“So when you can empower educators with an understanding of these different lived experiences, they hear their students differently, and they hear the families differently rather than projecting this one idea of poverty.”
“It turned me into a research addict. Every single thing I do is research-based. I’ve studied the history of poverty, United States of America, and I learned that most people haven’t. I learned we graduate people to be teachers, social workers, psychiatrists, probation officers, school board members, elected officials, and they’ve never had the history of poverty in this country. So, there’s with the best of intentions, people working to address those impacts of poverty, but not always understanding it.”
“When people know the facts, they then want to align and really fight the poverty, not the students and families who live in it.”
“Educators who understand that what kids know when they get to our doors, isn’t all they can know . . . When the information is meaningful and purposeful and we use evidence-based best practices of teaching and learning and we engage our entire community, we can shatter those statistics that a student born into poverty today is less likely to get an education than they were in 40s.”
“We have to start shifting our paradigm to how will we make the learning happen. Not how will the students and families be ready for us, but how can we get ready for the students and families living in their cars, living in storage sheds, campers, doubled up, tripled.”
“What works is when we build the relationships, we create a platform for the entire community to get poverty informed and aligned with a shared understanding and shared language.”
“Any barrier that can be removed, absolutely should. If it’s not in my hands to do it, whatever my role is, I need to be able to go, ‘Okay, well, who can?’ Who gets a paycheck to resolve this particular issue? And where are they? Who are they? And call them up and use our titles to get through the system.”
“You have a faulty definition of poverty at the federal level, and then you have subconscious misunderstandings about what the impacts of generational, the intersections of poverty and race, the intersections of the working class who are very, very different from generational poverty. Very, very different from immigrant poverty. But, if we’re aware of that, as educators, as school board members, we can take that into considerations and make our efforts closer aligned with where the students and families are rather than where we want them to be.”
Q: And so if you could start by giving us a little bit of background, your background, which led you to the point of co-founding Communication Across Barriers.
A: Well, that is something that I bring to the work to break poverty barriers to education that is unique. I was born into generations of migrant labor poverty. So generational poverty, what that really means is there’s a high level of struggle with literacy. A lot of my family members can’t read and write. If they sign a paper, they’re going to sign with a X for their name or they’re not going to do it. Some of them would be maybe functionally literate but if you put a newspaper in front of them, they wouldn’t be able to read it. That would be me at age 26. So I grew up in a world where everybody worked hard but it was migrant labor work. So we were always working in the morning to hopefully get up enough for a potato chip sandwich, and then in the evening to get some dinner and gas to get back to the field again the next day. I have five brothers also born into the deepest poverty.
I am the only family member who has not been incarcerated. I tell people it’s not because I didn’t break the law but we have to understand that, that context of poverty doesn’t always allow you to be good. People are doing what they see possible from their experiences and exposure. So I dropped out of school at 15 and got married. That was absolutely normal. I thought everybody did that. I met my ex husband at 12 and I don’t know if this would surprise you but he also came from generations of migrant labor poverty and his family lived exactly like mine. So one of the key lessons I really emphasize is that the isolation of poverty perpetuates it. Who do middle class people spend time with? Who did middle-class people sit down to dinner with? So all through school, I didn’t know the words my teachers would use.
They would talk about things and I’d be like, “What does that word mean?” And my teachers with the very best of intentions, “you need to go look it up in a dictionary.” “You need to be responsible, independent learner. I will not enable you.” So I would go to the dictionary and there would be five more words that I had no idea what they meant. Nobody in my environment to even begin to say, “What does this word mean?” And learning theory, my doctorate is educational leadership. Learning theory says a human can’t learn the meaning of a word unless they have meaningful dialogue with somebody who can contextualize that word and give them meaningful examples they can relate to. So for me, it wasn’t only the examples or the words. It was also the examples. So the teachers, when they would explain things would use, middle-class lived experiences.
Everybody knows this. Everybody’s been here and it’s like, yeah, no, I haven’t. One of the ways I help people remember this is I was training attorneys in Arizona. One of my books is Breaking Poverty Barriers to Equal Justice. So I was in Arizona, I’m walking out after a training, attorney’s walking beside me, hot, hot, hot. She said, “Oh my gosh, this feels like a spa.” At the very same minute, I said, “Wow, this feels like a laundromat.” We use examples that we are exposed to. So as teachers are using examples from their lived experiences, you’ve got kids in poverty going, “Yeah, I don’t know that. I’ve never heard of that,” or “That’s not how I would say it.” So when I work with teachers, we help them to really make sure that they’re communicating effectively. My master’s is communication and I studied communicating more effectively across poverty, race, gender and generational barriers, because meanings are in people.
