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News in Brief

Relational Poverty Network Launch Inspires More Collaborative Thinking Between Economic Classes and Disciplines

Oct 10, 2014

Hundreds of UW students and faculty joined visionaries from universities and organizations around the globe this morning to launch the Relational Poverty Network (RPN) co-founded by the new director of our Honors program, Dr. Victoria Lawson, and her colleague in the Geography department, Dr. Sarah Elwood, as a broad experiment bringing sciences and humanities together to build alternative understandings of impoverishment and forge social alliances to address poverty and inequality.

Sarah Elwood and Vicky Ellison at RPN 2014

In their introductory remarks, Lawson and Elwood explained the RPNs “epistemologically open” model – a chord that resonates with University Honors students whose interdisciplinary approach to problem solving already supports the work of the RPN on many levels. Dr. Elwood summed up the work of RPN as a sort of “conceptual pluralism” able to recognize contributions from all fields towards the understanding and actions needed to address the underlying causes of poverty.

The plenary speakers were riveting. Frances Fox Piven, professor of political science and sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of (most recently) Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America preceded Timothy Harris, founder of Real Change. The two made differently compelling cases for the need to organize across class lines and disciplines to beat back the most damaging systems to human safety and dignity.

Frances Fox Piven at RPN 2014

Piven’s address was rife with ominous examples of how our society is comprised of “dense, crystalized social relations that we call institutions” that prey upon the poor largely without consequence. She noted, however, that poverty amidst plenty offers opportunity to build powerful alliances and cited Neo-liberalism as a gentrifying force that can still be opposed. “I never heard the words ‘relational poverty’ until I began talking to Vicky and Sarah,” she laughed. “Then I discovered that I have been working on relational poverty for my entire life.”

RPN co-director Sarah Elwood touched on the “cherished narratives” about poverty in the world’s richest countries, where marginalized populations are stigmatized and dehumanized to perpetuate exploitative practices and norms.

Tim Harris, founder and director of Real Change, supported that claim in his own remarks. Harris told the story of how he came to notice and care about the homeless population before founding the independent paper principally written and distributed by people from the streets.

Tim Harris at RPN 2014

Harris went on to describe run-ins with political and economic cohorts driving policy to punish the poor for being poor, especially in Seattle. Homeless populations, as Harris explained, are considered an obstacle to attracting “the kind of bright shiny people that a bright shiny city deserves.” Harris described brain mapping studies that prove how people respond to images of humans living in poverty with parts of the brain that are “not even linked to the parts that light up when we think of humans.”

Harris equates this cognitive dissonance to how we are able to observe poverty all around us without feeling compassion or outrage. “Once you define someone as less than human, you can do basically anything to them.”

The conference continues throughout the day and more information can be found here: http://depts.washington.edu/relpov/annual-meetings/2014-2/