Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The post that ensures I will never be linked to in the VISTA enewsletter.

Blog Action Day is here. On Blog Action Day, bloggers are supposed to tie whatever they normally write about to a certain topic to generally raise awareness. Last year it was the environment, so a participating food blogger would have talked about sustainable farming.

This year the topic is poverty, which is sort of weird for me. I suppose that this blog is technically a record of the year I've committed to fighting poverty, but I subject whoever might read this to my external processing on a large-ish, somewhat disjointed pool of topics. (Or I did...)

Side story for just a moment:
My work is in evaluation. I'm building a system for this organization to take an honest look at how well they do what they say they do. At a meeting earlier this week, someone called a nascent evaluation point I'm working on a "dangerous question." This, of course, makes me feel like a real, live researcher.

The point of that story is that in the spirit of asking dangerous questions, I am going to ask myself a dangerous question (or at least uncomfortable) about VISTA and poverty. So here it goes.

VISTA income is below the poverty line, and we are prohibited from having any other employment/income. In training and orientation materials, there are two justifications offered for this. One is that that a more comfortable total income would somehow separate us from the communities we serve. Do I feel more connected to impoverished people in the Indianapolis communities I serve because of my modest living allowance?

Let's start answering this with a financial example.

I live in a pretty nice three-bedroom duplex that costs almost exactly the median monthly rent for the area. My rent is 48% of my living allowance and food stamps income. A household is considered cost-burdened if more than 30% of income goes to rent. About half of Marion County households are cost-burdened, so I'm probably connected to more neighbors this way than I know.

Well, never in my life have I had a complaint-free conversation about rent(not that I would ever talk to anyone my organization serves about housing). Also, I knowingly chose this rent ratio because it means that I live in a safe neighborhood, save gas because it's a mile from where I work, and it's big enough that I don't need to worry about storage. So, I guess I resent that these three fairly simple criteria mathematically indicate that I am somehow living beyond my means.

Is that the basis of a connection between me and impoverished girls in central Indiana? I seriously doubt it. Virtually any example I could use would be this ambiguous. Yes, I went through the paperwork to get on food stamps. But I'm qualified for way more than I would be if I was not a VISTA, and I certainly would never talk about this with the girls we serve.

There are strict limits on direct service where I would have the chance to interact with the girls, but it's probably more important that poverty is not limited to a lack of financial resources. Girls Inc. programs focus on every singe poverty-related resource listed in my VISTA handbook:

emotional stability and control
mental capacity and critical thinking skills
social capital and support systems for times of need
role models
financial assets

Look at that list. Obviously, poverty means more than an outdated math problem. It would be ridiculous to go about connecting with any community through only one of these routes.

And let's not kid ourselves. I won't walk away from this service year with a particularly robust story about a lack of financial resources because I am so rich in other resources. (Thanks for the toilet paper, Mom! Thanks for mailing me your old clothes, Caitlin!)

So I guess the point is that I don't blog much about poverty in my VISTA blog because that subject would make me a big, fat liar. I love what I do, and I believe that I am changing this city for the better, no doubt. But 1/3 of the way through my year of service, I'm the same privileged chick from the suburbs. I just have less money.

That alone does not prevent a connection to any community, impoverished or not. Sitting at a computer all day does.

Edit: I'm worried that this comes off like me making a crass blanket statement about VISTA or the poverty experience of others. I'm not. I'm making a crass statement strictly about my own experiences.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

In response to my Dad, who started reading when I stopped writing.

A simple promise to blog more was the wrong way to go about blogging more.

The main problem is that I've become less excited about the journaling format I started here. I'm hoping to fix that before Halloween, so don't give up on me.