Fighting Poverty with Passion
I’m sitting down outside the Dallas Public Library, warm pebble bench against my knees, scrolling through my missed calls and catching up on texts, when I see a blue edge get bigger in the corner of my eye.
The blue edge is connected to a Black woman, maybe thirty or forty years old, stooped, slip-on shoes on her feet, clad in a multicolored-knee length skirt and a button down shirt, her straightened hair in ponytail, a couple strands falling in her face.
“Hi, excuse me, can I use your phone?”
Split second hesitation, the calculus of whether she’ll steal it, and then the overlay of shame of even thinking that thought, and wondering how I’ve been primed to think that, how deep white supremacy grows its roots, how capitalism causes us to question our own and others’ humanity.
“Sure, no problem.” I hand it over, unlocking the password code, still trying to read her intentions.
She sits down next to me. I wonder how many strangers she’s approached with this request, and how many turned her down, like I almost did.
“Hi, ma’am, yes…I’m calling to get a new card…No, I don’t have that inform–No, I don’t have that either. Yes…Listen…Yes. Mmmhmm. Yes. Yes, listen, I lost my purse this morning, and I’m using a stranger’s phone so–…No, no, I don’t know….No, listen, I just got out of jail yesterday, I don’t know what my address is….No…You see….No, no, ma’am, I stayed a lot of different places, shelters, before that. I moved around a lot, I don’t know where I was last, I don’t know the address of that space. If you can help me out, help me remember the name of the place –….No– I—” She hangs up, gives the phone back to me.
“Here, I don’t know how long this is gonna take.”
Me: “Uhhh…no, that’s ok…this is my first time in Dallas, I don’t have any appointments or meetings or anything. Here, take as long as you need to.” I give the phone back.
Her: “Are you sure? Ok, thank you. I lost my purse today on the bus and I need to get a new foodstamps card. Lost my phone, my wallet, everything. And a man was talking to me, looking at me, I think he was trying to follow me. I think he got my info.”
I don’t really know what to say. “Oh man, that sucks, I’m sorry. Losing things is the worst.” I try to find common ground, and immediately feel stupid, offering up a tepid, “Yeah, I left my sweater on the bus yesterday.”
She stares at me for a moment and then types in the phone number again.
Why did I say that? How could I possibly think that I could empathize with the problems she is encountering, the life she has lead, the life she leads? Formerly incarcerated, no credit card, no food stamps, no bus tickets, no home address, no phone, no money. A Black woman, in a country where to be born Black means to be labeled a “thug,” a “welfare queen.” Where race determines the quality of one’s education, career networks, health, and life expectancy (for specific facts and figures, see George Lipsitz’s essay, “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race.”
I take out my sketchbook, trying to capture the sinuous lines of the agave plant, the way it almost looks like it’s dancing, like a smoke-filled cartoon. I try not to listen.
“Yes, yes, hi. Yes, I’m trying to get sent a new card…Yes I can wait…Yes, Hi, my name is Brandi ––––––. I’m 38 years old. No, no I don’t know my address. So, you see, I just got released from jail, I’ve been there for seven months, I don’t know the address of where I was living last, I moved around a lot before that. Listen, if you could just help me by giving me a hint of what the place sounded like, I’m sure I’ll be able to think of the name…Yes, but…Yes, I just don’t know it off the top of my head because I’ve been a lot of different places. Yes, I underestand, Yes, but…Yes, maam the thing is, other people I’ve talked to about this have helped me out before…I just yes. No, my father doesn’t want me to live with him, I don’t know his address. Is there any way – No, I don’t have my phone with me, I lost my phone this morning. No, I — Hello?”
She hangs up, gives the phone back to me.
Her: “Listen, I don’t know how long this is gonna take. Thank you.”
Me: “No worries.” I insert some mindless chatter that I forget as soon as I open my mouth. We talk back and forth, both polite and friendly. She tells me that I’m a good drawer, and that she can’t do people’s faces but she loves drawing cartoons. I say it’s all just practice.
She stands up, and asks me if I have any money for the bus she could have.
I nod, ask her how much, knowing it’s $2.50.
I give her $7, and tell her goodluck. Pack up my sketchbook, and we both head on our separate ways.
What would have “integrated services delivery” have looked like for Brandi at this moment in her life? Why are the systems that purportedly strive to alleviate poverty so complicated to navigate that you have to have sheer perseverance and will to navigate the endless layers of bureaucracy? Why do you have to have an address in order to get food stamps? Why are we so hesitant to trust other people, to give poor people money directly?
On the ground floor of the Dallas Public Library, they actually have the Bureau of Vital Statistics, which seems like a good start. What if every public library also had service offices, social workers on staff, free meals? Makes me think about the history of social aid and pleasure clubs in this city, communities of Black people taking care of one another when the government actively works to destroy, isolate, and contain communities of color. George Lipsitz calls it turning ” ‘segregation’ into ‘congregation‘ .”