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  • Writer's pictureDave Griffith

Race, Poverty, and Privilege

I was recently invited to speak at Westminster where I am an Alumnus. Given our work they asked me to talk about Poverty, Privilege, and Race. The following are my prepared remarks.

Good Morning. My name is Dave Griffith, and I graduated in 1972 and served as a trustee from 2004 to 2012. Our 2 children are among the 12 Griffith’s who have graduated from here since 1953. While here I played hockey with Peter Briggs, I was a goalie, and this was when there was no roof on the rink, so basically we were gladiators. From my hairline you will no doubt see the family resemblance between me and my nephew Charlie. His Dad and I are brothers. I went on to Kenyon College in Ohio, and then for 38 years worked in the for profit world. The last 23 years with Modern Group Ltd in Bristol PA, an industrial holding company, where I remain Chairman. I also serve on several public and private boards.

I am currently the Executive Director and Head Coach of Episcopal Community Services. We are a 150-year-old social service agency focus on asking individuals, both participants and stakeholders, to Look Up and Challenge Poverty. We envision a world where opportunity is available to all. We do so on the bedrock values of Dignity, Community, Justice, and Impact.

As an agency we work with some 3000 individuals a year, we are by design a learning organization and by design a thought leader in our space, and we advocate for change to public policy on a local, state, and federal level. I am the first non-priest non-social worker to lead the agency. I am called to this work in part because of some of the early lessons I learned here. Not all of them pretty.

For the record, I am also an old, white, business guy.

Up until five years ago when I started at ECS, I would never have identified myself that way. Having been directly involved in the agency's work has been an education and a wakeup call, these learning have altered my perspective on poverty, gender, and race in America and my purpose today is to share that perspective with you as students and you as faculty. As a community these are issues you need to be in conversation about and take the appropriate actions when opportunity presents itself.

For many of you, this may not be a comfortable conversation. But it is a conversation that needs to be had. Especially, in the halls of education and in places like Westminster.

Let me ask you a few questions. If you would please answer me by raising your hand.

How many of you own more than two pairs of pants?

How many of you know where you will sleep tonight?

How many of you know where you will sleep in a week?

How many of you know where you will have dinner tonight?

How many of you know if you were sick where you would go and how it would be paid for?

How many of you expect to go to college?

How many of you have a home?

How many of you have a home that is safe?

How many of you expect a job when you graduate with your degree at a living wage?

For 15% of Americans, both urban and rural, white, Hispanic, and black, the answer to many of these questions is No.

This is in America, the wealthiest country in the human history with an average household income of $59,000.

It is important that to understand Poverty you understand some of the numbers. So bear with me for a moment and stay with me while I share with you some of the data. There are lots of myths about poverty, let’s look at the hard facts. If you are like me, the data was part of my wake up call.

Poverty in America is defined for a family of four at $22,900. A number not adjusted for inflation since 1972. Safety net support is available up to $34,000 regarding food with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), medical with Medicaid and CHIP (Children Health Insurance Program), childcare assistance, early childhood education, out of school time. However, the safety net programs in America decline $1.50 for every additional $1.00 earned.

In Philadelphia where I work, the poverty level is 28% of the population or some 400,000 individuals. Half live at 50% of the poverty level, and 100,000 are children under 18. In America, some 1.5 million people live on $2.00/day or less, many on safety net programs, but not all. Poverty and near poverty cuts across race, gender and age demographics.

Poverty in America in 1960 was 15%. Today unadjusted for inflation it remains 15%. Apparently, the war on poverty has failed. One could, and I do, argue that the vast majority of social service programs in America are in the maintenance business. What they and all of us need to be is in the changing business.

In the Philadelphia region, the 14 federal and state safety net programs cost some $5.8 billion a year. Nationally some 35% of the federal budget is allocated to this space. Despite all of this funding and history, poverty is getting worse.

So what is the “So what” of all these numbers?

Poverty will consume us as a nation if we do not deal with it as a nation. 15% and I can argue for larger numbers, is a staggering cost to us as a nation. Left unchecked the social, moral, and economic costs are unacceptable and potentially a threat as critical as any we face. The economic gap is widening, and at some point, we will see social and economic unrest that will make 1968 look like a walk in the park. This is an issue that is very much part of your and my children’s future.

So what do we as a society do? What do you as a Westminster community do? You are already engaged in the surrounding communities; serving a monthly lunch in Hartford, running two summer academic programs here for underprivileged area students, sending students over spring break for community service projects, and also, of course, your civic engagement courses. But I want to challenge you to raise the bar.

