Last summer, I taught a class which required reading the book Rosa Lee: A tale of generational poverty and survival in urban America. Check out the link for the details. It was a powerful book of how a seemingly stereotypical poor, black woman.. she uses drugs, she is a prostitute, she has 8 children with different fathers who are not at all involved. She has subsidized housing and is on medicare and welfare. And who wants to know the details behind that story? Who wants to have an emotional connection with someone like Rosa Lee? Who wants to think that her life could be anything but her fault.
Leon Dash did. Mr. Dash is a reporter and wanted to know Rosa Lee. Understand her. And then he shared her with us. Rosa Lee’s story is not one of failure, but one of survival. One of having to choose between to horrible choices. A story of getting through on day at a time.
I highly recommend the book. As we discussed it in class, a few students did not see Rosa Lee as a survivor. They saw her as a person who make bad choices and then worse choices and wondered why should could not just “pull herself up by her bootstraps”. We had a good discussion as a class about this notion, but it was clear we not going to agree.
This is a message I hear all the time from the world. Bad things happen to people because of the choices they make. Everyone has the same opportunity for success. So I will challenge this thinking. Rosa Lee was born in horrific poverty. She did not have the opportunity to go to school, to have any kind of education. The only way she was able to get food, clothes, etc was to steal. Right here, lets just pause. You are a child, helpless in the world, you don’t know when your next meal is. Stealing is your only option. You wear a new clean outfit for the first time ever and people compliment you. For once you are not being teased because you finally are wearing something that fits and matches.
I was meeting with a client the other day who had to choose between bringing his daughter to the hospital for psychiatric care or losing his job. You see, he received sole custody of his daughter after she had been physically and emotionally abused by her mother. She needed to be enrolled in school and he had to meet with teachers. He had to take time off to work with Child Protective Services. He had to take time off when his daughter overdosed on medication. And so when I met with him, and told him, “I am sorry but your daughter needs to go back to the hospital” he realized he was going to lose his job. He had taken more than three “sick” days in one quarter. This is company policy. Even with a strong support system, this man was falling farther and farther behind. No job means no money which means no rent, which means no housing… you get the drift.
I know another woman who arrived in this country at 10 years old. She was undocumented and her parents had hired a “coyote’ to bring her to the US. To safety. What she went through in her country of origin, even at 10 years old, is unspeakable. She has lived here for 18 years. She has a husband and children. She could be sent back at a moments notice. She has very little if any legal protection. She has a plan for her children if one day immigration shows up to take her. Can you imagine? She is trying to do anything she can to gain citizenship. She was brought here at 10 years old. This is all she knows. But none of that matters. She is amazing… volunteers tirelessly at her church, is involved in her children’s school, she has a job as does her husband and is a part of a large supportive family.
We privileged people have no idea. We make assumptions, we judge and stereotype and have a great idea of how we would handle things differently if we were in those situations. But we don’t know. We have no idea. We cannot compare our lives to others and think we have all the answers.
It has never been easy for people in poverty. It is has never been easy for minorities. It has never been easy for immigrants. For mentally ill, for disabled, for chronically ill. And now, when you have already felt that things cannot get worse, the bottom falls out again. But go ahead and reach down and find those bootstraps people, this is America after all, the opportunity is just laying at your feet.