Response to a TFA Hopeful and Ruby Payne Fan

by Paul C. Gorski

Here's a scary estimation. About 40% of the people who email me in response to my work on poverty and education are trying to convince me or themselves that "the culture of poverty" is real. 

Here's an insight. The culture of poverty is not real. It was introduced as an idea in the early 1960s and debunked by pretty much everyone who studied poverty by the early 1970s. After that it was really only embraced by white politicians looking to justify policy initiatives that were hostile to people in poverty (and especially hostile to low-income African Americans) and by Ruby Payne. 

This morning I received an email from an eager young Teach for America (TFA) applicant. For years TFA required applicants who had made it through the first round of reviews to read my article, The Myth of the Culture of Poverty. They no longer require it, but it remains listed on a resource page that applicants are invited to explore. In that article I peel apart the foundations of Ruby Payne's culture (or "mindsets") of poverty approach and the stereotypes on which it is built. Some of those stereotypes, it turns out, are truer of wealthy people than people in poverty, like a propensity for substance abuse, which pops up a few times in Payne's books. The young man had read Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty and my article and had grown somewhat confused by my analysis of the culture of poverty idea. 

"I hope that you might have a few minutes to clear something up for me," he wrote. "I am applying for Teach for America and, for an interview, a resource page led me to your 2008 article 'The Myth of the 'Culture of Poverty.'" 

He continued, "I once read [Ruby] Payne's book A Framework for Understanding Poverty. In that, I found her explanations of Generational Poverty helpful. Is this part of what you aim to combat as you expel the myths of the Culture of Poverty?" 

He came across as quite earnest in his email. "I appreciate the positive implications of your article," he shared, "and would like to look into some of your references to learn more." 


But his next line reflected a sentiment I come across all too often in conversations about how to approach poverty and education: "I am trying to balance both outlooks." Red flag. 

When we're trying to learn about racism, we don't want a balanced perspective between a racial justice and a white supremacy view. The idea is to root out the latter with the former. When we're talking about sexual assault, we don't want to balance a feminist or womanist view with that of sexual assault apologists. So when it comes to poverty, the idea is not to "balance" Ruby Payne's deficit-laden culture of poverty view with other approaches, but instead to eliminate the oppressive view and to replace it with an equitable and just view. Of course the racial justice or womanist or economic justice view encompass a wide variety of approaches and frameworks. But the dialogue in any of these cases should never become one between the oppressive view and the just view; rather, the dialogue should be among different approaches for achieving the just view. It should not be a debate between a climate scientist and a climate change denier. It should be a discussion among climate scientists. The culture of poverty is, in essence, the white supremacy, the patriarchy, the heteronormativity, the climate change denial of poverty views.

To be clear, this is not a knock on the young man. He was reaching out, seeking a conversation, trying to hone his view. There is nothing more beautiful than that. Whereas I once would have seen his message as confirmation of the backward thinking on poverty that pervades conversations about education today, this morning I saw his message as an opportunity falling gently into my proverbial lap. 

"I appreciate you reaching out about this," I replied.

There was a time that my strategy, when responding to this kind of email, was overly-cautious. I would try to step people through an understanding too carefully. It's another way we, in education, often demonstrate low expectations for future teachers. "Meet them where they are," we say, then never quite get to the part where we move them forward from where they are. 

My approach today was more direct. High expectations. You can get this

I wrote: 
Let me be totally honest. If you found Payne’s work helpful and you intend to go into low-income schools through TFA, I would implore you to spend more time learning about poverty. That article actually was written to dispel the myths that Payne has pushed through her work, which is based on a set of assumptions that were rejected in the 1970s by people who study poverty. The underlying myth is that people are in poverty because of some culture or mindset problem in poor communities that is passed from generation to generation. That, in short, is complete nonsense.  
My forebears were coalminers who worked 12 hour shifts in coal mines for generations. Was it supposed laziness or lack of concern about education that kept them poor? Or was it something else? 
You also should know that people who study poverty (Payne doesn’t—she makes her living as a consultant and never has actually studied poverty) have analyzed her work and found that it is full of factual errors. So if what she wrote in that book rang true for you (as it does for a lot of readers), it’s really just evidence that you probably went into the book with misunderstandings and that Payne confirmed your misunderstandings. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. In the US we are socialized to misunderstand poverty—we’re socialized to understand it the way Payne explains it. That protects the interests of the wealthy, who don’t want you wondering whether poverty actually exists because opportunity and access are distributed unequally [to their benefit].
For a quick example of this, think about what you’re about to do. You’ll go through TFA, get 5 weeks of training, then be placed in a high-poverty school. Do you think any parent in a wealthy community, somebody with the economic sway to demand something different, would allow her or his child to be taught by somebody with 5 weeks of teacher training? Would policymakers allow that to happen? In the wealthiest schools and districts in the US a majority of teachers have graduate degrees in education. 
The point, from an educational view, is that the economic achievement gap exists because low-income people have been cheated out of access to some of the most basic things to which other people have access: preventive healthcare, living wage jobs, paid leave, nutritious food, and, in the education world, experienced teachers, well-funded schools, well-resourced schools, higher-order pedagogies… So you should ask yourself why Payne doesn’t even mention these things in her book. And if you really want to challenge yourself then you should ask yourself why you read Payne's book and didn’t wonder why she didn’t mention any of these things… 
I know some of you are wondering why I didn't take TFA on more explicitly in my conversation with this young man. Maybe I should have. But I worry about being too prescriptive in how I respond to young people about these things. Here's a different window to look through, I imagine myself saying. I also worried that being more explicit about my TFA concerns would render the rest of the message less visible to somebody who is already well into the application process. 

