What have you learned from your first-hand experience about poverty here in the City of Rochester and how has that affected you?
Although my job as a VISTA is to fight poverty in Rochester, I actually feel I’ve had limited firsthand experience with poverty this year. I cannot say I am an expert in poverty because I’ve never lived it. I’ve saved enough money from previous jobs to feel financially secure (for now), even on the VISTA stipend. I don’t know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck, and I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a family with neglectful parents, or a neighborhood that feels unsafe. I did not grow up in a wealthy family, but I feel lucky—now more than ever—to have grown up in the community I did.
The most firsthand experience I’ve had with poverty—what motivated me to become a VISTA in the first place—was my stint as a preschool teacher working in the homes and schools of children in low-income families. What VISTA has given me is less firsthand experience with poverty and more knowledge and understanding about how to end it.
It is difficult to define what poverty looks like in developed countries such as the U.S. It is not (or does not have to be) the lack of basic necessities like food and shelter, because there is public assistance for people who need those things. Because of this, I’m not positive if any or all of the students I work with are technically living in poverty. We don’t talk about their parent’s income and whether they qualify for benefits or not. I do know that many of them live in neighborhoods with rampant violence and drug activity because they tell me about those things. I also know that there is a cultural difference between myself and the youth I work with that sometimes makes it challenging for me to connect with them and their families. The most important thing I’ve learned is that in order to bring families out of poverty, they need to feel empowered to help themselves. It can be frustrating to work with people whose values and culture are so different from your own, but I am inspired every day by the positive attitudes and resiliency of the youth we work with.