The students pulled their classroom desks into a ragged circle and debriefed about their field trip. They did not waste time on the weather, the transportation or the food. Their discussion zeroed in on the causes and possible solutions to one of the most intractable social issues in America.
“Poverty is caused by multifactorial problems, and the solution needs to be multifactorial.”
– Connor McGovern.
“I don’t see a solution. We’re doing 17 different things, and we still need to do 27 more.”
– Charlotte Zulick
Sharon Ahram, assistant director of PC’s Center for Public Purpose, designed Seminar on Poverty, a three-week, one-credit summer course she taught in July. Her students read the bestseller Evicted, they listened to TED Talks, they welcomed guest speakers, they performed community service. They studied and talked about the causes and effects of poverty and how these are complex and interwoven; they worked to understand social policies designed to ease poverty.
Rising juniors and seniors, the students spent four hours each day raising philosophical and ethical questions about individual and collective behavior. Their classroom feedback session demonstrated they had developed a framework of knowledge that allowed them to ask intelligent questions and dare to imagine some answers.
“We go for policy changes like capping rent based off the value of the property—things like that—and still promote to people who have money to give back to the community.”
“Nonprofits should pay taxes. That would be a simple thing.”
While their classwork focused on Philadelphia, with some comparisons to other cities, a two-day field trip to Buffalo, N.Y., tested and expanded their understanding of poverty and activism.
The class visited John Somers OPC ’78 to learn more about the effort that he has led to stabilize and transform Bailey Green, the neighborhood surrounding Harmac Medical Products, his family’s international medical equipment manufacturer. About 10 years ago, Somers considered moving his business
out of east Buffalo to a rural setting free from poverty, crime and other distress that afflicts many urban neighborhoods in the United States. When he realized that 25 percent of Harmac’s Buffalo employees lived in the headquarters’ zip code, he decided to stay and roll up his sleeves.
Students observed close-up how Somers and partners he has attracted—including Habitat for Humanity, University at Buffalo, the city of Buffalo, Groundwork Market Garden, Urban Fruits & Veggies, Buffalo Peacemakers—are collaborating to address critical problems caused by poverty: lack of housing and job opportunities, poor diet and related health issues, violence, blight.
The students in the Seminar on Poverty left with more knowledge, more real- world understanding, and considerable appreciation for Somers’ vision to use his business as a force for good.
They also had a heady conversation with well-known academic, author and activist Henry Louis Taylor Jr., University at Buffalo professor in the School of Architecture and Planning. This generated conversation about socialism vs. capitalism, free health care, policy and political power.
“Socialism and capitalism, they need to come together. They have to compromise and move forward.”
– Vanessa Ewing
But then time was up for the day.
Ahram had facilitated the discussion, interjecting questions when needed:
Why is property owning so important?
And supplying quick statistical reminders:
Twenty-two percent of our population in Philadelphia is impoverished.
And peppering the conversation with questions about collective responsibility.
“There is intentionality behind what all of these people are doing. Focusing on housing. Focusing on food. On safety, education, job skills. Think in that mindset,” she encourages in wrapping up.
“What are the possible solutions? Poverty is huge. There are smaller social issues that feed poverty, and we know that there are solutions to those issues. I’ll let you ponder that.”
To learn more about Somers and Bailey Green, visit penncharter.com/somers.