We Are Poverty: 'Being Mary Jane' Shows How False Divisions Thwart the Cause of Social, Economic Justice

Among the many nerves BET's final season debut of "Being Mary Jane" struck was the idea that America's growing brown population is poised to usurp any gains the black population has accumulated through the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and, now, #blacklivesmatter.

TV anchor Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union) is recovering from a face-disfiguring traffic accident. The strong-willed black woman is worried her CNN-like network will use her temporary absence as a pretext to replace her, though her agent and producer assure her all is well. When a pretty, young, inexperienced Latina is hired to substitute, Mary Jane comes to realize she needs to show her face at work -- however it may look -- and make her power and presence known so no one gets any ideas she's easily replaced.

The crabs-in-a-barrel mentality this scenario evokes says a lot about how marginalized groups can be pitted against one another when they face the same issues -- access to opportunity. It underscores many of the issues faced by those trying to fight poverty in the United States and globally, because it is precisely these social constructs that distract communities of interests impacted by the same events from working together to achieve a common goal.

During a recent convening of the Opportunity Collaboration in Ixtapa, Mexico, more than 400 funders, activists, policy makers and thought-leaders, including myself, examined barriers to addressing poverty around the world. While poverty is not the same in Chicago as it is in Guatemala City, Damascus, New Delhi, Nairobi, Berlin, or Hong Kong there are several commonalities transcending place, spaces and institutions that weave its victims into a common mosaic of economic suppression.

Regardless of locale, the powerful and privileged tend to exploit social constructs as repressive tools that benefit a wealthy few over an impoverished many:

In the United States, a construct of race is exploited to justify skewing access and opportunity toward whites versus other racial minorities.

  • In Latin America, economies, driven by pressure from the global marketplace and political corruption, punish the rural poor by exploiting the social construct of class.

  • In the Middle East, sectarian constructs are exploited by the powerful to force their poor to leave their homes, as the mass Syrian migration shows.

  • In India, the social construct of caste is used to create barriers to jobs and fair business practices to maintain economic success for all classes.

    Though I work to eradicate poverty and create paths to well-paying jobs for economically marginalized West Side residents in Chicago, I realize my poverty is no different than anyone else's poverty. And if the problem is the same, then a common set of strategies can be used to address it. Lord knows we need more powerful tools to fight poverty and the events that hamper our ability to stay focused. Case in point:

    As the recent Chicago School Board scandal shows, people in power often collude to exploit the poor, which exacerbates poverty. Yes, "collude" is a strong word to describe how a seven-member school board would trust a superintendent and vote on a $20 million no-bid contract without question. The idea of such a large contract, serving many, many poor children, being "no-bid" is absurd.

    When now-former Supt. Barbara Byrd Bennett was lining her pockets, who was addressing the fallout of mass school closures in the race toward charters, whose biggest claim to fame is enriching those who run them? If education is the great equalizer, who saw after the needs of a student body where 86 percent are economically disadvantaged?

    Globally, bias against immigrants keeps many people entrenched in poverty. For example, in the European Union, half ofpeople whose parents were immigrants are likely to be jobless compared with those with native-born parents, according to OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which works to stimulate economic opportunity.

    Societies that fail to educate girls is a particularly insidious form of impoverishment. No one illustrates this challenge more than Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head by the Taliban for encouraging girls to get an education.

    Acknowledging the role of corruption and false dichotomies is a step toward addressing poverty, the problem that vexes us all. But what are we willing to "go to the mat" for? Bold courage and unconventional approaches are prerequisites for solving systemic problems. They are rarely solved by employing tepid and status quo-tried-and-failed strategies. Those of us fighting poverty believe collaboration, networking and supporting those affected in creating a groundswell of discontent with convention are good starting places.

    Now, true collaboration is risky, because is presupposes residents, institutions and governments are working together and not simply trying to get something. Anti-poverty efforts suffer from a lot of shallow victories when "getting me what I want" masquerades as collaboration. If we allow spurious issues to separate us, the winners stack the deck and will always win... and so will poverty. Do some people have to lose in order for others to win or can we build a society where everyone claims victory?

    Networking is half serendipity, half intentionality. Forget the corporatized, speed-dating version of networking events where most community-based organizations, and institutions unsuccessfully jockey to get the attention of the big funder or big name. While those people and institutions count, so does more frequent information shares, as individuals and organizations tap common sources of strength in our passions, ideas and personal experiences.

    Groundswell speaks to who is not in the room. Do we ask poor people for solutions on the things that impact most, or do we talk around them? We must ask ourselves, for example, how we can support communities in not only roaring at the rallies but also raising their voices above a whisper at the polls when bad policy looms?

    The problem isn't violence, bad parenting, family structure, poor teachers; these are symptoms of poverty, the overriding driver of these things. Likewise, the spunky Latina substitute anchor isn't the fictional Mary Jane's problem; it's a racist institution, the network she works for, which can only see fit to extend equal opportunity to one minority at a time. Like a Donald Trump campaign stop, the presence of distracting narratives keep us from pulling together for workable solutions at home and abroad.

    Now that we know, we can do better.