If the “war on poverty” really is important, maybe we should ask people living in poverty for their ideas on how to eradicate it.
That’s the concept behind the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, which has been celebrated worldwide each October 17th since the 1992 passage of a resolution adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.
It started in France in 1987, but what has been unique about this annual event is the vital participation of people who are living in poverty themselves. In fact, the stated priorities of the event’s founding nonprofit, ATD Fourth World (All Together in Dignity), are: learning from the most disadvantaged families, understanding how they become trapped in persistent poverty, and planning and developing projects with them.
Not unlike the earliest members of The Junior League, whose work brought them to the squalor of New York’s settlement houses, the founder of ATD Fourth World, Father Joseph Wresinski, moved from “helping” the poor with soup kitchens and the distribution of old clothes to providing them with access to life-affirming resources like a library, a kindergarten and a chapel. Joined by other volunteers, he soon created a research institute on extreme poverty which brought together researchers from different countries and disciplines.
Decades ago Father Wresinski, who died in 1988, said these words that are still fresh and poignant today: “In every country there are people who do not share in the benefits society offers. From childhood on, poverty damages their health and jeopardizes their chances to learn. They are denied educational opportunities and access to decent work. They live in overcrowded or unsanitary conditions. Many become homeless. If the most disadvantaged families are to be reached, anti-poverty and development programs must make a special effort to include them.”
This is an approach that is growing in popularity among a number of Junior Leagues. For example, Leagues in Charlotte, Fort Myers, Austin and Orlando have hosted “Poverty Simulations,” which are multi-week guided experiences that task program participants to provide basic necessities and shelter while navigating the complex world of government services and other available providers of services.
And the Junior League of Longview is hosting the day-long 2015 Poverty Conference, featuring keynote speaker Geoffrey Canada, children’s advocate, educator, social entrepreneur and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which was described by President Barack Obama as an “all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children.”
We can’t defeat poverty as a single organization…but we can certainly join with others to understand its causes and to work to address them with programs that Mary Harriman would understand and embrace!