One of the most interesting conversations taking place within the Mobility Partnership is on the nature and definition of poverty. It’s one of the main questions driving an internal learning group within the Partnership investigating narratives–specifically, narratives about poverty and economic mobility: how they reveal and reinforce our beliefs, how they change, and how they influence our actions. Several Partnership members met recently in Chicago to discuss this.
When people talk about poverty, it’s usually about a poverty of income as evidenced by policy solutions like a mandated minimum wage or the Earned Income Tax Credit. Sometimes, we acknowledge the also critical poverty of wealth that sustains and exacerbates poverty from generation to generation. But in either case, our solutions usually center on money.
What is money, though, but our most fungible and transferrable unit of power? Poverty, then, is not just a lack of money. As my fellow Mobility Partnership member john powell has explained, it’s fundamentally a lack of power.
It seems that at the root of why solving poverty is so hard lie our deeply entrenched narratives and beliefs about power. We can perhaps mitigate poverty by redistributing wealth and income, but to truly eradicate poverty would require a radical shift in our conception of power. We must first understand that according to our common narrative about power, one can only have power at someone else’s expense. Power in this model necessitates the diminishing of someone else’s humanity.
In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes:
I met an old lady once, almost a hundred years old, and she told me, “There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. ‘How much do you love me?’ And, ‘Who's in charge?’”
I have yet to think of an exception to that rule. What motivates our need to exert and express dominance? Do we believe it will prove we’re worthy of love? Or do we merely seek the comfort of a sense of control in a chaotic world?
Whatever the reason for our preoccupation with this conception of power, “who’s in charge?” is at its heart. This characterization of power has been perhaps most enduringly expressed in The Prince, Macchiavelli’s sixteenth-century treatise on how a prince can obtain and maintain power. And it was that model of power on great display in the founding of our country, in the way the United States dominated and displaced the native peoples living in America.
So it is especially moving to witness the current Dakota Access Pipeline protest by the Standing Rock Sioux. As protestor Joye Braun of the Indigenous Environmental Network has said with stunning clarity, “Everything that oil is used for, there is an alternative for, there is a renewable alternative for that oil. There is no alternative for water.”
In the face of such truth, this doesn’t feel like the protestors seeking a power of domination over supporters of the pipeline. This feels like the protestors putting everything on the line in an attempt to save ourselves from ourselves, despite ourselves. It’s the embodiment of a fundamentally different—and enlightened—conception of power, beautifully articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. And justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."
What if we all embodied that narrative of power? It not only diminishes no one; it elevates everyone. It says we are all worthy of love, because at our essence, we are love. With no need to express dominance, with humility and gratitude for the awesome power of our natural world and our capacity for harnessing that power to promote human flourishing, we could no longer view poverty as the plight of some, but see it as a blight on us all.
Srinija Srinivasan is a member of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty and cofounder of Loove, a music development, production, and distribution company.