There is a phrase we use at the University of Dubuque that helps new employees better internalize our Mission: “You don’t completely understand our work together unless you’ve spent time in sorrow’s kitchen.”
Spending time in sorrow’s kitchen means that hardship and heartache can change us for the good. Parents who are able to work through the grief caused by the loss of a child are forever changed by their experience in sorrow’s kitchen, and are sometimes better able to assist others that are going through a similar experience.
Many of our organization’s most generous financial supporters are men and women whose early years were occupied by significant challenge. Their time in sorrow’s kitchen helps them to identify with students who come from a similar background, and it inspires them to invest in our Mission. It’s painful, but spending time in sorrow’s kitchen can make us better people and better leaders. It’s painful, but spending time in sorrow’s kitchen can make us better people and better leaders. Click To Tweet
A young scholar by the name of Matthew Desmond certainly understands this lesson. Desmond grew up as a minister’s son in Arizona. His family didn’t have a lot of money, but they were stable. They believed in the concept of social mobility; that is, if you work hard, pay your bills on time, follow the law and endeavor to be a good person, you’ll earn your way through America. And that works a lot of the time—much of the time, in fact. But when Desmond was away at college, his family lost their home. The experience of helping his parents move from that childhood home “…shamed and depressed him.” And it was during that moment, that his life’s work began to take shape.
Desmond eventually earned a Ph.D., and is now an urban ethnographer who studies poverty. He is also a professor at Harvard University. Desmond writes:
“When I began studying poverty as a graduate student, I learned that most accounts explained inequality in one of two ways. The first referenced ‘structural forces’ seemingly beyond our control: historical legacies of discrimination, say, or massive transformations of the economy. The second emphasized individual deficiencies, from ‘cultural’ practices, like starting a family outside of wedlock, to ‘human capital’ shortfalls, like low levels of education. Liberals preferred the first explanation and conservatives the second. To me, both seemed off. Each treated low-income families as if they lived in quarantine” (316).
Professor Desmond begins his classes with a few basic questions: “How do the poor survive? When they get clothing and food and housing, how is it that they obtain these things?” How do they endure common crises, like eviction, or the incarceration of a bread-winner?” He knows the answers to these questions differently than most because he has tried to live the problem, which is what an ethnographer does.
Professor Desmond has learned a great deal about living in poverty as an embedded resident in poor Milwaukee neighborhoods. His research has dispelled myths and developed ways of looking at trends in poverty that heretofore didn’t exist. He is also very aware of the paradox that is his own life: the experience of poverty has helped to launch a lucrative career at one of the world’s best Universities. Those who know him best say that he really does want to bring “…justice to the poor.” Desmond frames his goals more humbly: “The wager I’m making with the universe is, if I can show this problem in its full complexity, or as much complexity as I can, and as honestly as I can, that in and of itself has a power that is deeply connected to reform.”
Desmond’s new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City won’t solve the challenge of poverty in Dubuque or America, but it will do a good job of putting a human face on the challenges that poor families face. It’s a study that reads more like a novel and, whether we agree with his methods or conclusions, it’s impossible to be unaffected by his narrative. At the very least, it will challenge those of us who don’t live in poverty to be more than just compassionate bystanders.