Life’s been busy, and I’ve been slacking, so I haven’t finished the series on health care reform yet. I’ve written more than you’ve read, and I’m about to dive back in, but I needed a break.
I’m taking off an a bit of a tangent today. I’m studying poverty right now; it’s an area of extreme interest, which lead me to a new job, which makes it all the more important for me to study poverty. Anyway, I read a quote in a book I’m studying, that made me think… And I think it’s really relevant for all of us. It’s the intro quote to a chapter on mentoring people who are seeking to escape from generational poverty.
The wise … mentor knows that being aware of what is not known is important in order to begin to learn.*
One can read this sentence in two ways, and I haven’t read the chapter yet to know how the author intended to use it. The first, and what I believe the more likely way for most people to interpret this sentence, is that the one being mentored must be aware of what he or she does not know. While this is true, I believe it is just, if not more important, for the mentor to be aware of his or her own unknowns. Like it or not, most of us operate with a huge blind spot, in that we don’t know, and in most cases don’t even consider the existence of, what we don’t know. Poor Donald Rumsfeld was lampooned for discussing this concept, when he talked about “unknown unknowns” when in reality, he was thinking so far beyond his audience that they couldn’t comprehend a very intelligent point. Most of us operate in the majority of our lives and decisionmaking processes from the incredibly blind point of view that we know all of the salient facts. Fortunately, most of those decisions don’t have significant consequences. That doesn’t make us smarter, so much as it makes us lucky.
Back to the point on poverty: Most of us have never experienced true poverty first-hand, and quite a bit of our nation hasn’t experienced it second-hand. Therefore, our opinions are formed predominantly from third-hand information. When trying to address concerns of poverty, our first inclination is to tell folks to “get a job,” or “get a better job, that earns more money.” If our experience in life doesn’t include any real contact with poverty, this makes perfect sense. However, it ignores the fact that people who are in generational poverty are truly members of a different culture than the vast majority of the rest of us (I’m not ignoring that they’re immersed in a broader American culture that we all share, but using the term culture to refer to the fact that they are a people group who tends to be clustered together geographically, with a common set of experiences, values, language, and dress that makes them uniquely identifiable). A reasonable person would not expect a member of another culture (for example, someone born and raised in a farming village in China) to respond to a situation the same way someone from the US would. We recognize that they have a different frame of reference. I believe we need to approach the generational impoverished in the same way-=-we need to start out with a desire to become aware of what we don’t know (those cultural norms of the generational impoverished that differ from our middle class norms) if we hope to help them change their condition. Otherwise, even the best-intentioned efforts to help will be misunderstood, and at the least will only be marginally ineffective; in many cases they can exacerbate the problem.
“Seek first to understand…”
*Payne, Ruby K. PhD, Philip E. Devol, Terie Dreussi Smith. “Bridges out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities.” Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc., 2009, p. 79.