“I just want to give up. I want to go to sleep.”
This came as a response to a simple question, asked in a room of strangers: “Tell me your life story. What is keeping you and others down in Kalamazoo?” Perhaps more heartbreaking than the response was the chorus of nodding heads and mumbles of agreement around the room.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have traveled around Kalamazoo, sitting in on community conversations and trying to understand the realities and causes of poverty in the city. The Michigan League for Public Policy is working with the Nonprofit Network to train all Kalamazoo city employees on cultural competency, the systemic causes of poverty and ways in which public servants can create pathways out of poverty.
To build this training, we had to first do a lot of listening.
For the first time in my professional life, I was instructed to wear casual clothes, no jewelry, no makeup, no purse, no cell phone, and I was told that I should simply listen. I could not take notes. I could not share my own ideas.
As a result, trust was established, and I heard people in a way I hadn’t before. I was humbled by their stories. Here are a few:
- “I returned here from prison … Men get locked up and then no one is around to help take care of the kids. Everyone loses. We need jobs. I’m $57 away from being homeless.”
- “I live in a shelter, I’m 54 and my foot is broken in three places. The doctor says my arm is bad and it won’t work anymore—may never heal. I was raised as a working man. I was raised to take care of my family … They tell me to get on disability. I’ve tried multiple times. I apply—they tell me to wait a year. I apply—they tell me to wait some more. Meanwhile, I’m on the streets, trying to take care of my kids … I’m going to do what I have to do. And if that means breaking into your house to get what I need to survive, you can’t judge me. I lost everything.”
- “I hurt my back and have been disabled since 2002. I had to draw down unemployment but I can’t get what I need to feed my kids. I’ve worked since I was 14. I own my own home—have for 22 years. And I was told by a worker that I was living above my means and that I should sell my home. How dare she? That’s my home. I lost it. I went off. They had to call the police on me.”
Like many people around the state, these men and women are suffering, working to make ends meet, but for many reasons outside of their control are not able to keep up with life’s demands.
As a policy enthusiast, here is what I see. I see a need for criminal justice reform—investment in reentry programs and motivation for employers to hire people with criminal records. I see a need to simplify the application process for unemployment, disability and other state services. I also see the necessity of incentivizing the development of affordable and high-quality housing.
One of the core causes of poverty is most certainly inadequate and inequitable public policy, and the stories I heard in Kalamazoo have further confirmed a need for reform of key policies in Michigan.
From now on, I plan to put listening first in my work. I hope to dig deeply and empathetically into statistics to find the real people underneath. I think this is vital as we move forward, organizing for change in our state and globally, within harsh and often impersonal political environments.
— Jenny Kinne