As of 2014, there are around 5.5 million people that live in the state of Minnesota. Of those, 12-17% of them are affected by poverty. These percentages in numbers are 654,840 and 927,690 respectively–that’s a lot of people struggling daily to make ends meet. The variance is dependent on which variables/demographics are considered, but no matter the semantics, poverty remains a very real problem. Poverty and a lack of education are strongly correlated in studies across the board, not to mention a lack of personal safety and general well-being. It is an uncomfortable truth that our neighbors may be struggling to put food on the table and to provide basic comforts for their families.
So what do we do?
It’s difficult to care about an issue if you aren’t aware of it, so the first step in inspiring change, both in ourselves and those around us, is through education. And there’s an organization in the Twin Cities that’s doing just that. Walk In Someone Else’s Shoes is an organization designed to educate police officers, school faculty members, and anyone else who interacts with people from a variety of backgrounds–namely, those who are potentially living in poverty.
Using materials from Missouri Community Action, the group’s training sessions are structured to simulate a month of life in poverty, all within a couple of hours. Participants are assigned roles (single mother, child, teenager, etc.) and are grouped together in families of other participants. They have to fulfill the appropriate responsibilities (attend school, get to work, pay bills, etc, all while balancing the difficulties of crime, a lack of resources, unemployment, transportation, and avoiding run-ins with the law. Volunteers for the simulation are assigned different roles within the “neighborhood” such as pawn shop, hospital, homeless shelter, police station, etc.
I volunteered for a simulation last summer at a Twin Cities-area elementary school. At the beginning of the simulation, everyone was a little self-conscious. We laughed nervously as we joked about playing pretend, unsure how we were being perceived by the other volunteers. How seriously should I take this? I was given the role of the pawnbroker, and we were encouraged to have a flippant attitude towards the participants–we weren’t charity, after all. I was told I could even give incorrect change if I wanted to. Most of my customers were so frazzled by the time they arrived, I could have gotten away with it if I wanted to (even though the situation wasn’t real, I couldn’t bring myself to do it).
As the simulation went on, more and more participants turned to crime to make ends meet. At one point a man broke down, emotionally exhausted from the pressure. It’s hard when you feel like the entire system is designed so you fail. No one was laughing anymore.
We ended the afternoon assembled in the auditorium. Professor Raj Sethuraju gave an impassioned conclusion, and then we broke up into groups to talk about our experience. It was all somehow exhausting yet energizing–we felt more empathetic, more understanding, and encouraged to do more to help those in need.
If you or your business is interested in volunteering or hosting a poverty simulation, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for information. Education is the first step in the long journey to fighting poverty in Minnesota.
by Whitney Grindberg