I Walk the Line:How Interdisciplinary Studies of Poverty and Human Capability has Shaped My Career Path and Perspective of Myself and the World Around Me
By Summer Lollie
I decided to do my undergraduate studies at Washington and Lee University (W&L) without even visiting the campus a single time. I could not afford a trip to tour the campus before it was time for me to make a selection. I chose W&L after researching and discovering it had a strong politics department. I also learned W&L had a unique interdisciplinary study of poverty and human capabilities that no other school I had researched offered. I made one of the biggest decisions of my life almost blindly, knowing that I, as a black woman, would be in the minority at the school in terms of race and would be attending the school from a household with income that was lower than the average of my future peers.
“I came to realize that I was studying poverty, politics, and African American studies …with the hope of upward mobility, not only for myself, not only for my family, but for all of the communities filled with people just like me and my extended family,” writes Summer Lollie, W&L 2012.
That is not to say that I grew up in poverty. I considered myself lucky compared to some of my extended family who struggled around and below the poverty line despite being fulltime hard workers with high morals from whom I adopted my own hard work ethic. Growing up so intimately with family who struggled despite their best efforts, yet being afforded the chance to grow up in a good neighborhood, with good schools, and the right support I needed from teachers allowed me to walk a line where I could see the deleterious effects that lack of income and opportunity could do and the positive outcome proper support and opportunities can provide.
I became an American politics major with minors in African American and Poverty Studies because I wanted to learn more about how government and civic institutions can affect the different outcomes in human achievements such as income, educational attainment, and health and happiness outcomes that I was witnessing in everyday life.
In my interdisciplinary study of poverty at Washington and Lee University, I took the introductory course, Poverty 101, and learned that defining poverty can be tricky, and that it should be measured not only by lack of income, but as a range of quality of life measures such as health, happiness, educational attainment, leisure time, access to information, and a plethora of other measures of well-being. I learned to look at poverty, or the lack thereof, as a broad set of functionings that will allow a person to have a healthy level of participation in society at large.
During my studies at W&L, I volunteered at Head Start, a program designed to give disadvantaged students the extra attention that their working class parents couldn’t always afford to give. This program could potentially have positive effects on achievement levels of the kids for the rest of their educational careers. As part of my internship to complete my minor in Poverty Studies, I was a community development intern for the Boys, Girls, Adults, Community Development Center (BGACDC) in Marvell, Arkansas. Marvell is an extremely impoverished rural town in the middle of a food desert. While I was there, the FDA and USDA ran nutritional studies on the families that lived there, and my job was to mentor the lower income elementary to high school aged children, teach and introduce them to nutritious food, and most importantly, get to know the people of the BGADCD. I met kind, generous, and smart people with big warm personalities whom I still keep in touch with, and will never forget.
As I grappled with questions like, “will better or earlier education pull people out of poverty?”, “will better lifelong nutrition help people succeed”, and “does welfare work, and what kind of welfare works best?” I was doing it as a broke college student in the middle of my some of my more affluent peers. I was walking a line between the privilege and opportunities that college life afforded me, and the stark reality that my student loans were burdening my parents, and that I could barely afford to be where I was. I realized that my family was one lost job away — one generation away from the realities of poverty. I came to realize that I was studying poverty, politics, and African American studies at one of the finest educational institutions in this country with the hope of upward mobility, not only for myself, not only for my family, but for all of the communities filled with people just like me and my extended family.
I cannot see the limits of human potential, but I do see constraints on individual potential. I view poverty as something that is inherited and entrenched in society. I view society as a living and changeable microcosm of rules, judgements, and laws that can solve the issue of poverty, if we are creative and brave enough to think about ways to implement programs that will break the chains of constraint on individual success.
I like to think of myself as an organizer and activist; organizing and empowering people to demand change in their communities and to make a more perfect society without poverty and the ills that surround it. I’ve done this as a union organizer, helping teachers and support personnel demand the changes in public education that will provide better education for our kids. I’ve done this working for a political action committee that demands big bold ideas such as debt free college and expanding social security to raise as many people possible out of poverty and give people a chance at a better education. And I do this working for various campaigns for organizations, candidates, and causes that I believe in. Studying poverty has given me the knowledge and insight I need to challenge people and organizations alike to question the status quo, and demand a society that does not accept poverty as something that just is. This is the kind of work that keeps me motivated, and I will spend a lifetime working to achieve a society that represents and works for everyone.
Ms. Lollie is a native Texan who has an always present urge to learn new things, communicate with others, and encourage people to stand up for themselves and their communities. Summer graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2012. Summer has volunteered with several local, state and national campaigns, served as a Communications intern for the Democratic National Committee, followed money in politics while writing for the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets’ blog, and has organized teachers and school employees in Louisiana. Summer served as a fellow for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), mobilizing thousands of Bold Progressives across the United States to Call Out the Vote for progressive candidates. She then progressed to serve as Executive Assistant to the co-founders of the PCCC. Currently, Summer works as Dallas Regional Coordinator for Battleground Texas in her home district in Texas. As regional coordinator, Summer organizes her neighbors in massive voter registration and get out the vote efforts, as well as supporting local campaigns and causes in the Dallas area. Ultimately, in 5-10 years, with more experience, Summer wants to start a PAC, non-profit, and consulting firm. Her PAC will be Texas based to help run strategic progressive electoral and issue campaigns to turn Texas blue. Her non-profit will be a professional development program to get young MS/HS/young adult age minorities, particularly black and Latino girls/women, into politics. Her consulting firm will be aimed at developing progressive individuals, businesses, non-profits, and campaigns to organize and build brands and messages in order to succeed.