First become knowledgeable. The roots of today's challenges are historical and influenced by deep seeded issues of economic justice, race, and gender. While we hold the founder’s words that “all men are created equal” as America's guiding light, our history, and frankly our actions, tells us a very different story both then and in today’s context.

Poverty is not a choice. No one wants to live in poverty. In fact, some of the most resilient people I know, are participants in our program. Learn the root- causes of poverty. Understand the differences between where and how you live, and someone in poverty. To go deep understand the issues of housing and family stability, of wellness, of education, of financial literacy, and workforce development.

The way out of poverty is a job. Not a minimum wage job at $9/hour without benefits, but a living wage of $26/hour with benefits. But a job at $26/ hour or better also starts with a core belief that opportunity with all the prerequisite is available to all. Not handouts, but access. The blunt reality is that core belief is not true.

As an old white guy let me name the elephant in the room. It’s called privilege. Of course, the way out of poverty is a job, just like the one I got when I graduated from Kenyon in 1976 with IBM. I worked incredibly hard to get where I am today. I didn’t need welfare; I thought poor people needed to get off their rear end and get a job.

The truth is I was born on third base, and I thought I had hit a triple. I had parents, a home, their network, education, access to opportunity. Yes, I executed when I got there, but a clear path had been laid out for me. Access to opportunity was and is available to me, for many in America, and not just those in poverty, this is directly and uncomfortably not true. For many the truth is they can’t even get into the ballpark. To be clear I am proud of my accomplishments, but I can’t and you cannot make the assumption that the “American Dream” is available to all in our country. Our future as a society depends on changing that reality.

Let’s contrast my experience to that of one of our participants at ECS. Shelby, not her real name, is an African American woman living with her Grandmother. She does not know her father and her mother is working the streets and on drugs. She is the fourth generation of her family to live in poverty. She attended a public high school where the attendance is 45%, and the graduation percentage is less. Fewer than 20% of her class will go on to get additional education. Her ambition was to work as a beautician because that was her experience. At 18 she was not sure where she will live when her Grandmother is no longer around, and she contributes all of her income of $7/hour, 35 hours from two jobs no benefits to help pay the utility bills and rent. She has been raped twice. Unlike many of her peers she is not a parent.

Shelby is in crisis 100% of the time. No one in crisis 100% of the time can productively problem solve, let alone lift themselves out of poverty. Placed in the same circumstances, how would you do?

I can tell you the same story 1000 times. Many more complicated, many more tragic.

Shelby does not want to be where she is. She sought us out at ECS and working with her we are setting goals to move her out of crisis and put her on a path the will provide her access to opportunity and in time real employment and the chance to break her families cycle of poverty. Shelby now has ambitions to work in marketing and digital media and is in a program at Philadelphia Community College to gain the skills she will need to reach this goal. Her paid internship is more than twice her last two jobs. All we did is provide a safe space, access to resources, and coach her as an individual with potential and the dignity that anyone deserves.

So get educated on the real story of poverty. Get the facts, not the political rhetoric that is so destructive on both sides of the aisle these days. Look at this issue not from your perspective which frankly may be privileged, but walk with a heart that is open to justice, dignity, community and an overwhelming sense of fairness. This is the essence of a Martlet’s values of character, community, involvement and balance.

The second thing you can do is when you can and have the opportunity get involved. While financial support helps fund this work, the key to helping break the cycle of poverty is building relationships, mentoring and direct involvement. Every child is one involved adult away from success. For many in poverty there is not such an adult let alone an involved peer.

There are organizations you can join, and work you can do. But please do not be poverty tourist. If you do this work, meet people where they are, get to know them and their stories. Work when you are ready with professionals at an agency and learn to be a coach or a peer to an individual living in poverty. Remember that your experience is not their experience. Understand what it means to be privileged and do not judge. While the scale of this issue is daunting, it starts one individual at a time. Someone helped you. Pay it forward when the opportunity presents itself.

The vast majority of agencies and individuals in this work are in the maintenance business; they tell people what they need rather than listen. I have found if you ask, people will tell you what they need. Be a coach and help them set goals and achieve them. The best brain science tells us that individuals learning to set goals and achieve them move from crisis to control. In fact, the efficacy of such work goes from 30% to over 85%. As an informed volunteer mentor or peer, you can help do this. The lesson is in the story of the fishes. I can give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish, and he eats forever. Join the movement, be an agent of change, teach people to fish, help people know what fishing is.

