Nothing Without Us About Us Is for Us: Fighting Poverty through Empowerment
When I was a young assistant professor here at the University of Central Florida around 2007 or 2008, consumer rights advocate and repeat presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, visited the campus. On the spur of the moment, I decided to go and listen to him. He was speaking in a large lecture hall, and I arrived about 5 minutes before the start. The room was packed, and I was dressed in a sloppy, unshaven, poor graduate student style, not as a member of the faculty. Somehow, I managed a seat in the third row, center—directly in Mr. Nader’s line of sight.
During his speech, he asked for a volunteer from the audience, and rather than wait for someone to, well, volunteer, he pointed at me, and said: “You.”
I stood up. He asked: “Who are you?”
“Who else are you?”
“Assistant professor of public administration”
“You are? Okay. Who else are you?”
“I’m a husband.”
… This went on for a couple of agonizing minutes before I answered: “Citizen.”
This is what he wanted. His point: we do not think of ourselves as citizens first but as other titles associated with career, familial relationship, how much we enjoy long walks on the beach, et cetera. The threat to democracy is that the role of citizen often comes far down the list of who we consider ourselves to be.
I am coming to you today first as a citizen. As Thomas Bryer, resident of Polk County, Florida since 2008 and of Florida since 2007.
As someone who has never personally experienced poverty but has appreciated the hard work of my parents to build a comfortable life without fear of knowing whether there will be food or a roof overhead on any given day.
As someone who adopted a 13-year-old from the foster care system in Florida, a child who grew up in poverty, lost his birth mother to drug-related illness, and was removed from his birth father due to drug-related criminal convictions.
As someone whose adopted son, upon turning 18, decided to flee the home my wife and I provided to be with his birth father in another state, only to fall into homelessness, drugs, crime, early fatherhood, and jail.
As someone who has worked over many years with government and nonprofit organizations to think through the restructuring of service delivery systems to reduce fragmentation and create more seamless access to multiple forms of care and support.
As someone who has written and is currently writing articles and books about poverty, democracy, and the importance of empowering not only those who are experiencing poverty but those who are fearful of interacting with those who are experiencing poverty, to work together and build stronger ties for more sustainable communities and self-sufficient individuals.
I come to you last as a professor at the University of Central Florida. This is my career; the university is my employer, but I am not speaking on behalf of the university, or on behalf of any element of the State of Florida. Though this is how I first answered Ralph Nader’s question, it is not at all how I introduce myself to you here.
Let me tell you why.
I am going to say a few things today that might be perceived to, and might actually, run counter to some of the words and rhetoric used by certain elected officials in Florida. My observations, conclusions, and recommendations are based on my lived experiences and professional outputs as I introduced them; they are not based on my position as an employee of the university.
Though my position at the university gives me a certain authority and credibility, I want you to hear my words not as “UCF Professor” but as Thomas Bryer, adoptive father of a struggling 23-year-old, birth father of a vibrant and light-of-my-life 3-year-old, husband of a brilliant and compassionate ICU nurse, and as someone who has researched, consulted, taught and written on various aspects of poverty, democracy, and power.
Here is the heart of it, which leads me to separate the multiple aspects of me from my professional title and employment relationship.
We cannot discuss poverty without discussing race and racism.
We cannot discuss poverty without discussing class and classism.
We cannot discuss poverty without discussing age and ageism.
We cannot discuss poverty without discussing discrimination, justice, and fairness.
We cannot discuss poverty without discussing equity and inclusion.
We cannot discuss poverty without discussing diversity and bias.
We cannot discuss poverty without discussing the institutionalization of unequal opportunity and the normalization of inequitable treatment.
We cannot discuss poverty without discussing multigenerational disempowerment and disenfranchisement linked to race, ethnicity, gender, and education.
We can only discuss poverty using a lens captured by a phrase that has been used in different parts of the world over several decades, across different contexts: Nothing without us about us is for us. No policies or actions pertaining to those who are experiencing poverty are truly for those who are experiencing poverty unless those who are experiencing poverty are inclusively engaged in policy design and implementation.
If only some cross-section of the poor are included, the resultant policies are exclusionary and alienating. If inclusion is merely symbolic, the resultant policies are illegitimate and illusory.
If empowerment is taken to mean the poor are invited to the policy table, at which those who have not been denied a seat for so long are already seated, the built-in power imbalance delegitimizes the whole operation, regardless of the intent of those seated with well-worn cushions on their chairs.
Fighting poverty and relieving the individual and community-level strains associated with poverty, requires genuine empowerment of the poor and those who are not poor but who are silent and inactive as manifestations of poverty swirl around them on any given day.
Empowerment requires inclusiveness in communities and in government policies and practices, and a cross-sector commitment to community cohesion. It requires not adding chairs to a pre-set table but starting with an open floor plan and asking what kind of table, if any, is the best fit. It is participatory and democratic design from the bottom-up and the outside-in.
