IF YOU CAN’T COMMUNICATE YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND
By John Berry, Chief Executive Officer, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia
In dealing with issues of poverty and need there is a clear and simple truth that is too often ignored or misunderstood. And that is that if you judge other people you can’t communicate with them – and if you can’t communicate then you can’t understand – and if you can’t understand you cannot help.
In our dealings with those who live in and come from different life circumstances than us it is critical that we first put aside all judgements about how and why they are in that situation and instead listen to their stories so we can then, and only then, begin a conversation to determine how we might help them. People come into situations of poverty, dependence, and need by different roads; and each of those roads has its own story. Someone coming to us from generational poverty is going to have a very -different life-story than someone who was born and raised in the middle class and now faces a situational poverty challenge. Judging either one by our preconceived notions and prejudices about poverty and the poor will prevent us from understanding their needs and prevent us from helping them develop solutions.
One of the hardest times people have with judging others is when they perceive that they have overcome the persons situation themselves and just want to impose their life experiences on them. We hear this from people, especially politicans, who proudly proclaim that they have lifted themselves out of poverty and if only “those people” would do A, B. or C, they too could move from poverty to prosperity. What utter nonsense!
Situations of poverty, dependence, and need are not math equations that have defined and one-only solutions. Each is unique and complex and requires an in depth analysis and evaluation of what caused the situation to exist and what internal and external resources someone will need to get beyond it. Telling someone that all they have to do is “Lift yourself up by your bootstraps” is a stupid and cruel statement if that person does have boots, or shoes. Similarly, one of the fallacies of our solutions to poverty is that we can help people ‘climb the ladder of success’; not understanding that without showing them where the first rung of the ladder is located we have done nothing. Telling a single Mother that she can get a full time job at a fair but still low wage without giving her options for childcare is not helping her climb the ladder of success – it is hitting her over the head with it. It is both useless and demoralizing.
Once we communicate – and understand, we will have a clearer picture of how we can truly help. Help in ways that are not just for us to feel good; but help in ways that solve problems.