• by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2015 •
People who are poor have assets, gifts and strengths that far outweigh the stereotypical negative traits ascribed to them. Approaching children and adults with an attitude of respect runs counter to the prejudices evident in the national rhetoric that is now experiencing a new vogue.
Culture of Poverty Myths and the Assets of the Poor
In “The Myth of the ‘Culture of Poverty,’” Paul Gorski identifies and rebuts some misconceptions of poor people (2008). Building on Gorski’s work, I contrast each myth with an asset-based truth below.
- Myth: Poor people are unmotivated and have a weak work ethic.
- Asset: Poor people survive and subsist under trying circumstances, often taking difficult and severely underpaid jobs.
- Myth: Poor parents are uninvolved in their children’s learning, largely because they do not value education.
- Asset: Families see education as critical to success in life and counsel their children to get educated so that they don’t suffer the same poverty as their parents.
- Myth: Poor people are linguistically deficient.
- Asset: Families talk in many registers and with their own unique vocabularies.
Survival and Subsistence
The rule, rather than the exception, has been that families keep working to feed and clothe their children. For example, the majority of the families in the communities where IDRA is supporting Comunitario PTAs are squarely within the official guidelines designating them as poor. In spite of the challenges related to their severe economic disadvantage, we see them attend monthly meetings with a perseverance that would make any suburban PTA proud.
One Comunitario PTA officer, for example, with five children spread across elementary, middle and high school levels, continues to fulfill her organizational responsibilities while faced with the crisis of providing food on the table as her husband recovers from appendicitis and attempts to return to his day labor and garden work. This example is not exceptional within these communities.
Education is Critical
A recurring memory from my childhood in a Laredo, Texas, barrio in the 1950s is a phrase indelibly recorded, “Edúcate para que no sufras lo que sufrí yo [Educate yourself so that you don’t suffer what I have gone through].”
As my mother repeated regularly, regardless of income and ethnic background, families value education. One constant in IDRA’s work with families all over Texas and in many other parts of this country and beyond that to England and Brazil, has been a family’s desire that their children have access to an excellent education. IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program is a strong, recognized example.
In September 2014, IDRA held a conference for all the Comunitario PTAs in the Texas Lower Rio Grande Valley. When asked who among them wanted their children to complete college, every single one of the 90 participants raised their hands. Without any doubt, question, or hesitation, they each proclaimed, “My child is college material.”
Language and Communication
IDRA’s Family Leadership in Education Model is based on the fundamental loquacity of our families: poor, of color and recent immigrant. The conversations might be in Spanish, but the content is about the educational dreams they have for their children. The communication within most homes is energetic, vibrant and humorous. Reticence in a public meeting gives little indication of how communicative a mother is at home.
Within Comunitario PTA meetings, small group discussions are equally as spirited, humorous and not easy to stop when time is running out. When a shy participant is asked to report out the discussion at her table, she is being invited to emerge as a leader. A successful grassroots organization, the same as a successful classroom teacher in these neighborhoods, is attuned to the language and the rich linguistic context in these homes and neighborhoods.
Culture of Possibility
Community developers who have operated from an asset perspective have research and practice that supports their work. Kretzmann & McKnight, in the early 1990s, provided asset-mapping training for helping communities help themselves based on their early experiences in urban ghettos (Asset-Based Community Development Institute, 2009).
Similarly, Luis Moll and other educators began looking at the talents that bilingual students brought to school from their homes (Gonzalez, et al., nd). In doing so, Moll uncovered and documented previously unacknowledged family resources.
As a classroom teacher in the mid-1960s, I had my junior English class students conduct research in their own communities. One class did an amazing job comparing food prices in neighborhood mom-and-pop stores that gave credit to the prices in large grocery stores on the other side of town. Many of those students were seasonal sheep-shearing families who annually migrated to west Texas and returned to San Felipe in Del Rio to continue their education. They demonstrated in no uncertain terms that my students who were from poor, Spanish-speaking families had, in fact, an array of experiences, talents and resources that any language arts teacher worth his Shakespeare could tap and rejoice in.
IDRA’s culture of possibility vision is not a pie-in-the-sky ideal. To have success with any community, any school or any classroom, transformation is much more strategic, effective and practical to operate from a position of valuing the worth of the student, the parent and the teacher. The culture of possibility is a lens that enables us to see and focus on the assets that result in academic success for our children and the social and economic stability our families deserve.
Asset-Based Community Development Institute. ABCD Institute Toolkit, website (Evanston, Ill.: School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, 2009). https://resources.depaul.edu/abcd-institute/resources/Pages/tool-kit.aspx
Gonzalez, N., & J. Greenberg, C. Velez. Funds of Knowledge: A Look at Luis Moll’s Research into Hidden Family Resources (EdSource, no date).
Gorski, P. “The Myth of the ‘Culture of Poverty,” Educational Leadership (April 2008).
Robledo Montecel, M. “Education as Pathway Out of Poverty,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 2013).
Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is a senior education associate in IDRA’s Department of Civic Engagement. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at email@example.com.
[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]