salaries shelter and feed huge families and me and my own family taking care of each other, even in the most desperate times, my friends, my cousins, my “peeps,” always taking care of each other, spreading thin the few pennies like a grape jelly smear on a bagel.  We’ve always been fighting, giving, working with each other. There are so many of us and when you hear our stories, you must wonder how we can’t believe in ourselves.  How much weight can a people carry, how heavy a load is needed to wear us down?  Believe.
            In my new novel, Flip Flops in Winter (represented by a fabulous up and coming Latina literary agent, Leticia Gomez) which is about my grandmother who came to New York City in 1935 from Puerto Rico to work for a wealthy Jewish family in exchange for piano lessons, Maria discovers how poor folks in Harlem were forced to live together in order to help each other pay rent:
            I fell silent.  Ruben and Walker had prepared me for it earlier in the week.  They explained that no one wanted to rent to Negroes throughout the city so landlords in Harlem charged them outrages prices knowing very well they had no other choice.  An average apartment could rent for fifty dollars for a white family while they’d ask somewhere between one hundred and a hundred and fifty dollars for a Negro family.  That was why so many Negro families took in boarders once they were in.  It was the only way they could afford the high rent.” 
            How we frame our experiences is important, I think, how we share with each other and publish personal accounts about what is really happening out there is important work.  Don’t stop.  Poverty consciousness and community giving is at the heart of the poor man’s experience and people of color in particular.  Often we forget our heritage, we are misinformed by the media, we are broken down at the work place, pulled apart when we try to exercise our democratic rights, we are marginalized in so many ways that are both subtle and overt—
            Each one of us who is out there working, we share what we have with those of us less fortunate.  Men and women are walking around, tired and groggy, first thing in the morning to the night, carrying a briefcase or a hard hat or a black and white composition notebook in a cotton bag— we are carrying ourselves and more often than not, if you look a little deeper, we are carrying so many more around us who are struggling to make ends meet. 
            We can’t and don’t do it alone regardless of what some folks have you think.  We know what it means to be a community.  We must give thanks to all the poor, working & middle class patrons who are carrying so many these days.  And, know this.  The rich do not have a monopoly on philanthropy.

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