Poverty Studies Can and Should Transform Institutions as Well as Students

By Gregory Pleasants

Mr. Pleasants graduated from Washington and Lee with a degree in Philosophy and Spanish in 2000. From 2000-2003, he worked and volunteered in Latin America, including with Amigos de las Américas and Casa Alianza Nicaragua. From 2003-2004, he served as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Los Angeles, California. From 2004-2007 he earned his M.S.W. and J.D. at the University of Southern California. From 2007-2009 he served as an Equal Justice Works Fellow on a project to strengthen legal protections for detained immigrants with serious mental illness. From 2009-2013, he served as both a federal and state public defender. Since 2013, Gregory has worked on a nationwide program to provide appointed counsel to indigent, detained immigrants who have serious mental illness. Gregory also works as a clinical therapist at a psychiatric hospital. He is married to Theresa and has a son, Vien.

"And once my previous certainty about the nature of the world began to crumble, there was no going back," writes Gregory (W&L 2000).

“And once my previous certainty about the nature of the world began to crumble, there was no going back,” writes Gregory (W&L 2000).


The Shepherd Poverty Program changed the course of my life and instilled in me a determination to work for social justice. I am deeply thankful for that, and I think I have, on occasion, been able to help people achieve some measure of justice and connection with others. But just as important is the transformational effect the Shepherd Program has on Washington and Lee itself, and on other schools like it.

My personal journey via the Shepherd Program is simple enough to explain, and certainly no more compelling than the many other examples of the same found alongside this essay.

I grew up in North Carolina, White, male, and economically privileged, with all the advantages that origin carries with it. I had no critical view of my circumstances. I believed that I deserved what I had, and that others did too, whether they had a lot or a little. Those beliefs remained largely unchallenged well into my junior year at Washington and Lee.

That year, at the behest of a close friend, I met Professor Harlan Beckley. Harlan had – still has – a certain persuasiveness about him, and I mean that in the kindest way. The moment I walked into his office, he started talking about the “Shepherd Program,” then a new effort, still relatively unknown on campus, that combined the classroom study of poverty with hands-on service projects.

Before I fully grasped what was happening, I had signed up for the Program, agreeing to spend the summer in rural Honduras repairing damage from Hurricane Mitch and to take the “Introduction to Poverty” class in the Spring. I vaguely remember leaving his office in a half-daze, wondering what I had gotten myself into.

My formerly unchallenged views did not survive my sweltering Honduran summer. I met and grew close with people whose circumstances – of dire material poverty, of lack of opportunity, of personal loss – had nothing at all to do with their “deservingness.” And once my previous certainty about the nature of the world began to crumble, there was no going back. The rest of my life has flowed from those moments. The story of my personal change through the Shepherd Program does not end there, though, because it is part of the larger story about the Program’s influence on Washington and Lee.

The Washington and Lee I knew – and, I emphasize, I speak for no one’s experience but my own – was marked by no few instances of overt racism, sexism, and homophobia. Even if those instances could be dismissed as unrepresentative of campus life – a question I leave open – there was certainly a general lack of engagement with broader concerns of social justice, fairness, and equality. Moreover, lest I seem holier-than-thou, there is no doubt that I was personally complicit in some of the same.

None of this is singular to Washington and Lee. These problems were and are present at many schools, particularly schools whose student bodies are mainly White and economically advantaged.

In my case, there was little on campus, at the time, to help me identify or challenge, in my own personal beliefs and conduct or that of others, these instances of bigotry or the broader lack of engagement with social justice.

That is, until I found the Shepherd Program. After my summer in Honduras, and after taking the Introduction to Poverty class – which explicitly addressed social justice and the intersection of race, gender, and economic inequality with the same – I had a framework to critically examine not only the beliefs with which I had grown up, but also what was going on around me, including the prevailing culture of Washington and Lee itself and my role in it.

My contact with the Shepherd Program opened up so much for me: new ways of thinking, new relationships, and new outlets to put word and thought to deed. This seems, to me, to be the very best of what an education can offer.

And, I am glad to say, the influence of the Shepherd Program has grown. Today, and to its credit, Washington and Lee has a number of companion programs, among them the Nabors Service League, the Campus Kitchen, Volunteer Venture, the Global Service House, and the Bonner Program, all programs that offer students a chance to learn, serve, and grow.

Washington and Lee still has a long way to go to transcend its past of existing to serve rich White Southerners – but there is cause for hope. There are young people everywhere – including at Washington and Lee – hungry for constructive engagement with issues of race, class, gender, sexual identity, income inequality, and the many other challenges we face as a society.

The Shepherd Program, and companion efforts, offers one way forward, both for individual students who are ready (some, like me, with a push) for critical engagement with the world around them, and for schools, like Washington and Lee, in need of continued transformation to offer the best possible education.

#AmeriCorps #AmigosdelasAméricasandCasaAlianza #EqualJusticeWorks #UniversityofSouthernCalifornia

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