When I told a teacher at 15, “I’m quitting school.” She said, “Don’t quit school because you’re going to want a job.” Well, what’s the meaning of a job to a teacher? What’s the meaning of a job to a migrant labor worker? She thinks she’s giving me an incentive, a motivator. That’s going to really get me going. But to me, a job meant you work hard. You don’t get treated with respect. You don’t move up. You still get evicted. You still go hungry. So I looked at her at 15 and said, “I don’t want a job.” And how does a middle-class person respond to that? Probably like my teacher did. “You’re lazy. You’re not motivated, and you’re not going to go anywhere in life with that little attitude.” So, often there’s such a breakdown in communication. There’s a difficulty in building the relationships.
So that really led to the work that I did all the way through the doctoral program for my doctoral research. I interviewed people from generations of poverty, which is the deepest, and there are many types of poverty. Most people don’t know this. This is straight out of my research. Generational working class, immigrant situational intersections of poverty and race mixed class. There’s so many different lived experiences. So when you can empower educators with an understanding of these different lived experiences, they hear their students differently, and they hear the families differently rather than projecting this one idea of poverty, “Oh, well, everybody’s been poor.” So if you imagine you have students from generational poverty, working class poverty, immigrant poverty in the classroom, we’re taking one approach to address the barriers. You can see how we’re going to really seriously miss some.
So that work really led me. It turned me into a research addict. Every single thing I do is research-based. I’ve studied the history of poverty, United States of America, and I learned that most people haven’t. I learned we graduate people to be teachers, social workers, psychiatrists, probation officers, school board members, elected officials, and they’ve never had the history of poverty in this country. So, there’s with the best of intentions, people working to address those impacts of poverty, but not always understanding it. This is my 30th year. I’ve worked all 50 states and multiple countries. I’ve never advertised it. Always word of mouth. People will bring me in to train attorneys and the educators will hear about us they’ll train the educators and then they’ll hear about it, and I’ll train the social workers until you get a poverty informed community going so that no matter what door our children and families walk through, they’re treated with dignity and respect and we’re able to communicate and meet them where they are not where we want them to be, and that’s really when you build that, we start to see lives changed.
Q: You talked about sort of that relate-ability gap, giving examples from life, and the student or the peer not understanding based on their own life experiences. That kind of leads me into my next question. Relative to those who live in poverty, and you touched upon this a little bit, what are some of the stereotypes or biases that come into the picture and how do these stereotypes hinder progress?
A: Well, I mentioned that we graduate people from college to be educators, to be school board members, to be engineers without the history of poverty, United States of America. So we leave the media as the number one teacher. So what most people know about poverty, it’s going to be, “Well, they get rich by having welfare. They don’t want to work. They want welfare.” In 1986, my welfare check for me, my daughter Jennifer was six, my son Daniel was two. My 15 year old cousin didn’t have a place to go, she was with me. My marriage had ended and my ex-husband who couldn’t read and write after seven years at high poverty schools, he went to live in a car that we had bought at an auction for 25 bucks. I go apply for welfare and they said, “Well, we’ll give you $408 to take care of you and your three kids, but we won’t help the 15-year-old cousin because she’s not yours.”
This is happening all across the United States where those subsistence amounts are stretched even farther than we even know. So my rent at that time in a neighborhood called Felony Flats in Portland, Oregon, and I lived in 17 houses in 20 years there, my rent was $395. So I had $408, that left me with $13, and they gave me $150 in food stamps. So when I got an eviction notice, because I’d pay the rent one month, utilities the next month, my welfare workers said, “Well, if you have any eviction notice, you’re now mandated to money management classes.” 23 states have passed legislation saying that you have a newborn baby our state will not help you. So there’s this belief that people have children to get welfare, and the states who still will help if you have a baby, while you’re on TANF welfare [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], the national average you get is $60 a month to take care of your baby.
According to HUD, there’s not one town in America where a person earning minimum wage, a person on disability, which is right about $750 a month, or a person on subsistence TANF welfare, and I told you, 1986 was my welfare check was $408. The average welfare check today, nationally is $478. We’re talking about 1986, $70 to 2021. Welfare does vary slightly by state. So in my state, we’re one of the more generous states. If you’re a family of three, you get $506 a month to live on. So knowing the facts about poverty helps us to suspend that judgment. In my book, See Poverty … Be the Difference, there’s a quote in there, that’s on the walls of the new Portland State School of Social Work building, which they named community classrooms in my honor. I tell people that’s really weird, I went to the ribbon cutting for that, and this professor said, “Oh, you’re Dr. Donna Beegle. I’ve been teaching the Donna Beegle community classrooms and I thought you were a dead person.”