I walked away from my computer still feeling some concern, but also feeling grateful that the young man had the courage to ask some questions. And I felt satisfied that I did some effective and not overly-cautious nudging. I shared this sentiment at the end of my message:

"Best of luck to you with whatever you choose to do in the future. The fact that you’re asking these questions makes me excited for you."

I assume others of you are wondering whether I was too direct, whether I failed to meet this young man "where he is." 

He wrote back not 30 minutes later: "I am pleased to have a new (and more hopeful, to be honest) perspective." An invitation, perhaps, to continue nudging on poverty, on TFA, on educational justice.

Not a bad morning.

Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at gorski@edchange.org.


Stretching Intersectionality to Include Animal Liberation

by Paul C. Gorski

Most of my activism, including my teaching and writing, has focused intently on racial and economic justice. However, as I have written previously (see "The Animal Rights Awakening of a Social Justice Activist" for the short version or "Consumerism as Racial and Economic Injustice" for the longer, thicker version) more recently I have begun to see interconnections between human exploitations, non-human animal exploitations, and environmental exploitations. In other words, I have begun to see how the oppression and liberation of non-human animals and the degradation of the natural world more broadly are related to the oppression and liberation of humans. 

If "intersectionality" speaks to the ways in which human identities--race, socioeconomic status, gender, and sexual orientation, for example--intersect and inform each other, I've come to believe that there is a sort of meta-intersectionality. I use the term meta-intersectionality to refer to the interconnecting roots of human, non-human animal, and environmental exploitation and liberation.

This semester, because I have the coolest job in the world, I'm teaching a class called Animal Rights and Ecofeminism that explores these intersections.

I know that for some of the people who are accustomed to reading my books or essays on racial and economic justice the notion of animal liberation presents a bit of a challenge, even if they can get behind other social justice movements. So I want to share a short excerpt from one of the readings I'm using in my class--an essay that provided me with a new angle on intersectionality, racial justice, gender justice, and animal liberation. The essay was written by Tashee Meadows and appears in A. Breeze Harper's groundbreaking book, Sistah Vegan, in which women of color write about their relationships with veganism through a sort of meta-intersectional lens. If you're struggling to find fantastic narrative intersectionality, I dare you to check out this book.

In her chapter Meadows talks about her realization that animals actually resist their exploitation, and how that's a critical point of connection for her as somebody who has experienced and resisted oppression. She wrote:

They resist. At the stockyard, bewildered calves try to turn around and run away, only to be beaten and prodded in the face, anus, and anywhere in-between. The pigs who don't get off the trucks are dragged and thrown off. Those who resist being confined to small metal cages are hit in the head with pieces of wood, metal piping, electric prods, and anything else that the workers can get their hands on. Chickens fight for their lives as they are shackled in the killing plant before having their throats cut. These beings resist at every point of their captivity and torture. They surrender only to the force used against them.
She starts the next paragraph, "We, too, should resist."

Meadows reminds us that all sentient beings, including non-human animals (and I use "non-human" because the notion of "animal" as separate from "human" is, itself, a social construction), who are being oppressed know they are being oppressed. All sentient beings resist torture, confinement, and other forms of oppression; their resistance is evidence of their awareness. All sentient beings recognize when they are being tortured and confined. All sentient beings feel pain and research is increasingly showing that all sentient beings--yes, even fish--experience anxiety, distress, and physical pain in ways that are very similar to how humans experience anxiety, distress, and physical pain. 

So when I used to eat meat, that meant that a sentient being experienced a lifetime of conditions that guaranteed anxiety, distress, and physical pain so that I could eat what I wanted to eat. As an activist, as somebody who always looks for ways to resist, this excerpt gave me a different window for considering animal liberation through a meta-intersectional view of social justice that incorporates human justice, non-human animal justice, and environmental justice as intimately linked movements.

There are myriad reasons, I know, that people choose not to make those connections. There is the "eating meat is cultural" explanation, although virtually nobody in the world, other than people who do not live near vegetation that can be cultivated for food, ate meat every day, much less at every meal, just three or four generations ago. So if that's culture, it's new culture and a real win for meat, poultry, and seafood industries, which generally are among the biggest human, non-human animal, and environmental exploiters globally. 

Then there's the affordable protein argument, which has been debunked in several recent studies. (See an interesting conversation about this here, on the Vegans of Color blog.) What is true is that all food is more expensive for people in many low-income communities and that healthy food is less accessible in those communities because people in them often do not have access to the types of stores that middle class and wealthier people shop in order to save money, like Trader Joe's. This is another intersecting social justice issue too rarely incorporated into conversations about racism and poverty. The result is that the most cost-effective, most easily-available proteins in high-poverty communities are meat proteins. The beauty of a meta-intersectional perspective is that we can look at this problem in its deepest complexities, recognizing how violence is distributed across multiple spheres. 

