Breaking Barriers

On Tuesday, April 12, Dr. Donna Beegle came to UMPI as a distinguished lecturer.  She spoke about a topic that’s close to many people: poverty.  But Beegle did not want to just talk about research and data.  She shared her own stories about living in poverty.  Over time, Beegle rose above life’s challenges.  But many people outside of poverty did not understand where she came from.  At UMPI, Beegle showed how anyone can create better futures for those living in poverty.  

    In 1989, Beegle co-founded and became president of Communication Across Barriers.  The company is based in Portland, Oregon.  Beegle hosts poverty awareness workshops and trainings.  She works with healthcare professionals, educators, social service agencies and justice departments.  Her mission is to “fight poverty, not those who live in it.”

    Beegle grew up in generational poverty.  She and her family survived on migrant labor wages.  Paying the rent and electric bills and buying food were everyday struggles.  She came to believe that no one cared about them or anyone in poverty.  Though she went to school, Beegle never learned to read until her late 20s.  She felt as if her teachers did not want to help her.

    “I would ask what a word meant and teachers would say, ‘Look it up,’” Beegle said.  “I know that they didn’t want to enable me.  Now I think, ‘Why wouldn’t you enable me?  That was your job.’”

    At age 15, Beegle dropped out of school and got married.  Her teacher said that she needed education to find a job.  Beegle told her teacher that she didn’t want a job.  The teacher accused Beegle of being lazy, but Beegle had another reason.  All her life she saw her family work hard but remain in poverty.  Those experiences made her think that a job would be useless for her.

    Beegle explained that stereotypes about poverty affected both herself and her teacher.  The teacher believed that people in poverty did not want to better themselves.  She grew up middle class and thought that having a job was a simple solution.  For many years, Beegle had much self-doubt.  She believed that overcoming poverty was not possible and blamed herself.

    “We give meaning based on our own life experiences,” Beegle said.  “My parents worked hard.  People I knew worked hard, but they still got evicted.”

    When she was 25, Beegle became a single mother to two kids.  For several years, she still struggled with poverty.  But later Beegle earned her GED.  She attended community college and earned an associate’s degree in journalism.  She went on to earn her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.  Beegle’s doctoral degree is in educational leadership.  She has studied poverty theory and the history of poverty in the U.S.

    “I had people who took the time to get to know me and teach me that I wasn’t stupid,” Beegle said.  “They believed in me and said, ‘what you know now isn’t all you can know.’”

    While in community college, Beegle felt isolated from her peers.  She realized that many middle-class students cared about people in poverty.  But they could not relate to her life experiences.  Many people, whether they are in poor or middle-class, believe the myths about poverty.  But Beegle knows the facts.  

    Beegle told audience members at UMPI that 93 percent of people who receive food stamps have jobs.  People in poverty do not have children just to get welfare benefits.  In fact, 23 states have laws that prevent people with children from getting welfare.  While on welfare, Beegle’s monthly check was $408.  Her rent was $395.  She had $13 left to spend on utilities.  People would tell her that she should learn how to save money.

    “The U.S. is the only country that teaches its people that they are the cause of poverty,” Beegle said.  “When human beings don’t understand, we judge.  They don’t really understand why people do what they do.”

    Today, Beegle invites people who are living in poverty to various workshops.  She starts by having the people walk down a red carpet and receive a present.  Her goal is to make them feel special, something that many have never felt.  Then Beegle asks everyone what they would like to do for a living.  Everyone stands up and states one skill that they have.

    At all workshops, Beegle sets up attendees with navigators.  Navigators are middle-class neighbors who agree to be a resource for someone in poverty for one year.  They help people navigate assistance programs and find better jobs and educational opportunities.  Beegle calls this method the “Opportunity Community Model.”  She educates communities about the facts behind poverty.  She lets people in poverty know that they are not alone.

    “The ripple effects on a community when we focus on poverty, not the people, are profound” Beegle said.  She spoke about a woman who sat in the back row during a workshop.  The woman had low self-esteem.  But the next year, “She was in the front row.  She’d been navigated into housing, had her GED and her kids were in Head Start.”

    Kelsey Corriveau, an UMPI elementary education major, attended Beegle’s talk.  She gained more knowledge about what poverty is like for many people.

    “I thought it was really informative on poverty.  Before, I had definitely made statements without knowing people’s backgrounds,” Corriveau said.  “Now I understand the context of poverty more.”

    After her talk, Beegle signed copies of her book “See Poverty, Be the Difference.”  She knows that her life has given her greater insight into poverty.  Now she wants everyone to know how they can influence change.  Poverty will always be a complex issue.  But with education, people can break barriers and succeed.  They can put poverty in the past and create better futures for everyone.