Okay. Very weird. I am proud. They let my cousin who had no K-12 education, grew up with my aunt Linda, my mom’s sister who can’t read at all, lived in a car most of her life. She’s my graphic designer. So if you go to my website, Communication Across Barriers, you will see Wanda’s magic all over there. Every book, everything, that’s Wanda. She took quotes out of See Poverty, and she put them on the walls of the new School of Social Work building. So when you walk in, it says, “Believe people can make it out of poverty. If you don’t. They probably won’t.” It says, “If you’re judging, you cannot connect. If you cannot connect, you cannot communicate, and if you cannot communicate, how will we educate?” So to suspend judgment we’ve got to gain poverty competencies and get poverty informed. So those are a couple big ones.
Another big one is, well, they have Nike’s and they can’t afford food. So someone will do a home visit and they get there and “Man, they’ve got big screen TV. They’re watching cable. They’ve got painted nails. They’re smoking cigarettes and wearing Nikes,” and people will say, “I don’t want to help them.” And this is again, more of our ignorance. Oprah Winfrey said on her show, “I would rather help children in Africa than children in America.” And she said that because she interviewed kids in Africa and she said, “What do you want?” And they said, “Uniforms to go to school.” She interviewed kids in America. She said, “What do you want?” And they said, “X-Box, PlayStation, Nikes” all that. Because what Oprah Winfrey missed, and what most people miss is that United States is a consumerism society. Paulo Freire says every society teaches its people, “What does it take to belong?” So if a kid walks into school with the right shoes or the right cell phone, what happens? “Ooh, ah,” they get noticed.
Maslow who taught us about human development says, “To be noticed is to belong.” And he put belonging right up there with our need to eat. It’s about belonging. The last one I’ll touch on is just that, when I go into school social work curriculum, I work with colleges around the country. When I go look in the curriculum for poverty, I almost never ever find poverty. What I find is drug addiction, child abuse, domestic violence, mental health, child sex abuse, no conversation about the housing affordability crisis in the United States, the childcare crisis in the United States. Before the pandemic you had middle-class people leaving their jobs because a year of quality preschool or childcare was equivalent to one year of college.
So we have middle-class people leaving, and what about our parents that get a $1.50 an hour to pay for childcare? How are the children? So we have a childcare crisis. We have a transportation crisis. We don’t have transportation systems to get where we need to be when we need to be there. So you drive illegally. I drove illegally for 14 years because instead of addressing the root cause, what we do is we just put on a law that says, “Don’t drive, unless you have car insurance.” So you’re making choices between rent and food. All that law did was fill our courtrooms with people with suspended license and create a tow truck industry. It did not solve the root causes, the structural causes. So childcare crisis, preventative health crisis. In my family, emergency rooms were our doctors. I’m getting ready to train Portland Adventist, all doctors, nurses, urgent care, ER, folks, everybody within the hospital because they haven’t had the history of poverty or poverty 101 either. So when someone comes in with seven teeth saying “ain’t” every other word, do you think they get the same care as someone with insurance? No, they don’t.
Our biases live in our subconscious mind. We’re not even conscious we hold them. Teachers are not even conscious of how they make decisions of “I’m going to invest in this student, but not this one.” So what we do in our poverty informed trainings is we raise those biases to consciousness so we can shatter them with backs, with evidence-based best practices. When people know the facts, they then want to align and really fight the poverty, not the students and families who live in it.
Q: You’ve alluded to some of this already. But if you were to identify some of the most damaging impacts of poverty on youth, what would that be?
A: Well, poverty steals hope and confidence. If you read my bio, it doesn’t start with GED at 26, it starts with confidence. Poverty teaches you, “You don’t know anything. And what you do know isn’t valuable.” That hope is the wings for grabbing an education. Teachers, educators who believe that learning is fixed. You don’t do well with kids in poverty or kids with special needs. Educators who understand that what kids know when they get to our doors, isn’t all they can know. I did tell you, I went from GED at 26 to doctorate in just 10 years. When the information is meaningful and purposeful and we use evidence-based best practices of teaching and learning and we engage our entire community, we can shatter those statistics that a student born into poverty today is less likely to get an education than they were in 40s.
Q: So again, this is something you’ve kind of covered in some of your other questions, but how does educating and understanding poverty, which is your objective and your organization’s objective. How does understanding poverty as a society and an educational system help to reverse this and flip this around?
