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Breaking the Silence of Extreme Poverty: Katrina Survivors Share their Stories

McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies | March 18, 2013
Breaking the Silence of Extreme Poverty: Katrina Survivors Share their Stories

Stories of struggle. Stories of survival.

Tales of extreme financial hardship, homelessness, and oppression, yet they are also tales of courage, strength, and hope.

On March 12, the Center for Social Policy at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies cosponsored a conference, “Breaking the Silence of Extreme Poverty” which touched the minds and hearts of all in attendance at this standing-room only event in the Campus Center ballroom.

Donna Haig Friedman, center director, and colleagues from the International Fourth World Movement, invited to campus co-authors of the new book, Not Meant to Live Like This: Weathering the Storm of Our Lives in New Orleans, to share their stories with the UMass Boston community. Their riveting narratives of their extreme poverty, before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina told of the lack of basic human rights and access to resources needed for everyday living.

Authors and local Center for Social Policy constituent advisors read aloud from the book of families unable to pay their rent and struggling with social hardships caused by institutional neglect. Their stories of transportation problems and relocation of their families as the storm was about to hit the region captured the truths we only read about from afar in the daily news. Audience members listened attentively to the recounts of families trying to return to their home and culture in New Orleans; the stories demonstrated how authorities ignored them as they rebuilt the city.

Yet despite all the hardship, several common threads were evident in the selected stories from the fifty coauthors. Faculty, staff, and students in the audience could feel their hope, resilience, and compassion for their struggling neighbors. 

Harvard University’s Professor William Julius Wilson, one of the nation’s top urban sociologists, spoke at the conference. Also the author of the book's foreword, Wilson praised the work as a “must read for those concerned about poverty and racial inequality in America.”

Wilson drew on his own research and that of other scholars in the field citing statistics and theories about the intergenerational and structural causes and consequences of extreme poverty. He gave examples of raising families in neighborhoods where miseducation and exclusion from opportunity were commonplace. Simply put, he called them, “challenges that middle-class Americans cannot begin to imagine.”

The conference planners, including Project Serve, Office of Student Leadership and Community Engagement, and the College of Management’s Organizations and Social Change doctoral program, successfully wove several artistic performances into this social policy event.

The conference opened with Peter Shugu reciting two poems, “Ain’t Supposed To” and “Possibilities,” which foreshadowed the themes of overcoming challenges that the books’ authors shared in their personal accounts.  Audience members sang along when he skillfully played “We Shall Overcome” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the trumpet.

The final hour of the conference featured theater and dialogue. The Boston-based True Story Theater troupe enacted some of the pre- and post-Katrina stories through drama, dance, and music.  During their powerful performances and creative dialogue, you could see many audience members wiping away their tears. The conference concluded with the College of Management’s Associate Dean Maureen Scully, also a research fellow at the Center for Social Policy, leading a discussion with UMass Boston business students on why and how businesses can be part of the solution to alleviate poverty.

Barbara Graceffa of McCormack Graduate School commented on the moving conference. “I left the event wanting more – more personal stories read aloud, more interpretive theater, more time for dialogue on finding equitable solutions.” She reflected, “I am thankful for what I have and applaud the work of my colleagues at the McCormack Graduate School whose research and service activities are making a positive impact to address social and economic inequities.”

Professor Adenrele Awotona, the director of the Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters, remarked about the conference message. "Through the readings, we discovered the extraordinary resiliency and amazing optimism of residents of the poor neighborhoods in New Orleans whose communities are still unrepaired seven years after Hurricane Katrina."

Friedman and her partners in the Fourth World Movement helped facilitate the production of the book which was available for sale at the event.  This book launch/conference marked the twelfth stop on the authors’ book tour. After purchasing a copy, Graceffa noted, “I admire the pure strength of these individuals in the face of such adversities. I look forward to read this remarkable book.”


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