23 Aug Conference told talking helps understand poverty
By Jimmy Isaac
Aug. 22, 2017 at 11:53 p.m.
Updated Aug. 23, 2017 at 7:29 a.m.
Organizers and the keynote speaker at an annual event that tackles poverty and its related issues agree it will take humble, honest conversations to solve issues nationally and in Longview.
It helps when 1,600 teachers, community leaders and social workers come to the discussion table.
“To walk out into a center like this and see all of these people gathered, it’s like a dream come true,” author Liz Murray said after speaking Tuesday at the Junior League of Longview’s Poverty Conference in the Belcher Center at LeTourneau University.
It was the third consecutive year the Junior League sponsored the event.
About 600 people attended 2016’s conference in October, but a change in scheduling — plus planning with area schools — more than doubled this year’s attendance, said conference chairwoman Lauren Land. After Murray’s hourlong address, participants broke out into smaller groups for panel discussions led by leaders of social, economic, education and nonprofit service agencies.
Teachers also were handed checklists that will allow them to keep track of factors such as if a student’s basic needs are being met and if his or her parents have immigration issues.
“The neat thing is having these teachers,” Land said of the 1,250 educators from Longview, Pine Tree, Spring Hill, Kilgore and Gladewater schools. “What we love about the teachers being here and being a part of the conversation is that they get to know these students from the youngest age up, and they’re the ones that are probably going to know their story — the ins and outs — better than anyone.”
That knowledge of their students makes teachers a powerful ally in the fight against community poverty and its ills, including crime and homelessness, that affect many families, Murray said. Murray was a homeless teenager in New York before she finished charter high school in two years and earned a scholarship from The New York Times that led her to a Harvard University degree.
“You’re going to notice every time your poverty is high because your crime is going to be high, because people are desperate,” Murray said. “I think that one thing I try to steer away from is for people to only see the results and stop their thinking there.”
Rather than wonder if a panhandler will use money to buy drugs or alcohol, Murray suggested people answer “the most important question” of why that person is begging. Perhaps it is out of desperation from certain conditions in society, but people shouldn’t simply pass off the reason for someone’s impoverished state as laziness, she said.
“We have to create the economic conditions for people to lift themselves up, so I would say that to invest in education is an investment in security. That is, we have to redefine what we think of as safety,” Murray said.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding around poverty, and there’s a lot of people (who) instead of trying to understand each other, they just immediately start yelling,” she added. “We see that nationally. Everyone wants to say, ‘I’m going to say the thing that was more smart than what the other person was saying. I’m going to be smarter.’
“We’re trying to one-up each other, and what we really need to do is listen to one another with humility, and I think that this many people showing up today for a conversation about poverty is a sign that most people want to help. They just don’t know what to do.”
Inspirational words from people such as Murray who survived poverty and now are thriving are needed to be heard, Land said, but she added that there are many people in Longview who are actively fighting poverty by bringing opportunities to young people.
Land mentioned Thrive360 and Boys & Girls Club of the Big Pines — two organizations that occupy children’s out-of-school time but also impart physical, mental and workforce skills to ultimately lead them to better-paying jobs.
Also, the Longview Chamber of Commerce has gathered steam in its workforce development arena to help young people develop skill sets that are needed for unfilled jobs in East Texas, she said.
“I think we don’t understand that $24,000 is a threshold of poverty for a family of four. How do you eat? How do you eat? It’s insane,” Land said. “Maybe these kids are headed to college. Maybe these kids aren’t ones that are going to head to college, but we’ve got industries that pay above minimum wage, but you’ve got to have a skill.”