A: Well, education of course is key to shattering the myths and stereotypes, and really getting that subconscious bias to our consciousness to say, you know I’ve had teachers say, “I didn’t tell that student I didn’t want them in my classroom. I didn’t tell him I think their mom’s a meth addict.” And I’m like, “You don’t have to,” because communication theory says, “You cannot, not communicate.” You’re always communicating. So they feel it. You feel it if you’re not wanted. You feel it if someone doesn’t think you can learn. Without that connection… Humans don’t take information from people they see as other. If you start looking at our policies, I studied policy for a year. Policies are supposed to serve. Policies that punish or exclude, they’re actually called bad policy. So we have to think through what are we doing in our school systems that exclude or send messages that you’re not wanted.
I worked with one school district. I did a poverty competency assessment, which is a model that I developed where we look at policy. We look at professional development levels of teachers with the 10 poverty competencies that I teach. We look at strength of community partnership because, in fact, educators can’t do it alone. We need didn’t have a full resource backpack and know who we can call particularly by first name. We look at the curriculum. Is it relevant? Are they going to be able to see it as personable? Because if you’ve studied the history of poverty, the most common metaphor used is war. Because when humans don’t have their fundamental needs met, they’re in survival mode. So now imagine that I take you to the middle of a war zone in Syria, or many of the many wars that are going on around the world.
If I’m a kid in school, let’s say this kid gets to school. I mean, what are my words going to be to that kid? “You’re late? Where’s your homework?” So I’m working with this school and I’m training the teachers, and the teacher said, “You got to help me with this 10 year old kid.” She said, “I’ve tried everything.” And I said, “Okay, well, what have you tried?” She said, “I took away recess. He doesn’t get extracurricular activities. I don’t allow him any athletics, and he’s still late every single day, and he won’t do his homework.” And I said, “Well, what do you call homework when you don’t have a home?” I’ve literally asked thousands of school board members, superintendents. I mean, typically I speak to 90,000 people a year, professionals, pre-pandemic, “Is homework an effective teaching and learning strategy for kids who live in the crisis of poverty.”
I’ve yet to hear one professional say, “Yeah, it’s working.” In fact, we have studies that show schools that give homework schools that don’t, no difference in test scores. For many of our kids in poverty, the only learning that is going to happen is going to be in a building where there’s lights and heat and adults who know that material, who aren’t in crisis. We have to start shifting our paradigm to how will we make the learning happen. Not how will the students and families be ready for us, but how can we get ready for the students and families living in their cars, living in storage sheds, campers, doubled up, tripled. We saw a lot of that over the pandemic. So are we ready for them? And will those gaps that they have be equated to their IQ, or can we reframe it and use strengths perspective, which says believe in the unknown potential, meet the students where they are, and then get them where they need to be. Raise your expectations. Expect every one of those students to go to college.
There’s work to be done on increasing those numbers of students going on to college, and it has to be broken down in some really important ways. I would encourage everyone to start this poverty competency journey by reading my book, See Poverty … Be the Difference. People say it’s a page turner and they can’t put it down. It’s got story, it’s got best practice. It shatters the myths. We’ve got some great tools for doing that at Communication Across Barriers.
Q: So lastly, how can we build responsive, inclusive communities that work for all?
A: Typically when people are addressing poverty barriers in our schools or any system, it’s typically what’s called a silo approach. So we’re like putting out the fires. This is what we can do. We don’t do the housing. We don’t do the food. We don’t do the… And so what happens is we do what we can in our schools, and then we send the kids out into the war zone of poverty. That doesn’t work. What works is when we build the relationships, we create a platform for the entire community to get poverty informed and aligned with a shared understanding and shared language so that it becomes what one of my books is called If Not Me, Then Who? … Because what we are right now is “It’s not my job.” In my opinion, the second a school board member, a teacher, a principal, a social worker, a police officer says “Breaking poverty barrier’s not my job,” you’re not doing your job. It doesn’t mean you have to go do everything for people, but you certainly have to do it with them, or connect them to the right person who can.
So we have what’s called the Opportunity Community Model. We’re in communities around the country. We did our first virtual opportunity community, where we help schools or community action. We have an anchor organization and they typically will be the host, and we will come in and spend a year really building their platform to have a poverty informed community, to engage students and families in ways you’ve never have, to get them on a path. I spend six hours with parents in poverty and really worked to remove the shame, rebuild the hope, to reduce the isolation, by connecting them to people who’ve benefitted from education, and then connect them to that poverty informed community so that we know, “Okay, well here I can help you with your math.” And, “Here’s someone who can help your family with some housing,” or some medical medicine or whatever barrier is in your way.
