Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Journey Through the Lonely Middle

Generational poverty is one of our society's most wicked, complex challenges. The layers of issues and barriers are often beyond our collective understanding. They are so overwhelming they often paralyze us from acting.

We need a story that we can tell ourselves that will help us understand the challenge and inform our actions. I heard that story today. Nichole Booker of the United Way of Summit County told me the story. I cannot do her version justice and I am modifying the way she tells it, but here it goes:

We are born into one of two systems. One is a work-based system. The second is a poverty-based system. Each system is full of its hurdles, challenges and stresses. As we grow, we are taught by our elders and our peers how to survive within the system to which we are born. Some of us develop the skills necessary to thrive within the system. We may come into contact with the other system, but we aren't really familiar with it. Our friends, our supporters, our family -- everything we really know -- is within our native system.

A person born into the poverty-based system may be motivated to leave and desire to enter the work-based system. And when they do they begin the journey through what Nichole calls the "lonely middle." It is lonely because the person must leave behind the known and the trusted. They haven't yet developed familiarity with the new system. They don't know who to trust. Nor do they know what is expected of them. The new system is foreign -- as foreign as if someone from the work-based system had jumped on an airplane for Japan without knowing the language or having any friends or contacts. Rare is the person born into the work-based system who is willing to make a "lonely middle" journey. Those who are willing are called entrepreneurs.

A "lonely middle" journey is terrifying, no matter what system we are born into. Yet, those of us who are born into the work-based system regularly demean and dismiss those born into generational poverty for not being willing to make the journey.

Nichole speaks regularly to the brave natives of the poverty-based system who are about to embark on the "lonely middle" journey thanks to the work of Bridges Out of Poverty. She encourages them to embrace the anxiety and uncertainty. She tells them that such loneliness is a sign that they are making progress. They are leaving behind a system that, no matter how familiar, limits their possibilities.

Of course, those who have made the journey should be encouraged to help others follow in their footsteps. But the answer to the wicked, complex challenge of generational poverty isn't just rooted in persuading more people to make that journey. The answer is in what must we -- those of us who were fortunate enough to be born into the work-based system -- do to help make their journey both a little less lonely and a lot shorter.

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