How to Fight Poverty: Play the Long Game


Yosemite

This post is a continuation from my last post on poverty. I made the case that poverty can be viewed as not simply a lack of money or resources, but as a lack of options, and that the development of better options for children and their families is a potential strategy for mediating against the toxic effects of poverty.

The development of more and better options certainly begins in each classroom, as RiShawn Biddle argued well in a recent post on Dropout Nation. Because the more that a child learns and gains knowledge, the more his brain is enriched with interconnections, helping to inoculate him against toxicity in his environment and ward off manipulation and illusions by others, and thus make better decisions.

And when it comes to teaching our children knowledge in a coherent and systematic manner, we’ve been failing pretty miserably on that front, in my opinion. It’s fuzzy math, or it’s Singapore math. It’s phonics or it’s whole language. It’s Common Core standards vs. don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-even-if-it’s-good-for-me. It’s political and ideological squabbling between adults, in other words, rather than a focus on systems design and iterative processes and products with students at the center.

But as I discussed before, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can completely ameliorate the devastation of poverty in the classroom.

To scale and sustain the development of more and better options for a community ultimately requires playing the long game.

Structural changes in a society seem to mostly occur after long periods of chipping away, when suddenly some invisible threshold is reached, and there’s an avalanche, a titanic shift in mindsets, culture, and policy.

The short game is the game most politicians play. It’s the game most business folks play. It’s the game prison inmates play. It’s aggressive, it’s territorial. It’s also the game ideologues play. Hey kids, can anyone think of any ideologues in education?

It’s a necessary game, and it’s perhaps a glamorous one, but it’s not the only game in town, and it’s not the most important one.

Playing the long game means thinking at a systems level and across sectors. It means being willing to fight political or ideological battles when necessary, but also willing to develop and implement and sustain pragmatic policies and initiatives. It means being willing to work quietly in the shadows, because the long-term effectiveness of processes and policy outcomes are not something easily seen, nor something captivating to a public enraptured by the next new thing.

Playing the long game is akin to cultivating a tree.

A tree takes decades to mature. And like a child, the long-term outcome of a tree is heavily dependent on the initial conditions of it’s sowing. For a tree, the initial conditions are the soil and surrounding ecosystem. The wind, the light, the geographical placement. For a child, the initial conditions refers to his or her given family and surrounding environment.

For a tree to grow, it requires healthy, rich, nutritious soil, full with microbial life and enough water to get it started. It then benefits from layerings of mulch as it begins to develop.

A tree is an investment in a healthier future. A tree provides us shade, it cleans our air, provides a haven for birds, creates a buffer against noise and the wind, and even its simple presence, green, vibrant, and calm, can reduce violence and help to shore us up against the vicissitudes of life.

How can you tell the difference between a poor neighborhood and a wealthier neighborhood from outer space? It’s easy—you look for trees.

Something that simple, yet that powerful. But trees don’t magically appear and come to fruition. And while we can accelerate and aid the growing of a tree in unnatural conditions, we don’t yet have instant test tube trees we can transplant anywhere. Planting and growing trees takes a community effort. The MillionTrees NYC effort—one of many such efforts in an urban setting—for example, requires the sustained collaboration of government, private and public funds and outreach, and volunteers.

To nurture our children requires a similar sort of effort. It takes a willingness to work with people from different walks and roles, to build an interdependent network of care, to see beyond one’s own front yard. It takes a focus on what will matter in the future, not just right now right now right now.

And it takes a willingness to acknowledge and invest in enriching the initial conditions and circumstances in which a child is born. That’s pre-K, child care, pre-natal services, education and outreach by health providers. A willingness to acknowledge the toxic impact that infrastructural decay and lack of access to parks, diverse food sources, strong local schools within walking distance, and libraries can have on a community.

Providing options in the form of school choice is great—but it’s not much of a choice when it takes a child 2 hours to get there.

And it’s not the much of a choice when there’s a failing economy and few job opportunities in your community upon your graduation.

Let’s play the long game and invest in providing our children with opportunities and options within the communities they are raised within.

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