How Can We Include the Voices of the Poor? Ask Them.

How many times have we walked past a homeless person and tried our hardest to avoid eye contact? Why do we do that?

We often try to resolve issues without first developing a clear understanding of the situation and the parts that keep the system going. That’s human nature—we operate by limiting the information we perceive and make decisions based on those limited sets of information. Just because something may be human nature doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do something.

How can we expect the poor to have a voice when we don’t include them in the conversation? The poor are not represented in our political system. Ethnography is not a common practice among politicians. Who was the last public official you knew of who spent any significant time living with poor people as they do in order to gain a clearer understanding of their unique issues? Go head and think about it for a minute, I’ll wait for an answer. Unless we spend considerable time with the people we are trying to serve, we cannot develop solutions that will adequately address their issues. We will only serve those with whom we have more familiar relationships. Otherwise we’re using limited information to create ethnocentric solutions that may or may not solve problems that do or do not exist.

In my opinion, access is today’s social currency. The gap between access to social, cultural, and financial institutions is widening. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, male, female, gay, straight, or whatever. If you don’t have access to education, health facilities, nutritious food, and a safe environment, the likelihood you’ll be able to reach your goals (or, in many cases, develop goals) is severely lessened. For example, we still have a large portion of our country that doesn’t have access to the Internet (see digital divide). It’s hard for somebody to apply for a job online and check the status of that application if the Internet is not readily available to them. If we don’t work to ensure that people have access to the systems in place and to the literacy of their use we can never expect they participate. How does one register to vote? Who’s my council person? If I have a complaint, to whom do I voice that complaint? What if I’m qualified for a job, but never get it because I don’t have the right connections?

If you want to know what somebody is thinking, ask them. It’s not easy. In order to face “them” we must first face ourselves. However, if we don’t invite people to the conversation, and make it possible for them to do so, we will never work together to create comprehensive and sustainable solutions. Until we make all stakeholders part of the conversation we won’t even begin to be able to identify all the real issues for which we need those solutions.


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Michael Maine is the founder and chief strategy officer of Menrva Labs, consulting with small businesses and non-profit organizations to build sustainable social change by increasing social consciousness, helping them realize their potential by working to identify goals, build strategies, and carry out those strategies. Follow Michael on Twitter at @michaelbmaine and @menrvalabs.

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