The rhetoric used in political circles in Florida and elsewhere creates divisions that only will divide and fragment communities, creating mentalities of “us” versus “them” when groups of people not only fail in outcome but fail in effort to try to understand the views, values, and interests of others who are or appear to be somehow different from themselves.
These divisions will only get worse over the next decade as the population in Central Florida and elsewhere will grow many times over, with increased tensions associated with the use of scarce resources, availability of affordable housing, worsening traffic, increased pollution, and more.
At the heart of the rhetoric is a law that was passed in 2022, the Stop WOKE Act, or the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act. This act is the poster child of the rally cry that Florida is where “freedom lives.” The apparent intent, and please correct me if I misstate, is to free the people of Florida from certain educators in k-12 or higher education from indoctrinating curious minds with ideas that acknowledge that racism, and other forms of unjust bias and discrimination, exist and have existed over decades and generations. Such teaching, the rhetoric goes, leads susceptible young and young-at-heart minds to develop feelings of guilt and to hate the United States of America.
As we discuss poverty, we cannot discuss WOKE or not WOKE. This language itself is divisive, inflammatory, fearmongering, and othering.
I humbly propose that political leaders in Florida advance a different law, one that advances the ideals of unity in shared existence and understanding of divergent experience.
For fighting poverty and addressing other social ills, I proposed the Start RESPECT Act, or the Restoring Empathy, Security, Power, Engagement, Civility, and Togetherness Act.
Whereas the Stop WOKE Act blocks educators and professional trainers from teaching certain concepts, the Start RESPECT Act would incentivize educational institutions and employers to advance dialogue and deliberation. The art and craft of education and developing RESPECT would not be the sole responsibility of an “expert” but would reside the in the diverse wisdoms of the collective, professionally facilitated and experientially supported.
Here’s how it would work:
- Rather than penalize educators and trainers for exploring and explaining how different forms of poverty are sometimes rooted in systemic discrimination and bias, educators, trainers, as well as nonprofit, faith, and neighborhood organizations will be able to receive financial support to convene inclusive community conversations that help people see value in difference.
- Rather than cast shadows on individuals who speak from their heart and experience related to challenges to overcome poverty, individuals will be granted formal platforms for sharing their voices and using their voices to show that people who look, believe, or think like they do are not alone.
- Rather than lambast the teaching of diversity and discrimination as an activity that leads people to hate America, State offices will celebrate teachers who tell the tales of struggle, perseverance, and persistence over generations and today, leading people to love all Americans while recognizing the United States of America can be a stronger nation yet.
- Rather than conduct audits of public funding for activities that explore, analyze, teach, or celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion with the intent of cutting those budgets, universities and other organizations will be incentivized to measure the community-level outcomes associated with activities that explore, analyze, teach, or celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion. If budgets will be cut, it will be for those activities that are not engaging DEI work in a smart way, not for engaging DEI work at all.
In summary, the Start RESPECT Act will take to heart the phrase: Nothing without us about us is for us. If we allow fearmongering when we define who constitutes “us” in our communities, we are sentencing more generations to lost hope, to exclusion, and to poverty.
If the Start RESPECT Act is not advanced and implemented, and in the short-term there is no reason to believe it will be, there are somethings community-based organizations, universities, local governments, faith organizations and others can do today to pursue the objectives.
- Stand together. When our values and identities as compassionate organizations or scientific institutions are threatened by fearmongering public policies, the worst posture for each of our organizations to take is as an isolated player on a chess board. If we do not coordinate and speak with a single voice, or fail to speak at all for fear of repercussions, it is as if those who advance alternative values have no opposition. We must stand together and use our voices.
- Create volunteer opportunities that specifically cross demographic lines. The best way to pursue togetherness and enable empathy is through shared experience. As your organizations commit volunteers or recruit volunteers, do so with an eye towards bringing your people together with groups and individuals who are somehow different: bringing people together for a shared experience across faith perspectives; bringing youth together from different neighborhoods; brining corporate volunteers together with neighborhood volunteers, et cetera.
- Establishing Giving Circles of Time, not Money. Bring diverse individuals together, those who are experiencing poverty and those who have only expressed sympathy for those in poverty, into Giving Circles where individuals collectively and democratically decide how to invest their time as volunteers. For example, everyone must commit at least 5 hours per month.
- Always engage the people you serve in your organizations as more than passive clients. Engage the people you serve as partners, who have voice, ideas, and experiences that are often deemed not credible or necessary in organizational decision-making.
- Remember the phrase: Nothing without us about us is for us. As you make decisions, ask yourself, are those who you are serving and seeking to help part of your process? Are they given opportunity to help design solutions? Are they given the space to offer constructive feedback? Are they engaged as more than tokens, seated at the table built by others? Are they engaged in the building of the room itself?