By Farai Musariri
I remember that Wednesday afternoon almost like a childhood dream: so vivid, a tad scary and undeniably perspective altering.
“I have resolved that symptom management in humanitarian work is unsustainable; we need a generation of persons who are willing to invest themselves in solving the fundamental questions underlying living in poverty,” writes Farai Musariri, Hendrix 2016.
We tried to define poverty as a class that first day, but Dr. Chris Campolo at Hendrix College challenged everything I knew of or ever thought I understood about it. Guided only by the introduction of Michael Harrington’s poverty classic, The Other America, our time-deprived discussion did not yield a clear cut definition of this injustice called poverty, but it definitely made clear the fact that US poverty constitutes much more than material deprivation. It is systematic, cyclical, and, dare I say, often “hereditary.”
I grew up in Zimbabwe, somewhat comfortable with the meager earnings of my parents who were then teachers. I knew of economic hardships and had experienced them firsthand when our economy crashed in 2008 coupled by political instability. Our inflation rose to alarming levels; there was no food in the stores; the black market thrived; there were long queues that people had to endure to get money at the bank or even to buy basic commodities on street corners; the political climate was not (and still is not) conducive for foreign investment; civil servants were not being paid; when they were paid, often late, their money was worth literally nothing; and the government did not provide a safety net to protect the average citizen from hitting rock bottom.
Nonetheless, I had opportunities. The only sector that survived this economic and political withering was that of education, as parents resolved to pay teachers to ensure that schools did not close. I was a part of the small middle class that was (and still is) mostly comprised of civil servants, and, as such, my deprivation was material and did not undermine opportunities for the future. My parents invested their meager earnings in educating me, and, quite frankly, it never occurred to me at the time how wise this decision was. I was fortunate to get selected to be a part of the United States Achievers Program (USAP) which helped me as a high school senior to apply to US tertiary institutions. That is how I ended up at Hendrix, a college that fit my interests in experiential learning, community engagement, and interdisciplinary scholarship. There I determined to study Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, and when the opportunity to engage in an interdisciplinary study of poverty in partnership with the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP) arose near the end of my freshman year, applying was a natural move. It made sense—who is better suited to study and deal with poverty than a person who has experienced it?
At Hendrix College my socio-economic class became obvious. I was a student on merit and need-based aid, and, although only I knew that, I was a poor misplaced African, period. My elite liberal arts college afforded me a lifestyle and opportunities I never imagined existed, but very few people understood why I had to work so much while taking a full course load, or why I was often reluctant to go out to eat with my friends. Then, I thought it was all part of the immigrant experience. It never occurred to me that there was that “other American” tucked away in that environment. In essence, I learned about this America through the literature, even though my school is in a small town of less than 100,000 people in Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the US. Remarkable!
Harrington’s The Other America literally shattered my preconceived notions of poverty. What was poverty in the US? Did it even matter much since it was not necessarily a matter of life or death and few people were on the brink of starving? I learned quite quickly that what I understood as poverty were symptoms, not the problem itself. Now, I realized how dehumanizing the experience of living in poverty is, especially in the US where people seem to have a “poverty-phobia.” Through my classes and my SHECP internship, I realized firsthand how the systems cripple efforts to climb the socio-economic ladder. I learned too, that some people are trapped in poverty because of their human capital, their race/ethnicity, and the social structure of the family they are born into, including its level of education. I never imagined that poverty could be so complex and intricate, yet so grossly understudied.
Ultimately, this new perspective enabled me to see that existing antipoverty measures act as “band aides” rather than address “root causes.” Those I met through the SHECP internship led me to dismay about the inadequacy of band aide policies emanating from misguided efforts. This knowledge, building on my courses at Hendrix, has become a driving force in my professional pursuits. I have resolved that symptom management in humanitarian work is unsustainable; we need a generation of persons who are willing to invest themselves in solving the fundamental questions underlying living in poverty. This guided introspection has led me to a place where I am effectively a social entrepreneur. As a recent college graduate with zeal and will-power, I am proud that my professional motivations are a product of my commitment to antipoverty work. For example, my decision to relocate to the Arkansas delta to start a career in medical research is a conscious, selfless move that surprises even me, considering the quality of life and potential opportunities I am foregoing. There, my weekends will be full of community health initiative steering.
I had opportunities to receive a fantastic education, to escape poverty unlike many of my friends at my rural high school in Zimbabwe, to enroll in a poverty studies program at Hendrix in collaboration with the SHECP, because someone invested in me even though he/she did not even know it. Today, I am convinced that the opportunity to work as a Hendrix and SHECP intern that summer of my sophomore year with all my expenses paid for strengthened my motivation to give back. It prepared me by connecting me to a web of like-minded professionals whose antipoverty drive was infectious. This timely exposure sensitized me to the world around me, the importance of critical and objective thought, and my responsibility in civic matters to ensure that federal and state systems do not trap the vulnerable. The potential that the SHECP has to shape minds, inspire antipoverty mindsets in professionals in all walks of life, and ultimately to create a generation of empathetic persons through firsthand experience makes it a fantastic initiative that can influence national efforts against poverty. Now, my journey to give someone else an opportunity has grown stronger, and it is only natural to pay kind good deeds forward.