“But Poor People Don’t Live Here”: What Does it Mean to Teach Inequality at a Community College in Two of the Top Ten Richest American Counties?

When there is media attention devoted to Somerset and Hunterdon Counties of NJ, it often focuses on these two counties as two of the wealthiest in the country. I teach English at Raritan Valley Community College, which serves both of these counties. Even when food stamp use across our two counties has grown and financial aid at our college has increased, we struggle to even raise awareness about poverty because the common perception is that “poor people just don’t live here.” Here are some excerpts from my presentation at the “Fighting Inequality: Class, Race, and Power” conference at Georgetown University last month.

As part of an ongoing effort with my colleagues to insist that our students need additional resources, I designed and taught a Special Topics English Composition II course called “Inequality, the American Dream, and the 99%.” I want to highlight just a few strategies that worked well in raising awareness about inequality within the college’s demographic context and describe how the semester culminated in the students taking action.

One of the main challenges of the course is raising awareness about the systemic nature of economic inequality. Because the mainstream media tends to reinforce the notion that hard work leads to success and people in poverty are just lazy, it can be a real challenge to help students question this ideology. I would imagine it’s a challenge in many parts of the US, since this media message is a national one, but I think it’s especially challenging in wealthier areas.

We began the semester by watching Robert Reich’s film Inequality for All, which I found to be a valuable introduction to the concept of inequality. The fact that the framework of the film is Reich’s own class about inequality makes it especially appropriate to show to students at the beginning of this course. Keep in mind this is first a composition course and second a course about inequality; it’s an English course, not a course in economics, political theory, or sociology, although I did try to make the course interdisciplinary. In Reich’s film, one of the ways he shows the seriousness of inequality is by discussing the concept of a vicious cycle. This was a very helpful concept to emphasize throughout the semester because it shows that economic inequality is systemic and has profound consequences. In one of the follow up activities to the film, and later in the semester, I asked students to sketch or use post-its to create a vicious cycle of the problems we were discussing, and these activities helped students understand the big picture. (See photos of students’ vicious cycles related to education and economic inequality)

By the time we finished the first part of the course, an introduction to inequality, students generally understood that economic inequality is systemic, serious, and unfair. Many also indicated in end-of-semester reflections that this came as a surprise, with comments like: “growing up in a very upscale neighborhood, I never understood the extent of economic inequality in our world.” At the same time, students also explained that economic inequality “should be something everyone discusses because it is a major problem” or as another student put it, “something everyone should be educated on no matter what social class you come from.” Students in the class came from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, and they recognized the value of being in the same class to learn about and discuss economic inequality, noting, for example that “being [at] a community college … is a good place to study inequality because our class was filled with people from all different backgrounds.”

The student comments illustrate that students from both lower and higher socio-economic backgrounds really seemed to believe that learning about economic inequality is important for everyone. I would like to think that such a framework provided students from lower socio-economic backgrounds with an understanding that they should not blame themselves or their parents for their economic status. Likewise, I also hope that this framework provided students from wealthier backgrounds an understanding that they should not blame the poor for their poverty. Inequality is a systemic problem, not an individual problem, and I believe that by the end of the semester, most students understood and appreciated that concept.

The other strategy I’d like to share is the integration of social action into the course. The last assignment asked students to do four things: 1) choose a problem related to economic inequality that interested them (whether or not we had discussed it in class), 2) research it in order to write a paper describing the problem (and why the problem is a problem and how it relates to economic inequality), 3) present a solution, and 4) take one small step of action towards that larger solution. The students actually had to take action, not just write about it hypothetically.

Many students, however, were quite hesitant to take action, and as I discovered, their hesitation related to the issue of confidence, which we had already been discussing throughout the course, especially in the context of the way students in poverty can sometimes have less “academic confidence” than students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. I hadn’t thoroughly recognized the extent of this lack of confidence, so I was surprised at how hesitant students were to take action, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, why would a student without much confidence find it easy to take action? I revised the course to help address this concern, and I integrated a gradual buildup to this project. The assignment gave them two options for the social action: 1) to use their existing social media network like Facebook or another social media platform to raise awareness and educate their friends about the problem they were researching or 2) to send a letter to an elected official or another type of official who has some authority related to the problem they were researching and to advocate for a solution. Students had the option of giving me permission to include their post or letter on the Tumblr site I had designed for the course. Some students did raise concerns about the small action being too small and insignificant. I told them: “You need to start somewhere.” If I could help students develop the confidence to take one small action for my course, then I hoped it wouldn’t be so hard for them in the future when they faced or witnessed an injustice they wanted to address. I will conclude with student comments about this experience to highlight the importance of empowering students with the confidence to take action so they can build on that foundation in the future:

  • “Although we aren’t exactly changing the world just yet, the seed was planted and the issues we talked about will stay with us forever.”
  • “Definitely an eye opener. I was … timid and didn’t really want to speak up for what is right. This class allowed me to become a social crusader.”
  • “While getting closer to completing my final paper, I find it hard to stop thinking of ways I can get involved! My ideas and desires to make this issue apparent to people is gaining daily and my thoughts are expanding more thoroughly in creating new ways I [and] others can take action.”
  • “In our final paper, having everyone take a small action was something very unique and an amazing concept. It pushes our comfort zone to demonstrate our feelings on economic inequality and some other problem involved with it, whether it be food, education, homeless veterans or any other aspect of inequality. I believe this course has a huge effect on my social action in the future. This class has shown me to speak out on a topic that I have a strong opinion on, instead of keeping my opinion bundled up.”
  • “Over all, I think that the course’s emphasis on social action will affect my decisions in the future, because it has improved my courage.”
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