Poverty is rooted in a variety of complex factors, and education is a powerful strategy to help people achieve a more hopeful future, said Pulitzer Prize-winning author Andrea Elliott in her keynote address at the President and Provost Diversity Lecture Ohio State University Cultural 2022 Arts Series.
The virtual event took place on November 9th and was hosted by the Diversity and Inclusion Office.
“The President and Provost Diversity Lecture and Cultural Arts Series provides a tremendous opportunity for people across Ohio and our community to engage in dialogue about society’s most pressing issues and problems and to work together toward solutions,” said the Ohio State President. Kristina M Johnson. “For 24 years, this event has connected the community with thought leaders dedicated to promoting inclusion, excellence and diversity and expanding our understanding of one another.”
Elliott is among a number of speakers whose work encourages dialogue about issues that are having nationwide implications, said Yolanda Zepeda, associate vice president of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion.
“These individuals exemplify inclusive excellence and their innovative thinking deserves a wider audience,” she said. “I hope that our students and the wider community will engage with the ideas shared tonight and find their own perspectives challenged.”
Elliott is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. She received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her series of articles, Imam in America, about Muslim immigrants. She received the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for her book Invisible Child.
The book discusses a number of New York Times Articles Elliott wrote about a young black girl named Dasani whose family, including her parents and seven siblings, experienced homelessness while growing up in New York City. For several years, Elliott chronicled the family’s efforts to find safe housing. Dasani’s parents also struggled with substance use disorders, leading to incidents where authorities removed Dasani and her siblings from their parents’ care.
“It’s really hard to summarize the toll it takes to be in these systems and to be poor,” Elliott said. “People often assume that poverty is the result of ‘bad choices’…but I think it’s more often about a lack of choice, a lack of real agency. Because when you’re so busy surviving, there’s no way you can thrive.”
Elliott’s extensive research included genealogy, tracing Dasani’s family tree to examine how generations of slavery and subsequent segregation had affected the family’s current situation. Elliott found that Dasani’s maternal great-grandfather, Wesley Sykes, a World War II Army veteran, had experienced discrimination faced by many black veterans.
Denied mortgage support and other GI benefits, Wesley Sykes eventually settled in a rent-subsidized apartment in a Brooklyn complex Dasani and her family would know as “the projects.”
“The exclusion of African Americans from real estate…the exclusion of their ability to go to college, to find decent paying jobs, even to vote, laid the groundwork for a lasting poverty Dasani would inherit,” Elliott said. “These historical injustices that her family experienced not as history … but as a continuing reality, is something that is connected to the past but is also happening in real time.”
Education proved to be Dasani’s lifeline. She was admitted to the Milton Hershey School, a private 12th-grade pre-kindergarten boarding school in Hershey, Pennsylvania that aims to help children overcome poverty by providing them with a free, quality education.
Before Dasani entered the Milton Hershey School, Elliott said the youth took inspiration from New York City public school teachers like Faith Hester, an accomplished black woman who was Dasani’s sixth grade teacher.
“She’s also just a phenomenal example of someone who survived,” Elliott said of Hester. “She got out of the projects by being bused into a white part of Brooklyn, graduating early from high school and two masters degrees later, returning to her predominantly black community to teach and through her own human example to show a way out. Like she wanted to say to her kids, ‘If I could do it, so could you.’”
Dasani, now 21, attends community college, has a job in retail and is close to her family, who finally have stable housing, Elliott said.
“People always talk about the cycle of poverty,” she said, “but I also see this as a story about the cycle of power, the cycle of resilience, which is surviving poverty.”
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