Be the Difference: An Action Approach to Educating Students in Poverty
Myth: An education is attainable if someone works hard enough and applies oneself.
Reality: In a recent study examining homework practices and middle-class parents, over 90 percent of the parents responded that they did homework with their children or for them (Hale, 2009). What does that mean for the student from poverty who is highly likely to have parents with limited literacy and little education? Our focus has to shift to how we will ensure these young people are getting support and guidance in a place where their needs are met and they have support from adults who are not in the crisis of poverty and who understand the homework. Two years ago, a teacher who was selected for a Best Teacher award said she succeeded so well with some of her students because she focused on “the students who want to participate and to learn.” We must understand and believe that all students want to participate and they really want to learn. Poverty experiences may have taught young people and adults that what they know now is all they will ever know. Poverty steals hope and possibility.
The pulls of poverty and the everyday realities of poverty are strong. Living in the context of poverty creates real external and internal barriers to learning. Maslow (1943), who taught about human needs, said it is difficult to learn or develop your potential when your fundamental human needs are not met. Students and families in poverty struggle with needs such as money for toilet paper, soap, and gas to get to school. They get strong messages that they are not smart because they do not use middle-class sentence structures, don’t have certain life experiences, or don’t know adults who can assist them with their learning. Students come to feel they do not belong in school because they cannot afford school pictures, fees, and the “right clothes.” They are sent strong messages that they do not look right, talk right, or have the right knowledge, norms, and experiences. The message is clear: Education is not for people like us.
A comprehensive understanding of the context, worldview, learning and communication styles of families living in poverty is essential to breaking the cycle of generational poverty.
What does living in poverty teach?What does it mean to be poor in wealthy America?
Income, educational opportunities, and life experiences shape our communication and relationship styles, and can create misunderstandings and missed opportunities for connection.
Through sharing my journey out of “generational poverty,” my doctoral studies on generational poverty, and fifteen years working to interrupt cycles of generational poverty, I will frame the discussion of how our class/diverse cultural experiences “program” us with values and expectations that shape our abilities to relate and communicate effectively across socio-cultural barriers. The concepts of how socialization and communication shapes education and job expectations, perception, identification, and motivation are addressed. This session will increase understanding of poverty and it is possible to break the cycle and help people to move forward.
My heritage as a child of generational poverty, achievement of my Doctoral Degree with advanced studies in Sociology, and twenty-two years working to interrupt cycles of generational poverty, have afforded me an uncommon perspective on Poverty.
will explore with you, new ways of thinking about the problem of
- Course creator: Debbie Ellis
Helping People in Poverty Move Forward
Stereotypes of people living in poverty in America are deeply embedded in our society. Before our country can move forward with fighting the war on poverty, we must make a collective effort to examine personal beliefs and open our minds to new interpretations
of the behavior of those struggling without basic needs. Attitudes and beliefs shape tone of voice, body posture, facial expressions and actions towards others. If you are judging behavior, then you cannot connect. Therefore, it is important to
reflect on beliefs.
- Course creator: Debbie Ellis
About This Course
The Breaking Poverty Barriers to Equal Justice training is specifically designed to assist legal professionals in improving access to justice. The training aims to improve attorney-client relationships and communication. The goals are better outcomes for clients and greater satisfaction for legal professionals like you.
These materials offer education enabling you to recognize, understand, and transcend the poverty barriers that prevent equal justice. This curriculum provides a lens on poverty in general, how the conditions of poverty erect barriers to accessing our legal system, and how legal professionals can work to improve access to justice for those in poverty. It explains how those in poverty experience our society and our court system. It provides concrete tools to better understand and represent clients from poverty.
Because of this training, you will:
- Understand why more information about poverty is essential for breaking equal-justice barriers.
- Better understand how people living in the crisis of poverty experience the legal system.
- Develop skills for identifying and overcoming unconscious bias that can get in the way of serving people living in poverty.
- Gain tools for effectively communicating and relating with clients in poverty.
- Describe five keys for breaking poverty barriers to equal justice and provide examples of how you can implement them in your work with clients who live in poverty.
More specific learning objectives are provided at the beginning of each of the five modules.
