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The Great Divide, Crossed

by Joshua Mamis | Dec 3, 2013 1:02 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater, Higher Ed, Social Services

Occupy Wall Street and its local progeny, Occupy New Haven, have long since disappeared from the public consciousness. We are no less a divided nation (or region) than we were when the movement started in 2011.

The Occupy movement was on my mind as I navigated the world as experienced by the lowest portion of the “99 percent” during a recenCrossint poverty simulation at Southern Connecticut State University. It came up again that evening when the Occupy New Haven encampment on the Green was mentioned in the Yale Cabaret’s premiere production of Derivatives, Jabari Brisbort’s exploration of the income gap’s impact on people in New Haven. One character saw the encampment as little more than a well-intentioned tented folly that had damaged the Green.

Perhaps it was an apt metaphor: The Occupy movement raised awareness, and for a few months stung the upper class. But it wasn’t long before (im)balance was restored. The wealth gap is increasing, the stock market soaring, fueling additional wealth and strengthening corporate ledgers.

Connecticut is among the states with the widest gap between the rich and the poor. The divide is more gaping when sliced up by race: In 2011, 13.3 percent of white Americans received incomes over $100,000, about twice as many as African Americans. The inverse is true at the low end, where 10.9 percent of whites received incomes less than $15,000, while 25.6 percent of African Americans had to live on less than $300 per week, pre-tax. Unemployment in New Haven is higher than the state average, and higher still in our minority-dense neighborhoods.

Poverty in our region is, by and large, sectioned off. Many people of means navigate through their lives (intentionally or not) without having to confront the faces of people who are struggling without living-wage (or any) jobs. This divide looms large as one of the barriers to finding a community-based solution to poverty.

Though I live in Branford, my work at United Way of Greater New Haven keeps me in touch with the challenges facing people who live in poverty. One of the obstacles of those working on issues of economic justice is to find ways of crossing the divides, of bringing the haves together with the have-nots, or at least finding ways to open the eyes of the comfortable to realities of those neighbors who have not fared as well.

Both the SCSU poverty simulation and Derivatives illuminated the lives of those struggling with poverty. But both showed, to varying degrees, just how difficult it is to capture the reality of living in poverty for those who are remote from it.

Derivatives was developed with the best of heart. Jabari Brisbort wanted to create an act of political theater about the income gap by following in the footsteps of Anna Deavere Smith and Moises Kaufman. He and his ensemble interviewed people “who looked interesting” around downtown, asking them about their lives. Included in the characters are two homeless people, a construction worker, a Latino immigrant, a Southern student, a professor, a librarian, and a social policy analyst.

Their stories are interspersed with comic relief sketches that lighten the mood and sneak in some data points about the economy. But really, it’s the people we came to see.

The core actors (Brisbort, Cornelius Davidson, Tanya Dean and Lauren Wainwright, supported by other players) handle the roles with easy transitions using quick costume changes, accents, and affectation. The show manages to take you outside Yale’s Ivy—just not very far.

Yale’s presence hovers around the conversations, and seems to define the relationship with the interviewer. If the idea is to present Yale as a stand-in for the hyper elite, well, then, okay. But if the idea is to mine the material and reflect the struggles and aspirations of these people, the hastily constructed show falls a little short.

But what a wonderful attempt! More time for interviews, deeper questioning, uncovering some of the real characters of the city, would help Derivatives achieve its goal. If nothing else, Derivatives shows just how challenging it is to combine reporting and storytelling, and makes you respect Smith’s Fires in the Mirror and Kaufman’s The Laramie Project even more. It was a glimpse into the lives of others, while holding out the potential for achieving greater connection.

I found SCSU’s Poverty Simulation more enlightening. It is a role-playing exercise in which a group of people take on the identities of those living in poverty. They go through a “month” of having to navigate the world of banks, government offices, and social service agencies in order to eke out what passes for a living.  The simulation was facilitated by SCSU School of Social Work professor Stephen Monroe Tomczak, mostly for the benefit of his graduate and undergraduate students. Working with a team of dedicated volunteers, Tomczak runs this program at Southern twice during the academic year—in the fall with graduate students playing the roles of families in poverty, and in the spring with undergraduates taking on these roles.

I was a 25-year-old ex-con living with a 19-year-old girlfriend who has a 1-year-old baby boy. The simulation is broken into four 15-minute time slots that each represent a week. In each slot, we are required to achieve basic tasks: buy food, pay bills, find housing, etc.

My “girlfriend” and I started the exercise living in a homeless shelter, but I was lucky: I had a job. That meant I had to report to work, and spend seven minutes of my 15-minute time slot “working.”  I then had to cash my check, buy food, retrieve an eviction notice in order to stay in the shelter, get put on a list for housing assistance. Needless to say, time always ran out.

Those manning the agency tables relished their role: Some feigned indifference, and took their time examining forms. Many didn’t know (by design) where you needed to go to get the paperwork you required.

For many, the exercise showed that navigating this world is impossible. For that, the exercise was eye-opening.

Like Derivatives, the simulation had a harder time conveying the other challenges of living in poverty. What does it feel like to have deep barriers to employment, such as limited reading and math skills, and live in a seemingly never-ending circuit of government offices, social service agencies and food pantries, and never make any progress out of poverty? What does it feel like to live in a homeless shelter with a 1-year-old? What is it like to raise children in a neighborhood where you sometimes go to sleep to the sound of gunshots?

“The simulation and related consciousness-raising programs are just starting points, not ending points, in the effort to increase awareness of poverty and promote action for social change,” Tomczak said in a follow up email.

Indeed, conveying all this is a much harder challenge than we can expect from either a simulation or a theatrical production. And it also likely requires a bigger leap from people to actively decide to cross the divide and find out.

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