A version of this post first appeared on the website of the Penn Yan Public Library. Why not check out our Facebook page?
A colleague and I recently attended a seminar at the Pioneer Library System facilitated by the stupendous Prudence Pease, an aha! Process Bridges Out of Poverty educator and the self-proclaimed “most controversial judge in Vermont.” Her topic? Poverty—its causes, its costs, and the insidious way it can thread through a life, influencing everything from your decision-making to your storytelling. And it’s a two-edged blade, because for all that poverty puts people at a disadvantage in so many ways, she says that it also prepares them to be more self-reliant, pragmatic, community-minded, and creative in their problem solving.
It was a fascinating take on the subject, and one that I never considered, looking at it from my privileged position. People who have experienced poverty have a set of skills that I, with my middle-class background, will probably never be an expert at.
But we can’t underestimate the negative impact that poverty has on those who are living it, and even on those who lived it in the past and found their way out. One of the most striking examples that Ms. Pease gave of the way life just doesn’t flow the same way for these folks is the simple chore of laundry. For many of us, it’s as simple as throwing in a load and going about our day.
But imagine you’re a single parent of two kids, with no at-home washer-dryer, no car, and a Laundromat at least ten minutes away. Now the process becomes a near-Herculean task—and you can’t just do the dishes, neaten the living room or (heaven forbid) relax with a book while you’re wrangling all those moving parts.
People in these circumstances experience the tasks that I take for granted in a very different way, and according to Ms. Pease, ordinary chores like this can take up to five times longer for people living in poverty. Where is someone to find the time to attend classes, give their job search the attention it needs, or take a moment to read to their kids?
These luxuries are still possible—no one suggests otherwise—but they are undeniably more difficult to attain.
That’s why we should look on all our fellow community members not with tolerance—a well-meaning word that often disguises disdain or annoyance—but with acceptance. Ms. Pease advised the librarians in attendance at her program that she doesn’t expect anyone to like every action someone takes, but we have to at least try to understand why they took that action. That’s the doorway to acceptance, and through it, maybe some mutually beneficial dialogue.
What’s more, Ms. Pease spoke about the life of those in poverty as being like a fragile web--one that will fall to pieces if one thread gets tugged. Transportation, employment, housing...any of these facets of life could bring the whole thing down.
Well, the library is another one of those threads. We provide access to information for all, helping those in poverty apply for jobs, improve their skills, seek out services, and relax with a book, movie, or some music. When library funding measures come up for a vote, it’s all too easy to dismiss it as a tax hike supporting a community luxury. But we’re a very real, and very necessary thread in the lives of struggling community members. And for pennies a year, we give every patron an excellent return on their investment.
Whether you think of us as a thread or a bridge, public libraries are helping people out of poverty every day, all around the country.