Finally, you can advocate in the appropriate ways available to you. Public policy and funding in this space are designed on science that is 20 to 30 years old and is built around the concept of maintaining people, not helping them change and lift themselves out of poverty.

You can advocate for fair housing, better education, no more regressive benefit funding as income grows. But the single best thing you can promote for is employment, jobs, and a living wage with benefits in America. The way out of poverty is a job. Poverty robs individuals of choice; choices economic wellbeing can provide.

With housing, education, and workforce development we can prepare individuals in poverty for the workforce, but where are the jobs? Yes, unemployment is at record lows, but a job at 40 hours a week at $26/hour with benefits and a 25 hour a week job with no benefits at $9/hour both count as individuals employed in the data. The working poor is a large number of the 15%. Understand and challenge the data, see the reality.

Advocate for job creation and job training and critically for individuals in poverty to have the training and access to jobs that are created. Right now there is a lack of individuals in the trades at critical levels. Infrastructure is failing, fund it. New technology jobs, startups. We need incentives to be created that drive real employment and not just for some Americans, but all Americans.

Here another elephant is the issue of race, gender and economic privilege. Economic privilege and access is not readily shared. We live in an investor, bottom line, economy; we need to live in one where social impact is a significant element in an investors criteria and not financial returns alone. I firmly believe that government funding will not, on its own. change the level of poverty in America. Our history suggest that public/private partnership drive the most effective programs. Partnerships that leverage inclusion and drive social impact create solutions that work and are driven by the market. 35% of the GDP not spent on safety nets could fund a lot of our other needs.

Your generation is the one that I hope will get this right. There is great power in inclusion and social impact investing and you know it intuitively. Hold your elected officials accountable, vote when you are old enough, be an informed citizen and start now. Not just of America, but of the world. When you are in a position to do so hold your community, your employers, and hold yourself accountable. As an old white guy, it took me 60 years to learn what real equality really looks like. Diversity is a checked box on an EEOC form, inclusion is a seat at the table, social impact is a return that also drives social justice. Our best moments as a country occur when everyone has a seat and return is measured in part by social impact. One can do good and make a profit.

You can make that decision now. How you behave, what you say and write about matters. Every day and in every place. Weather you be a third former, a senior looking towards college, or faculty teaching and coaching our next generation.

So I leave you with a few thoughts on poverty, race, and privilege.

First, acknowledge them.

Second, get educated on the facts, the history, and the issues. Understand what works. What is maintenance, what is myth, and what drives change?

Third, understand that it is in your interest to deal with these issues as the consequences of not are unacceptable. You and Shelby could have been each other, but for the luck of circumstances. Decide what you stand for, what is acceptable, and what your hopes are for the future, not just for yourselves, but the Shelby’s of this country.

Fourth when you can, reach in, volunteer, become a peer, understand social justice is not a spectator sport. No one wants a handout, what individuals in poverty want is a hand up.

Fifth, once you have done 1-4 advocate, vote, over time drive informed public policy. Understand that your individual behavior on the issues of race, poverty, gender, and privilege speaks louder long term than any letter to the editor and it is something you control, no one else. Look in the mirror.

And finally understand that what happens here on the Hill is an extraordinary opportunity that many individuals do not have access to, let alone are aware that such institutions exist. You can coast, or you can take what you learn here and challenge the status quo. Invest now, to be able to give back later.

It is my experience you can and will build a good life, but know a great one is when you do that and give back. You all can be agents of change. Much of what I learned, I learned here. Be curious, ask questions, read, and engage. Years from now the head start you get here will be the basis for success. Use that success to lift all boats.

You will note that one of the core values of ECS is Impact. All that we do is based on the core value that what we do has an impact. If it does not, we stop. Our work demands no less.

I suggest to you it is also a good value to have as an individual.

Answer one fundamental question? Does what you do make a difference beyond yourself?

Life, real living, is not all about being comfortable.

I have come to learn that by doing and facing the uncomfortable, one learns the most, grows the most, and it is rarely fatal. Scar tissue from such experience is the best teacher. You can live in fear of people different than you or you can meet people where they live and find common ground. In doing so you too can look up and challenge poverty. It is my working definition and implementation of Grit and Grace.

It is your choice. Choose wisely, but choose, knowing that not everyone has the gift and privilege of choice. Respect that gift.

Thank you, it has been my honor to speak with you this morning.

Oh, and lest I forget, in your spare time, beat Avon.

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