Still, I wonder whether, for some--not all, but some--of us folks in the social justice world, the uneasiness about conversations regarding animal liberation and environmental justice, even when it's filtered through a racial and economic justice lens, is an issue of self-perception and entitlement. I want to perceive myself as doing good, not doing harm. I want to perceive myself as anti-oppressive, not oppressive. But, like other people who are oppressive and don't want to imagine themselves as oppressive, it is easier to minimize the conversation or reject it outright than to engage and consider the ways we perpetuate oppression.

I am reminded of when I keynoted about consumerism and racism at the White Privilege Conference and afterward overheard a couple people who are very well-respected in the social justice world dismissing my discussion about inhumane (oppressive to humans, non-human animals, and the environment) clothing companies by saying things like, "What are we supposed to do, make our own clothes?" The root of a comment like this is precisely the same as the root of comments I often hear from students who are new to conversations about issues like racism and sexism. 

In a conversation about misogynistic jokes I might here a male student say, "What are you saying, that I can never tell any more jokes?" In a conversation about racism an occasional white student will say, in effect, "It's like I can never say anything because whatever I say will be interpreted as racist." These are classic responses by which people in a privileged class try to reposition themselves as victims, as people who are being forced to "give up" something to which they're entitled. What does it mean to feel entitled, paraphrasing Jennifer Hickman, to behaving in ways that deny living creatures their vital needs, such as lives without unnecessary pain, to satisfy my trivial needs if I have other options?

I recognize, of course, that I am a white heterosexual middle class man in the US, and that I have what might be called the "luxury" of looking beyond the relatively meager forms of oppression I experience personally--that my attempt to connect these oppressions could be considered, in and of itself, a symptom of my "privilege." I recognize, as well, that part of the privilege is, in fact, having a wide array of options, being able to afford to take any of many non-conforming routes, being able to walk to farmers markets and large grocery stores rather than only having access to a corner store. 

Meta-intersectionality graphic by Paul Gorski.
It is notable, though, that the leading voices around the world making these connections are women of color. I'm betting that the fact that women of color are leading the charge, connecting animal liberation with racial, gender, and other forms of liberation, also is one of the primary reasons that this sort of meta-intersectionality has not been taken more seriously in broader activist and scholarly circles.

I do realize that some people reading this will dismiss it as purely a post about veganism, because that's another way conversations about animal liberation are sidestepped or minimized. The vegan movement itself often is seen as a privileged white person's movement. However that's an historical misunderstanding. 

Vegan culture in the US, like the animal liberation movement, does include a fair amount of self-congratulatory white people who, in all their white liberalism, opt out of addressing issues like racism and poverty. But the veganism-anti-oppression movement in the US was not fomented by and currently is not driven by white liberals. Rather, it is an outcome or result of other intersecting movements including womanism and ecowomanism. We should take care not to confuse the propensity of well-meaning white people to elbow their ways to the front of the room, making sure they're the ones who end up with the press and adulation, with the reality of where the true roots of these movements lie. 

The most radical, anti-racist, anti-poverty, anti-all-forms-of-exploitation parts of the vegan community in the US and globally, and the most important voices theoretically and on the ground when it comes to the relationships between animal liberation, racial justice, and gender justice in particular, are almost entirely, as far as I can tell, those of women of color.

In the end, though, this is not about veganism. It's about the elimination of violence and colonization in all of its interlocking forms. It's about liberation from consumer-capitalist systems--from destroying our health and souls and communities in order to make the wealthiest people and corporations wealthier. It's about doing the least harm and the most good in every possible way. When it comes to animals, that means, whenever possible, that I must resist all of the systems that exploit them, even if those systems once served my trivial needs to eat, seek entertainment, or clothe myself in ways that create suffering for other sentient beings. That, in essence, is ecowomanism.

I haven't stopped doing racial and economic justice work in order to do animal liberation work, as should be clear to anybody who looks through my Facebook posts or browses the LeHa MoGo blog. Rather, I deepen all of my work across justice issues when I recognize and respond to these intersections. It's not an evasion, but a deepening.

As a closing thought, I want to offer this: if imagining or relating purely to the exploitation of non-human animals isn't enough, consider that the same industries and corporations that make (mostly white male) wealthy people wealthier through the oppression of animals also are very skilled at oppressing the most marginalized human communities. I'll give you one guess as to where the grossest, most disease-ridden, most chemical-filled products of industrialized farming end up. From the labor point of view, the workers on industrialized farms disproportionately are low-income men of color, and they have among the most dangerous, disease-inducing jobs available to anyone, anywhere. And, of course, industrialized farming has been named by some scientists as the leading cause of climate change in the world--more so even than transportation.

Here, then, is the meta-intersectionality, and why fighting for the liberation of non-human animals also means fighting for the liberation of oppressed humans: Who faces the most immediate brunt of this environmental impact?

I'll give you a hint. It's not wealthy white people.

Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at gorski@edchange.org.