The Sisterhood of Poverty

mosaicbwasAccording to the Poverty Data Fact Sheet, there were almost 18 million poor women living in the United States in 2013: White, 8.62 million; Black, 4.08 million; Hispanic, 4.17 million; Asian, 0.78 million; Native American, 0.34 million; and Foreign Born, 3.78 million.

If you isolate heads of household, there were 4 million: White, 1.34 million; Black, 1.36 million; Hispanic, 1.11 million; Asian 0.07 million; Native American, 0.08 million; and Foreign Born, 0.77 million.

Most articles citing poverty statistics focus on disproportionate rates by race and gender. Of course that is a critical concern, but in terms of sisterhood, there is one core truth to keep in mind—a person is not a data point.

What about the individual women behind these stats? If you just look at the numbers, it makes you wonder who benefits from selling spin and why we all are buying it. When it comes to individual lives, how does explaining to a poor woman how she is doing in comparison to women who are NOT poor help her?

Change, individual or systemic, occurs in response to a synergy of logic and emotion. We think it. We feel it. We do it. But what if the foundation is cracked? What if the thoughts and emotional bricks we use to build our belief systems are based on sweeping generalizations and selective or faulty logic?

How we interpret our own experiences is all that we really own. You may not agree with how I feel, but you can’t take away my right to feel it. If I am a single mother of any color working two jobs and living in subsidized housing , I am not concerned with ivory tower musings about the systemic causes of poverty and racism.

To put it bluntly, that doesn’t mean jack to me in my day-to-day life. The next 24 hours, like the last, are about survival.  Kids can’t eat white privilege, black pride or hispanic heritage.

Theories and data sets attempting to explain why I’m in this situation, who’s to blame and which folks are faring better may ultimately help by shaping public policy; but in the short-term, that doesn’t pay the rent or feed my children. If what you really want is to mobilize women dedicated to social activism and changing lives, you have to add voices and faces. What does it feel like?

We have to remove the self-imposed dialogue barriers between women of different colors, socioeconomic statuses, geographical regions, political affiliations and sexual orientations. Yes, easier said than done, but it’s mandatory. The powers that be (whoever they are) count on the fact we will stay divided. In fact, the entire system is built on that assumption.

Having worked on the front line with diverse at risk families, I can tell you this– in the trailer park or in the projects, it doesn’t matter what color you are. The person with a car and some cash has the power.

What if poor women of every color were standing hand in hand, sister beside sister, demanding change, 18 million strong? What if women of means in every hue also stood unified with that group? Together, and only together, we are the majority. We have the power.

Imagine one beautiful, powerful choir of diverse, warrior voices; blending genres, making people dance to the music they are creating together–yet never losing their own voices or being told not to also sing their solos. Then note by note, issue by issue, we could compose a new song.

I’m not trying to wax poetic about some fantasy of a colorblind society or melting pot. Without a doubt, there are specific bonds, experiences and challenges unique to individual groups of women. Those differences should be recognized, honored, celebrated and respected. The leadership of any movement must also be shared. There can’t be only one conductor. If however we continue to pit woman against woman, we all lose.

I’ve worked as an Evaluation Specialist for fourteen years. I know all about spin. It doesn’t matter if it’s poverty rates or the best cupcake, there is always someone armed and ready to cite a seemingly infallible source of evidence. If you can’t explain the human impact, then it’s just information and analysis cursed with what I call the “so what” factor.

The whole is always stronger than the sum of its parts. Somewhere in this process, we have to reclaim our human capacity for radical empathy and stop allowing ourselves to be rendered powerless, statistical subsets of each other.

Empathy is not some flowery Hallmark sentiment that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. It is a call to action–the kind that tells you speaking up and out is no longer a choice, but a directive from the soul

Why? Because we are sisters. Like biological sisters, spiritual sisters disagree. We argue, we vent and sometimes we hurt each other deeply. We also love, forgive, and through wisdom, seek to understand more than we seek to be understood.

Don’t tell me it can’t be done because I’ve seen it, lived it and allowed it to change me. We are multi-textured, tangled threads weaving the same tapestry; broken, colorful pieces of glass fused to make a remarkable mosaic. Sisterhood.

Expand your circle to include women who don’t look, pray, speak, live or love like you. Listen to your sister’s story with your heart, not your logic. Only when you feel what she feels will you know what she knows–and vice versa.

“Individually, we are one drop. Together,we are an ocean.” ~Ryunosuke Satoro

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