COMMENTARY: Can we listen well enough to address region's poverty problems?

Poor moms, children are counting on us

CINCINNATI – If I were to tell you I’m a mom, that probably would mean something to you.

If I called myself a single mom, that would mean something else.

And if I told you I was an unwed welfare mother, chances are that would send an entirely different message.

Your interpretation would depend, in part, on your political perspective. But whether you’re a fiscal conservative or a social liberal, the labels attached to mothers can mean everything when it comes to figuring out how to help the thousands of Greater Cincinnati moms struggling to support their families.

That’s why The Women’s Fund of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation is working on ways to help people from across the political spectrum see through the labels and understand the plight of our region’s poor women and children.

“Part of this is our responsibility,” Women’s Fund Executive Director Vanessa Freytag told me. “To listen and understand what people’s concerns are in a way that addresses them. What’s that old saying? Seek to understand if you seek to be understood.”

Freytag decided the first step is getting people to communicate beyond their political perspectives. The Women’s Fund began that effort with the help of Beyond Civility , a Cincinnati initiative that aims to bridge partisan divides to improve communication and understanding among people.

The two groups started with a meeting March 20 held at the American Red Cross building. Nearly 30 people – mostly women – gathered around tables in groups of two.

The idea was for each table to have someone who represented the “right lean group” and someone who represented the “left lean group.”

Do You Lean Right Or Left?

Participants filled out surveys before the event to determine which group fit them best. Pink papers described commonly shared beliefs of the “right lean group:”

• It is always better to teach someone to fish…

• People receiving handouts become dependent on handouts.

• People who work hard are entitled to keep the fruits of their labor.

• Repeated generations of welfare dependency hasn’t served anyone well.

• Assistance for the poor is the role of family and church.

• Keep solutions as close to a problem as possible.

Blue papers described commonly shared beliefs of the “left lean group:”

• We are our brother’s keeper.

• Innocent children should not suffer because of their parents’ missteps.

• Keeping children in poverty only perpetuates the disabilities that hamper society.

• We should invest in children. They are our future.

• Government is going to pay one way or another, either helping out when children are young or building more prisons.

• The cost of childcare for a single mom is crippling.

I observed that meeting, and it was fascinating.

Our Region’s Poverty Facts

Freytag started the session by laying out the sobering facts as originally reported in her organization’s 2012 briefing “Women, Poverty, and Cliffs.”

• Women are the heads of almost two-thirds of our region’s poor households.

• Two-thirds of our region’s poor children – more than 66,000 of them 17 years old or younger – are in female-headed households.

• To truly be self-sufficient in Hamilton County, a single mom with two children – one in preschool and one in school – would need an annual income of $49,341. That’s an hourly wage of more than $23 to cover food, shelter, transportation, childcare and other essentials.

“Those are just facts,” Freytag said. “You can see what a struggle it is if she’s at an $8 an hour or $10 an hour job.”

Sherri Goren Slovin, a lawyer and family mediator with Beyond Civility, then addressed the group.

She counseled each pair of participants to work to listen to each other so they could have a genuine dialogue.

“When you come upon someone who feels differently than you do, you’re likely to shut down,” she said. “The best you can do it to be openly curious and respectful.”

The goal was to avoid thinking of a response while the other person was talking. Resist focusing on winning the debate, she said.

The room then began to buzz with conversation. There were far more “left lean” people than “right lean,” so some participants had to pretend for the exercise.

But for those who really were paired with someone who didn’t share their own beliefs, the exercise was eye opening.

“We realized we were both struggling with the same issues,” one woman said after the discussion. “We were much closer than we thought.”

Common Ground Across The Political Divide

Her partner in the exercise added: “We found that there were pieces that aligned with our perspective so that we could find common ground.”

That gave Beyond Civility co-founder Bea Larsen hope that meaningful conversations about important social issues, such as poverty, are possible among people with different political perspectives.

"I think we're going to find that there are some definite ways in which it's going to help people open up to understanding rather than reacting defensively or not even listening," Larsen told me.

Common ground. In our intensely polarized society, that seems like

a crazy notion sometimes.

To truly address the issue of poverty, though, common ground is something our community must find.

Larsen stressed in an interview that Beyond Civility isn't focused on solving problems. The initiative focuses on having meaningful conversations that start with learning more about someone whose political views don't match your own.

Still, that kind of conversation is the first step to finding that elusive common ground. And if we can all get behind solutions to address the problems that keep thousands of our neighbors poor and dependent, maybe we can convince our elected officials to enact change.

Because no matter what your political perspective, don’t you look in the faces of poor mothers and children and want a better life for them?

I’m betting most of you do.

If The Women’s Fund and Beyond Civility can help us communicate meaningfully with each other, we might come up with ways to help the region’s poorest moms and all those thousands of kids they’re trying to raise.

For more information about The Women’s Fund, go to http://www.gcfdn.org/CommunityLeadership/TheWomensFund/tabid/199/Default.aspx .

For more information about Beyond Civility, go to http://beyondcivility.org .

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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