At a wedding I attended recently, I fell into an interesting conversation with another guest. She asked me what I ‘do’ (somehow the words ‘for work’ are always implicit in this phrase, yet rarely spoken out loud), and I shared that I fundraise for an international human rights organization. I quickly assured her that I was not wearing my fundraising hat that night (a cute sentence that one of my colleagues here taught me in order to effectively disarm people from thinking the next step would be to ask them for money). She asked about our mission, and I spoke of gender equality, climate justice, and poverty eradication. She understood the first two goals but tripped over the last, repeating it back to me with a lifted eyebrow and downhill gaze: “…poverty eradication?” Her skepticism made me pause and wonder why she didn’t necessarily see that goal as I do: imperative, reasonable, and achievable…?
I blushed, fumbling for a response. In a perfect world, I would have a case for support of poverty eradication memorized and ready for recitation. It would begin with something like this: “Yes, we want to eradicate poverty. Here’s why it was created and how it’s been perpetuated, here’s who is affected, and here’s what we believe the solution to be.”
So why didn’t I have a response ready? For one, I am just six months into my post at ActionAid and am still learning how to talk about our work. Secondly, maybe I just take the goal of poverty eradication for granted, naively believing in it out of sheer desire, will, and hope for a better world. Maybe it’s because I have not directly experienced poverty or injustice as a person of privilege. A lot of thoughts swirled through my mind as I thought about the expectations I’ve set for myself as someone working in the humanitarian sector when often I feel more equipped to speak about conducting qualitative scientific research or why artist Amber Mark is the next Frank Ocean (you heard it from me!).
Lastly, maybe it’s because poverty is hard to discuss in an everyday sense. In the U.S., we don’t have a popularized language or framework to talk about poverty except for, maybe, tenants’ rights/labor rights, making it difficult to acknowledge, destigmatize, dissect, and mobilize around it. Like most things, though, my lack of an eloquent response to her skepticism probably has something to do with not one of the reasons, but a bit of all of the above.
My confusion around this conversation inspired me to listen to Ezra Klein’s interview with Matthew Desmond, who is a sociologist and the author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” (2016) and “Poverty, by America” (2023). FYI: it is a conversation between two white men! Although Desmond did experience poverty as a kid.
The episode focuses on poverty eradication in the U.S., and while ActionAid programs mostly take place in the Global South, some of its themes, especially around tax justice, and broader questions about the role of “everyday people” in subsidizing poverty, do influence ActionAid’s policy, fundraising, and communications work. There’s so much to say about this episode, and you may already be familiar with some of the research Matthew identifies and pulls on. Still, I encourage you to take a listen here if you want expand your understanding of the roots of poverty and injustice and how to become more of a “poverty-abolitionist” (with much more context/substance, of course, to be found, in Desmond’s actual book, “Poverty, by America”).
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