Need for the Training – The Challenge We Face
Per the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility, all lawyers are required to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit a client to make informed decisions regarding representation and to devote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice for all those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure adequate legal counsel. We have a responsibility not only to provide representation to those in poverty, but to contribute to efforts to make our system of justice work for all in our community, to understand and find ways to break these poverty and other barriers, and to ensure all in our communities receive the legal protections necessary for stability and well-being.
One huge barrier to our country realizing its vision of equal justice for all is recognizing that many of those who provide access to legal services are used to communicating and processing information in ways that are not accessible or familiar to people living in the crisis of poverty. As a result, not only does the message sent not equal the message received, we are often unaware that miscommunication and misunderstandings have occurred.
Without communication that leads to shared understanding, we are failing “to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit a client to make informed decisions regarding representation.” Our advice and legal services can then miss the mark for what the client really needs, leaving so many in our communities without meaningful access to legal protections.
Adding to these challenges is the equally invisible challenge of understanding the experiences that clients living in poverty face on a daily basis. It is human to use our own experiences as points of references for understanding and we can fall into assuming that our clients could/should “do what we would do.” If they make a decision we don’t understand, we assume they are “irresponsible.” If they don’t follow a “simple” instruction, we assume they “don’t care.” Without understanding the context of their lives, we can miss that, what may not take much effort for us, such as gathering paperwork, can be prohibitively time consuming and confusing for people desperately juggling numerous crises or demands on their time. What may be obvious or doable for a legal professional may be next to impossible for someone facing the crisis of poverty.
It’s not that legal professionals are not trying. So many of us represent clients on a pro bono basis and make tremendous efforts to bring them the law’s protections. If a client is late, we may shoulder on with the meeting, despite what feels like disrespect to our time. This feeling of disrespect can and does impact our communication and behavior toward our client, whether we are aware of it or not.If the client does not return phone calls, we redouble our efforts by calling and texting more. When the client doesn’t bring the paperwork, we repeat the reason for the paperwork and send them away to try again. We find ourselves wondering why we are working so hard when it appears to us that the client isn’t. And, if we altogether lose touch with a client, our beliefs about poverty – often based on the media – are confirmed. If people in poverty would only apply themselves, they could avoid half of their troubles.
There is a way out of this trap, and it involves working smarter, not harder. This training provides us with the steps and strategies for doing do this, including showing us:
- Some contexts of poverty – to assist us in understanding the lives and challenges of people in different contexts of poverty so we can meet people where they are and to set them up for successful outcomes.
- How to avoid the most common destroyer of effective communication – judgment of others.
- Why our clients from poverty may feel betrayed by the legal system in general and the importance of and suggestions for establishing trust.
- Two fundamental ways of communicating (print and oral communication styles) and strategies for ensuring we understand our client’s histories and priorities and they understand our explanations and advice.
- Five ways to reframe the problem of equal justice – so we have more proven strategies for making justice more accessible to more individuals in our communities.
As in all situations requiring adaptive change, reducing barriers to equal justice for all will not be solved by doing the same things with more energy, but by consciously changing our perspective of the problem. Gaining poverty competency may initially require extra time and effort, but in the long run, it will increase our effectiveness for our clients in poverty, increase our professional satisfaction, and ultimately contribute to efforts in our community that undermine the conditions leading to poverty. And it is the only way we will meet our professional obligation to promote equal justice for all in our communities.
What Legal Professionals Are Saying About this Training
We lawyers and judges are called upon not only to be competent legal technicians, but also to deeply understand, empathize with and provide trusted guidance. This training by Dr. Beegle is essential. — Judge Bruce Peterson, Minnesota Fourth Judicial District
This training will help lawyers get better outcomes for their clients across the country. — Judge Jay Quam, Minnesota Fourth Judicial District
Sometimes it’s difficult for lawyers who have not lived in poverty. Some of the best pieces of the training were the insights into the perspectives that people who live in poverty have. — David March, Senior Counsel, Target Corporation
A lot of what I’ll take away is how I can better communicate with and understand my clients and what they’re going through. — Mike Skoglund, Senior Counsel, Cargill, Inc.
It’s helpful for me to think of where our pro bono attorneys are at, whether they’ve been exposed to this kind of training before and making sure our clients and attorneys are prepared for each other. — Anne Applebaum, Pro Bono Director, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota
- Course creator: Debbie Ellis