Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP) started modestly in 1998 with a joint, eight-week summer internship program administered by Berea and Spelman colleges and Washington and Lee University. On the recommendation of Katrina Rivers Thompson from Berea, we met for the first internship orientation at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, the center at which Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and others met to plan for the emerging civil rights movement. We believed, and still believe, that our diversity as institutions enables our students to learn from each other and to teach the faculty and staff based on their common experience. Their interactive experiences in internships and joint conferences, linked to coursework before and after the internship, became an invaluable part of their education. Our purpose admittedly became clearer as the Alliance evolved; however, from the beginning, we sought to prepare undergraduates in all majors and professional students (a law student—who later won a Skadden Fellowship—participated in the first internship class) for a lifetime of work and civic participation to reduce the seemingly persistent high level of poverty in the U.S.
Students from these three schools were soon joined in their annual internship programing by students from other institutions, including Lynchburg and Middlebury colleges, under the aegis of the Shepherd Alliance. Baylor University, Furman University, and John Carroll University received grants from foundations to begin their own poverty studies programs. We were then encouraged by leaders in the effort to diminish poverty in the U.S. such as David Bradley, Executive Director of the National Community Action Foundation, and Rebecca Blank, former Acting Secretary of Commerce and current President of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, to form a Consortium in order to combine our efforts and benefit from collective programing. They reminded us that despite the attention to poverty research from higher education, sustained interdisciplinary and firsthand education to understand poverty and plausible remedies was practically non-existent.
In January 2011 schools interested in a collaborative national consortium on poverty gathered near the Dulles airport for a planning conference, and a proposal for SHECP emerged from that meeting. This proposal addressed the paucity of sustained study of poverty in undergraduate and professional education. The institutions gathered at that meeting adopted a common purpose for SHECP as expressed in the MOU we have signed. The Consortium members agreed to promote studies in higher education and adopt a simple purpose: sustained interdisciplinary curricular and co-curricular education focused on poverty and human capability in order to prepare students for a lifetime of professional and civic efforts to diminish poverty and enhance human capability. We have already seen this goal realized among numerous graduates whose lives have been shaped by their education. For example, a student who formed a 501-c-3 to provide credit and financial information to low-income families is now developing her administrative and entrepreneurial skills in order to start a non-profit in her home city devoted to reducing the education gap that robs children of opportunities for employment and family and civic participation. Another graduate has decided to utilize her skills and knowledge in finance to the field of public health. Yet another has become a Federal Public Defender and has applied her knowledge of poverty measurements to defend her clients. Others have shaped their professional education for healthcare and teaching in order to better meet the needs of cohorts that are too often disadvantaged by access to the full benefits of these services, and some have found their calling in shaping government and public policies to diminish poverty. These graduates, in large numbers, can utilize their commitments and knowledge to instigate multiple professional and civic initiatives to reduce the scourge of persistent and wide-scale poverty on our society.
SHECP now has nineteen member schools and a collaborating partnership with the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. We envision many more schools graduating hundreds of students each year whose committed and informed professional, civic and political engagement will become a force for addressing poverty. As David Bradley once observed, unleashing this knowledgeable and focused energy has a potential for diminishing poverty equal to any piece of legislation or social movement within the past half-century.
The Consortium goes beyond promoting sustained poverty studies. The members also collaborate to advance our common purpose.
We unite in a joint summer internship program patterned after our beginnings at the Highlander Center. Interns are matched with positions in health, education, law, business and economic developments, social services and so forth that prepare them to understand how their specific professional and civic interests relate to reducing poverty. Students come to their internships with course preparation focused on understanding poverty. They begin with a common orientation, live and work together in various sites across the United States, and learn from each other at a closing conference where they report on what they have learned about poverty and efforts to diminish it. This conference culminates this segment of their education and provides a foundation for additional discipline-based course work on aspects of poverty and a rigorous capstone academic experience focused on their future professional and civic interests. Capstone projects allow students to research and write about topics that they will address in their professional and civic lives. The topics include how public policies and healthcare practices influence breastfeeding among lower SES mothers, expanding access to consumer credit among low-income families, fitting justice for indigent persons accused of crimes, how labor market practices and policies exacerbate or alleviate poverty, and evaluating the laws governing fracking practices in low-income communities.
The best of these papers as well as columns and articles by students and faculty are posted on our Consortium website. The website also features syllabi for courses on poverty and research resources for faculty and students. It keeps us informed about the activities of students, faculty, and staff at the participating SHECP schools. The website helps our students maintain contact as alumni of the Consortium internship program and of the member schools and enables them to collaborate in their professional and civic efforts to address poverty.
Faculty and staff from member schools also learn from each other through annual promising practices meetings and annual symposia on teaching poverty in undergraduate and profession education. These symposia feature keynote speakers who have spent their lives as researchers and practitioners addressing poverty. Our speakers for the 2013 symposium are Kathryn Edin, from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; Ron Haskins, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Kirsten Lodal, founder and CEO of LIFT. Sheldon Danziger, Distinguished University Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and currently President of the Russell Sage Foundation, was our keynote speaker in 2012 at a symposium held at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock. I am also available for consultative visits to member schools to talk with faculty, staff, and students at each institution about what their counterparts do at other schools.
The Consortium has contracted with the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia to assist it and its member schools with assessing how well each of us and our various individual and collective activities realize our short- and long-term goals to prepare students and alumni to take multiple, varied, and bold new initiatives to diminishing poverty in the United States. The assessment will help us improve our programing and demonstrate the value of this interdisciplinary education and SHECP to others. SHECP is supported by annual membership fees and by support from foundations and higher education institutions such as Annie E. Casey, Frueauff, Bridgeway Foundation, the Associated Colleges of the South, the Clinton School of Public Service, Fieldstone Foundation, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Virginia Military Institute, and Washington and Lee University.
SHECP invites additional institutions to join us for this venture in higher education. I, like my friend David Bradley, envision forty, fifty, or even a hundred schools developing sustained curricula to educate graduates for a lifetime of professional, civic, and bipartisan political and policy involvement to reduce poverty. We and our students will learn from each other and from the people and communities with whom we work. We will benefit from collaborative internships, symposia, promising practices meetings, consultation, assessment, and website postings.
Multiple communications from alumni like the following recent blog post by a 2007 Washington and Lee alumna on the University’s website persuade me of the potential SHECP has for shaping our society.
“[During] “my freshman year at W&L, I needed a second course and Intro to Poverty looked interesting. I knew that it would fulfill a credit requirement, but I had no idea how intellectual curiosity would cultivate my compassion for others in a way that has followed me throughout my career. I learned about urban poverty which wasn’t a foreign concept after growing up in Washington, DC, rural poverty, the working poor (yes, it is very possible to have a job, work long hours, and still be unable to make ends meet), and even global poverty. I studied public policy and economics and also took a sociology course that examined race. The most valuable part of the Shepherd Program was the requisite summer internship that allowed me to work with four different organizations in my hometown. Those experiences solidified my commitment to service, education and bringing attention to an issue that is often misunderstood. Poverty should never be a political wedge issue and unfortunately it is. Far too often, policy decisions are made because of political ideologies rather than disciplined examination of data.” Cynthia Cheatham Consultant to the Society for Neuroscience
As Director of Washington and Lee’s Shepherd Program on Poverty and Human Capability for 16 years, I have received more than one hundred communications similar to Cynthia’s. As Program Director of SHECP, I hope to play a small role in multiplying one hundred by at least fifty.