Any barrier that can be removed, absolutely should. If it’s not in my hands to do it, whatever my role is, I need to be able to go, “Okay, well, who can?” Who gets a paycheck to resolve this particular issue? And where are they? Who are they? And call them up and use our titles to get through the system and say, “Hey, I got a family struggling with this. What can you do? And who do you know?” Because we know, in fact, it’s a world of who you know. People get a lot farther when they know somebody, and it’s also a world of titles. In the middle-class world, titles are magic. Yet, when you’re in poverty, you can’t even get a real person to speak to half the time.
When I became Dr. Beegle, I could do this. “This is Dr. Beagle. I’d like the supervisor.” It was like magic. I got follow through, got calls back. It was action taken. When I was just Donna, I couldn’t get a person. So what I teach is use your titles as school board members, as educators, as leaders. Use your titles to navigate those systems and educate the folks in those systems. We do these really intensive two-day poverty immersion institutes, and we also certify people to be Beegle poverty coaches for their organizations. We have thousands and thousands of embedded Beegle poverty coaches around the country. Amarillo College president is a Beegle certified poverty coach. They have 100 Beegle coaches on their campus. They are shattering records, because nationally, if a kid from poverty makes it to college, only 11% leave with a degree or certificate. It’s 3% if they’re foster care. So their first year they sent 11 people, different levels of the organization to get certified as Beegle poverty coaches.
And our Beegle coaches, they learn how to do what I do. They will do those poverty competency education pieces, workshops, brown bags, look at policy through the eyes of the students and families impacted by generational, working class, work to strengthen those community partnerships, be able to take a look at the curriculum, what’s on the walls. Often people don’t pay attention, but our schools with high poverty, they often have a deficit negative language like, “No.” “Don’t.” “Stop.” I mean, you get two blocks away. Whereas you go to privileged schools, and you’ll see a lot of, “Welcome.” “Dare to dream.” “Be all you could be.” So we have to even go that level, but getting Beegle coaches in at different levels, we have a K-12 system in Washington state, Evergreen. They went from being at the bottom in the state of Washington. All of their principals are Beegle certified poverty coaches, their superintendent, their school board members got trained. I trained their K-12 staff. They aren’t all certified Beegle coaches, but they all got training.
With the ongoing training embedded in the school system, now that work can continue because poverty, like racism, is just simply not a one-time training. We have to embed it within our systems, and that empowers us as schools then to include our community partners and say, “Hey, have you thought about it this way?” Or, “Did you know, there are different lived experiences of poverty?” “Have you heard this evidence-based best practice for teaching children who live in the war zone of poverty?” So you have that power right within your system, and that’s just life-changing. It definitely creates a climate where students come to that campus, where parents come to that campus, and feel like it’s not the teacher’s school or the principal’s school, but it’s our school.
Q: You highlighted the different types of poverty, and even that just as the kind of fundamental overview of it. Even that I think is sort of earth shattering to anyone who hasn’t really studied or been aware or read about the topic of poverty. I think it’s just seen as a general poverty, as a label.
A: Even the federal government, they have a faulty federal poverty guideline. They say, “If you’re a family of four, you need about $26,000 a year to make it.” Well, that number, the economic formula used to create that number of what families need in 2021 is based on cost of living in the 1960s. The economist developed this formula, so it doesn’t include childcare, transportation, or healthcare. So economic policy institutes say if you would add those things in, family of four would actually need about $50,000 and that wouldn’t get them a trip to Hawaii. So you got a lot of kids in our system, they make between $25,000 and $50,000, they don’t qualify for free lunch or Pell grants or some of the supports that we know they’re not getting anywhere else. So you have a faulty definition of poverty at the federal level, and then you have subconscious misunderstandings about what the impacts of generational, the intersections of poverty and race, the intersections of the working class who are very, very different from generational poverty. Very, very different from immigrant poverty.
But, if we’re aware of that, as educators, as school board members, we can take that into considerations and make our efforts closer aligned with where the students and families are rather than where we want them to be.
Dr. Donna Beegle, co-founder and president of Communication Across Barriers
Dr. Donna Beegle is the co-founder and president of Communication Across Barriers, which provides resources and trainings that aim to improve communication and relationships across poverty barriers. Dr. Beegle grew up in generational migrant-labor poverty and left school at age 15 to get married and start a family. At age 25, she found herself with two children, no husband, little education and few marketable job skills. Within 10 short years, she got her GED and advanced through to a doctoral degree in educational leadership. All these experiences provide Beegle with an authentic voice with which to speak, write and train across the nation to break the iron cage of poverty.