Op-ed: Our poverty fight starts with listening

Posted at 7:00 AM, May 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-03 13:00:45-04

Ross Meyer is vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Cincinnati, where he oversees United Way’s community change strategies and investments.

When I was 13 years old, my service-learning teacher took me to Over-the-Rhine for the first time. Growing up in a comfortable, middle class home in Finneytown sheltered me from the realities faced by those living just minutes away.

When I walked through the doors of the Drop Inn Shelter in the winter of 1996, I couldn’t handle what I saw. I went through the motions of serving the evening meal, too uncomfortable to look in the eyes of the people on the other side of the counter.

Ross Meyer

After dinner, an elderly homeless woman started to tell me about the struggles of street life for a woman. I tried not to listen; I couldn’t process what she was telling me. Attempting to be polite, I casually said, "Yeah, I know what you mean." Immediately, she grabbed my face like my grandmother would and shouted, "YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I MEAN! I've seen your kind before, coming down here to try to rescue us poor folk so you feel better about yourself. How could you possibly know what street life is like, you're just some rich white boy from the suburbs..." As she went on for what seemed like hours, I just stood there – terrified – but listening.

I returned to the Drop Inn every week for the next eight years. Her words sparked something deep within me. For the first time, I felt my privilege. For the first time, I was aware of race and class disparity. And for the first time, I felt a sense of responsibility, which drives me to this day.

Twenty years later, despite tremendous positive momentum and revitalization, poverty and disparity continue to grow. Nearly 100,000 children across the tri-state region are growing up in poverty – a rate that has doubled since 1970.

In the City of Cincinnati, almost half of all children are living in poverty – one of the worst rates in the country. An unconscionable three-quarters of African American children under six are growing up poor. Poverty is a crisis – a crisis that is crippling our families, communities, and economy.

Fortunately, people across our community are recognizing that Cincinnati cannot become a truly great city, with economic opportunity for all, unless we reverse this trajectory.

Community, faith, business, and political leaders have joined together through the Child Poverty Collaborative to take action. But first, we listen.

In the coming weeks, we will hold community conversations with people from all parts of our community to better understand what is leading to this situation and what should be done about it. While we all feel the urgency to act, we need to start by deeply listening to each other, especially to those living in poverty and feel its consequences most acutely.

Fundamentally changing the odds for our children will require an all-in effort from all of us, over the long haul. But first, we listen. We hope you will join us for the conversation.

To learn more about the Child Poverty Collaborative or to get involved, contact