Fishing for a Future
Education Access in Seattle

Part One in an occasional series by Geoff Cole

reprinted from Real Change

Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day.
Teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.

It's clever and pithy, this old saying, but unfortunately it's inaccurate on two counts. First, obviously, "man" implies that only males bring home the bacon (or the fish). Second, its short-sighted focus on narrow occupational training is a prescription for failure where the poor are concerned. A less clever but more meaningful aphorism might go something like this:

Help people to develop confidence in themselves while learning to fish, and they may not only become competent fishermen; they may also invent a better lure, change careers, become involved in the larger community, and find happiness.

And, along the way, they may rock the boat. The possibility of boat-rocking creates a dilemma for those politicians, bureaucrats, and employers who want workers with enough gumption to arrive at work on time, but not enough to question safety standards or start a union. "That is why the poor are so rarely politicized," says sociologist Earl Shorris, author of New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy. "The possibility that they will adopt a moral view other than that of their mentors can never be discounted. And who wants to run that risk?"

Yet training programs for poor people that focus on minimal job skills tend to fail dismally. Given our culture's deeply-ingrained "blame the victim" mentality, the failure is usually attributed to flaws in the trainees, not in the programs. Such training programs are bound to fail, Shorris believes, because of the special challenges faced by poor people. "Numerous forces ... exert themselves on the poor at all times and enclose them, making up a `surround of force' from which, it seems, they cannot escape," he says in an article in Harper's magazine (September 1997). Defining "politics" as "activity with other people at every level," Shorris describes a vicious cycle: this "surround of force" is "what kept the poor from being political and ... the absence of politics in their lives was what kept them poor."

In Seattle, numerous education efforts aim to break that cycle. Through different programs, poor, homeless, and low-income people of all ages are engaged in everything from web-design to gardening, from professional cooking to training in the classics and humanities.

What follows are two examples of what happens when personal development and "life skills" are emphasized along with the "learning to fish" aspect of training. Real Change will continue to examine other such programs in the months to come.

Monday afternoon: Up at the Josephinium, an old residence hotel on Second Avenue that has been turned into a warren of public agencies, street kids from the Orion Center are finding their places in the computer lab. "Foundry" is about to begin. There's a palpable rise in the energy as their instructor, fresh-faced Ali Stewart, enters the room. "Ali, look at this...!" "Ali, how do you...?"

The Foundry, a non-profit organization supported by the Speakeasy internet café, organizes the computer literacy component of the course. Twice a week, volunteers from the City Year program of Americorps teach the two hour class, which is attended by four to twelve students at any given session.

Because their homelessness has kept them out of school, most of the students have had little or no experience using computers. The goal, according to Ali and co-instructor Sophia Rodriguez, is to move students from using the mouse to building a web page. (To see previous class work, visit www.speakeasy.org/foundry.)

While the expressed purpose is to develop computer literacy, Ali, Sophia, and the instructors at Orion Center see changes in confidence and self-esteem as well. In the beginning, students waited to be guided at every step; now they take the initiative to learn on their own. "When something didn't work they blamed themselves," says Ali. "Now they're more confident that their steps are correct and they tend to look for problems in the computer." Which, she says, is where most of them are.

Reading and writing skills have also improved. As kids begin thinking about what to put on their web page, says Ali, they go from "no interest in writing down anything" to eagerness to express themselves. Also, she says, about half the current group have trouble reading, so getting them to read was "like pulling teeth." But when Ali gave them a story she'd written to introduce computer jargon in context, they read with enthusiasm.

Describing how he's changed, Jason, one of the students, says he came to the program without a goal and now wants to become a mechanic. Instead of the extremes of hopelessness or fantasy expectations, he sees progress toward his goal as "climbing stairs." For Donald, another Foundry student, the experience of the class, particularly building a web page, has made him happier. "I'm proud to have made something of my own."

Thursday morning: Over at Antioch University, 15 or so homeless women have finished breakfast and are singing a Holly Near song, one of their favorites:

We are gentle angry women
And we're singing
Singing for our lives
After another song or two they'll disperse to attend classes in computer, yoga, and poetry writing. These, along with singing, were the classes these women from WHEEL and the Sisters Project asked for when the program started, and their desire for both the highly practical (computer literacy) and the highly personal (poetry, singing, yoga) is significant for its intuitive wisdom.

This informal program got its start when Kim Sather of the Sisters Project, a community organization for homeless and formerly homeless women; Mary Lou Finley, a teacher at Antioch; and women from WHEEL, a homeless women's advocacy group, wondered aloud what they could do for homeless women. Through their efforts, Antioch agreed to provide facilities-including their computer lab-and helped recruit volunteer teachers among staff, students, and alumni. Rather than imposing a top-down curriculum, the organizers asked the women what they wanted to learn and then recruited the instructors.

As the volunteers talk about changes they've seen in the women, two complementary themes keep emerging: taking individual initiative, and developing community. While the women have become more assertive about asking for what they want, says Kim, more significant is their willingness to say what they would like changed. "They take a lot of ownership once they understand they're not just a number," she says.

Anitra Freeman, a formerly homeless woman who teaches the computer classes, sees the women's delight in accomplishment lead to greater self-confidence. At the same time, says Anitra, the women are more willing to interact with others-for example, as they began planning a group web page.

Singer-songwriter Laura Kaluba, the music instructor, notes that at first, the women expected her to choose the songs and do most of the singing. Now they ask for the songs they want. The distance between student and teacher that Laura sensed at the beginning of class has disappeared, replaced by a sense of learning together. For her, moving the women from unison singing to harmonizing is symbolic of the program's goal: for harmony to happen, it takes both developing the individual voice and disciplining it to blend with other, differently-pitched voices. "Singing," she says, "opens the door to a sense of community. [The women] learn to embrace the singing part of their lives."

Mary Lou Finley, whose study of homeless women's health care motivated her to involve Antioch in this program, believes the university setting is an ideal place to help the women experience themselves functioning in the mainstream community. Shorris says in New American Blues that years of seeing themselves as outsiders is one of the obstacles poor people must overcome in order to function in society. Mary Lou agrees, citing evidence of "rising aspirations" as the women see themselves in a different way.

At the same time, Antioch's focus on "whole person learning" provides a less status-conscious, competitive setting than, say, the University of Washington, making it a safer, more comfortable place to be. At least one of the women in the program has enrolled in a GED program and is talking about going on to college-in part, Mary Lou believes, because of the Antioch environment.

"[Students] seem happy to be here," she says.

Penny, who gave up a few minutes of singing class to talk to Real Change, got into the program about a month ago when she picked up a brochure at Angeline's, a day center for homeless women. She was drawn to the program because she was very curious about computers but lacked the opportunity to learn. She also felt intimidated by people who seemed to know all about them. "It's not that I don't have knowledge, I just didn't have that knowledge." When Penny arrived at 8:30 am her first day, she says she was "amazed" that the program even provided breakfast-just one more example of the "abundance of goodness" she finds in Seattle. With food donated by volunteers at Antioch, the original intent of having breakfast was simply to provide a morning meal before class, says organizer Kim. But breakfast and singing have become an important community-building function, with the women voluntarily taking responsibility according to their abilities.

Describing herself as "very country" and "leery of gatherings," Penny says besides leaning to use the computer she's developed more faith in people, largely because of the attitude of her instructors. As she puts it, "There is no phoniness to them." Admitting that she finds it hard to take instructions, Penny said she cherishes the freedom she's given to learn at her own pace.

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