In June, 2001, I was profoundly affected by Tropical Storm Allison. Although my neighborhood wasn’t flooded, I saw the effects on others in the area and, being a Red Cross disaster volunteer, knew I had to help. So I took time away from my graduate studies to serve in a service center interviewing people whose lives had been disrupted by flooding to see how we could serve them.
It was a transformative experience. For the first time in my life, I was introduced to poverty. It happened when a middle aged woman came into our service center and sat down to wait for an interview. She was my last client of a very long, demanding day, and she apologized profusely for taking up my time and asking for the Red Cross’ help. As I asked her how the disaster had affected her and her family, she explained that she and her three children had lost most everything. Although her house remained standing, she had no power, no clothing, no food, and worst of all, none of the medicines she and her children needed to live. We worked late into the evening to confirm her medical needs and processed vouchers to get her emergency clothing, food, and medicine. We also scheduled a home visit to verify her long-term needs.
A few days later, I made the visit to her home, and it was there that I saw real poverty for the first time. She and her children slept on thin vinyl-covered matresses on a rough concrete floor. They had little in the way of furniture – mostly old lawn furniture and things they’d scavanged from people’s trash on the streets. She hardly had pots and pans to cook with or plates to serve on. But you could tell she was doing the best she could under very difficult circumstances. And despite all the hardship, she maintained a sense of dignity that amazed me and displayed a quiet gratitude that humbled me and made all the extra effort we’d gone to worthwhile.
I’ve since learned that there’s worse poverty than that I saw that day, and it’s right here in America. I learned that poverty is often systemic: that it occurs because our social, economic, and political systems marginalize some people in order to give more people greater wealth and advantage. And I’ve learned that until we do something to change our systems, people will live in poverty.
I believe that if we don’t actively engage the future, we perpetuate the present. Poverty is a reality of our present that I don’t care to bring into the future. So now I choose to use my education as a professional futurist to help create futures in which human dignity can shine through without the blemish of poverty. I believe such opportunities exist and I seek them out. With the help of others who’ve seen the human faces of poverty, I believe we can leave poverty in our past.
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