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The Avodah Blog

Misdiagnosing Poverty

Gillian Locascio, from Tacoma, WA, is an alum of AVODAH New Orleans. Currently, she works with local residents on a community health project in Western Panama.

This piece originally appeared on Jews4NewOrleans.org here.

‘Common indeed are the ethnographies in which poverty and inequality, the end result of a long process of impoverishment, are reduced to a form of cultural difference. We were sent to the field to look for different cultures. We saw oppression; it looked, well, different from our comfortable lives in the university; and so we called it ‘culture’. We came, we saw, we misdiagnosed.’ -Paul Farmer

Seeing oppression, or more often, the impacts of oppression and blaming it on culture — a phenomenon I have witnessed over and over in the last two years (and suffered from myself), working in New Orleans and in an indigenous area of Panama. I don’t think, however, we just call oppression “culture” because it makes us uncomfortable: I think it comes from a lack of historical awareness. Or at least, awareness of the right history. And the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an anti-racist organizing group founded in New Orleans, called Americans ahistorical.

Last year in New Orleans, with AVODAH, my housemates and I watched parts of the documentary film “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” we read excerpts from “A People’s History,” I worked daily and was mentored by people who had worked in the civil rights movement from the time of SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr.

And I got angry.

Angry at the history we didn’t learn in high school, the kind that explains the inequalities we see today. Angry that I never learned about red lining, the legal means by which Black neighborhoods were made to value less just because they were Black, the legal means by which Black families were denied mortgages or given higher mortgages (which, studies show, still happens today even though officially red lining was made illegal with the passage of civil rights).

Angry that I never learned how Black veterans were denied the same uses of the GI Bill after WWII (what good does a free college education do if few colleges will accept Black students?). Angry that my democratic country didn’t trust me with the truth.

And, not understanding the footprints (or, better said, boot prints) left behind by red lining, the only way to explain the state of some Black neighborhoods in New Orleans was culture. The only way to explain the financial situations, the work situations, the foreign world I was walking through every day was culture. But they were false conclusions, arrived at from incomplete evidence.

I see the same dynamic where I am working now, here in Panama, with people thrown into the often difficult task of working in the Comarca eventually becoming bitter and cynical. Blaming the situation of the Comarca (indigenous state) on Culture.

And there are certainly cultural clashes between work styles in the Comarca and outside of the Comarca. Between communication styles. But these lead more to ineffective collaborations with the outside groups and government than to poverty itself. A map of the index of satisfaction of basic needs (as defined by the Panamanian government) in Panama shows the entire Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé as a red blob — the lowest satisfaction of basic needs in the country. The infrastructure is terrible, we have very few good roads, almost no road upkeep, and not a single high school in the entire district. It is getting a little better, but the impacts of that infrastructure gap will continue long after the infrastructure improves. Which is why it is important to know the history, to understand the systemic and structural barriers.

To understand “the man,” as some of my friends would say.

If you don’t look hard for the clues, the little pieces that hint at the bigger picture, it is easy to assume that the world is flat and that the sun goes around the Earth. When you can’t see the system, you explain the situation with what you CAN see.

For now, I hope to keep my eyes on the big picture while focusing on the details, and to work with the people where I am living in Panama to improve the parts of their lives that they see as problems without losing the beautiful: the social support networks, visits to the sick, a week’s community support of a family in mourning, a beautiful culture of gifting, complex art and craft, strong hard working people, experimenters and innovators, practical and pragmatic, the habit of leaving silence after someone speaks to really hear what they have said, the delicious vegetables from their farms, the fresh air, the stunning mountainsides, the beautiful stars. The laughter of the children.

We may have a tendency to misdiagnose oppression as culture, but it is always worth getting a second opinion.

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