“I feel like we’ve created a culture of helplessness.” This remark came from a person who works at a non-profit organization largely supported by volunteers from low-income communities. The person meant this as both a joke and a reflection of her own tendency to “micro-manage,” but she raises an interesting point about one of the many professional limitations for impoverished people. When a person’s voice is constantly undervalued or silenced, it is difficult if not impossible to develop the skills and confidence needed to work independently.
We work with many volunteers at the food pantry who struggle regularly with financial and food insecurity. The most interesting and unsettling trend I’ve noticed among these volunteers is an anxious need for decisions to be “approved” by someone they see as “higher up.” A handful of times, I’ve told a volunteer to just trust their own judgment when approaching an unexpected task, and I am almost always met with confusion and frustration.
Unfortunately, many people write off this discomfort with working independently as a sign of laziness and stupidity. But, what reason should a person fighting in poverty have to value independent initiative in the workplace? Can you name a common, minimum wage job where creativity and personalized approach is valued or encouraged? What happens when a person at the bottom of the ladder makes decisions without first checking in with their boss? What happens when a person in poverty challenges a system or government that traps them in poverty but also acts as a gatekeeper of the resources they need to survive?
The hard truth is that there is little (if any) room in poverty to deviate from the norm. When ensuring your family will eat tonight with the lights on is a constant balancing act of working, scrimping, accessing assistance, etc., stakes are much higher. The smallest professional risk could backfire and cause the whole act to topple over. Aligning as seamlessly as possible with set expectations is the safest and sole choice for most people in poverty.
Realizing that many of our volunteers cannot recognize the worth of their own voice or insight has helped me understand the significance of and need for arts based programs for disadvantaged youth. Often, these programs are defended as institutions that help “keeps kids off the streets.” This is true but a very vague description of the real influence of these programs. Valuing and making room for personal creativity allows kids a safe space to test their voice, their intuition, their decision -making skills, and their independence while risks are still relatively low. Celebration artistic expression instills the self-confidence kids need to grow into independent thinkers.
Trust in personal instinct is what allows people to be adaptable in new situations. It’s why we value independent thinking in higher-paying jobs. But, if a person is constantly and rigidly told what to do, what reason will they have to trust their own decision making skills? Society will tell a woman in poverty to stick to the program but then cites her lack of initiative as the reason she remain at the bottom of the ladder. It’s just another one of the dangerous catch-22s that keeps people trapped in the cycle of poverty. If we want people to comfortably access their own instincts in the workplace and apply them independently, we need to value their voice first.