Issues of Poverty and Class Dominate Diversity Conference

Stephanie Jones, an associate professor of education at the University of Georgia, described her childhood Thursday as an idyllic environment where children played and parents protected them from the evils of the world.

“We learned a great deal,” she said. “In fact, I couldn’t have had a better childhood.”

Jones then asked her audience what came to mind when she painted the scenario. One woman said the “Dick and Jane” books she read as a child and the “Leave it to Beaver” TV show.

But Jones had a surprise. She didn’t grow up in the typical American suburb, or even a middle-class environment. She grew up in a Cincinnati trailer park, where people were scorned.

“The internalized shame that comes from the poor is not something that comes from that child playing cartwheels at night, playing kick-the-can and loving their caretakers whoever they are,” she said. “That internalized shame comes from all of us who judge people harshly.”

Jones shared her story as keynote speaker on the opening day of the annual Diversity Conference at Columbus State University. The event was organized by CSU, the Mayor’s Commission on Unity, Diversity and Prosperity and the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. It will continue Friday at Cunningham Center, where Phenix Mayor Eddie Lowe will be the keynote speaker at 9:30 a.m. There is a $15 fee. Students are admitted free.

Jones, who has a Ph.D from the University of Cincinnati, teaches in UGA’s Department of Elementary and Social Studies Education. Her speech was titled “Poverty and Educational Opportunity: An Invitation to Talk About Class.” It was followed by a panel discussion with Jones, Mayor Theresa Tomlinson and Bonita Williams, professor of reading education at CSU.Sitting in the room was a mixed-audience of students, faculty and people from the community, representing different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Among them was Toni Chandler, a 35-year-old CSU freshman, trying to climb out of poverty.

Chandler said she earned a business technology diploma from Columbus Technical College in 2007, but couldn’t find a job to support her and her 12-year-old daughter. So she enrolled at CSU to study childhood education.

She asked the panel what’s being done to bring down the unemployment rate, and help families like hers. The mayor said the economy is cyclical, and would bounce back eventually. In the meantime, people should work on preparing themselves for the future.

“I’m scared,” Chandler said after the meeting. “I don’t want to be wasting four years of my life for a job I can’t get.”

Prior to Jones’ speech, Tomlinson also shared a personal story about her family’s own experience with poverty. She said her mother grew up in an extremely poor environment, where she lived from home to home. One day she visited a friend whose father was a doctor and saw what a stable family looked like. That’s when she determined to one day have a stable family of her own.

Tomlinson said she has cousins in prison and can only imagine where she might be if her mother had not been exposed to a positive family image at such a young age. She said as mayor she’s committed to providing opportunities for all children in Columbus, regardless of race, neighborhood or economic circumstances.

“I believe very strongly that communities today are segregated by income,” she said, “that we don’t labor any longer under Jim Crow laws, certainly, but we have segregated ourselves by income. And those that have resources at their disposal tend to be more mobile and they tend to move to areas where there’s newer construction and new infrastructure. ... And in the wake they leave those that are impoverished, those that are elderly, women and minorities.”

During her speech, Jones challenged the group to help move the society beyond class and racial stereotypes that she experienced growing up, and to push for higher wages and economic parity.

“The first thing we need to understand about economic struggle, or poverty, or being poor is that the single word ‘poverty’ cannot tell anyone’s story,” Jones said. “It cannot define a group of people who are different in the way they live there lives. It cannot determine the academic or social potential of even one person.”