With the start of kNOw Poverty Week on Tuesday, the College will put a spotlight on a theme that has been growing in prominence over the last year and one that many hope will continue to draw attention and action.
In an effort that some say has transcended traditional academic boundaries, a group of students and faculty has been working on a variety of initiatives focusing on poverty, including an interdisciplinary course, Examining Poverty, and a push for the creation of a poverty studies center that would include a course cluster to help students identify pertinent classes.
Also, over the next two weeks, lectures, discussions, and other presentations will examine issues of poverty as part of kNOw Poverty Week in the hope of stimulating education, awareness, and action, according to AmeriCorps VISTA Sarah Mountcastle '05.
In interviews with faculty members, several expressed their excitement with the current developments surrounding the theme of poverty and discussed their plans and hopes for the future.
"I think Bowdoin has shifted in being interested in issues of poverty, whether local or national," said Director of the Community Service Resource Center Susie Dorn. "There's a growing interest and heightened awareness on campus from faculty, students, and alumni."
kNOw Poverty Week kicks off on Tuesday with the opening of an exhibit featuring photography taken on Alternative Spring Break trips. It will continue for two more weeks and culminate with a Common Hour lecture by New York Times writer Jason DeParle.
Each day will examine poverty from a different perspective. For example, Thursday will focus on poverty and health, featuring presentations by a local AIDS prevention and treatment organization and a physician-epidemiologist.
Other events include presentations by students who have worked in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, a trip to Bowdoinham to help build a house with the Bowdoin chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which will be followed by a "sleep-out" on the quad to raise awareness about homelessness, and a seminar on the United Nation's Millennium Goals, led by two people working on the project in New York City.
"My first goal is for everyone who is on campus to know that kNOw Poverty Week is going on," Mountcastle said. "My second goal is to urge people into action. The more you learn about a subject and the more it's firsthand, the more you're passionate about it. When you go out into the field and do something about it, that's when you can be a spokesperson for an issue and a voice for change."
In the classroom and beyond
According to Dorn, the idea for the interdisciplinary course stemmed from the informal discussions held after Hurricane Katrina, as part of the College's "12 Days/12 Months" program. The discussions examined the social and physical ramifications of the hurricane and were moderated by professors from different disciplines.
"We really wanted to do this course that helped students think about how people from different disciplines look at issues of poverty," said Nancy Jennings, associate dean of academic affairs and associate professor of education, who teaches the class with Dorn. "So we designed this half-credit course that allowed professors to come in and talk about their research and the methodology they use to look at poverty."
The course, which meets once a week over dinner at MacMillan House, has so far featured guest lectures by professors of art, economics, history, sociology, and environmental studies. Later in the semester, more professors will discuss the relationship between poverty and education, anthropology, and philosophy.
Assistant Professor of History and Environmental Studies Matthew Klingle lectured with Assistant Professor of Economics Ta Herrera on environmental aspects of poverty.
"In a sense, bringing in the environment to a study of poverty gets to a literal base of what poverty is, which is unequal access to power," Klingle said. "The reason why we thought it was important was because questions of the environment boil down to issues of allocation and access to resources and amenities. As such they provide an avenue in which to think about poverty in ways that go beyond many of the discussions that take place on this campus when we discuss social class and inequality."
In addition to attending the weekly class, students are also required to develop their own service-learning placement. Bruce Courtney '06 has worked with a Bath organization, ArtVan, which provides middle and lower-income elementary school students with a creative outlet. Currently, Courtney is working with these students to create a mural at the local recycling center.
"I find my project to be very satisfying because while most of the projects in class focus on poverty in the present, this deals with poverty in the future, trying to give kids an outlet to expand their lives beyond what they have access to right now," Courtney said.
Ian Yaffe '09 said that the class has allowed him to get credit for continuing a project that he had already started in the previous semester with classmates Katie Kindick '09 and David Falkoff '09.
"We're working to bring a campus kitchen to Bowdoin, and right now pretty much all the cards are laid down to get something started in the coming weeks," Yaffe said.
"We're hoping to utilize some of the food that Bowdoin otherwise would have thrown away unserved and get that to the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program. Dining Service is going to start prepping a meal monthly for the Tedford shelter, and then in the fall we'll hopefully expand," he said.
Both Yaffe and Courtney said that the course had encouraged them to think about issues of poverty in a new light.
"I've been dealing more with the practical and operations part of poverty and not from an academic standpoint," Yaffe said. "It's really great to combine those two areas and make classroom work meaningful in a real world context."
Courtney echoed Yaffe's sentiments.
"This is a unique class because so few other courses offer the opportunity to look at one issue from so many different perspectives," he said. "The more you know the more you realize how complicated the issue is, but you come out with a more nuanced understanding."
Center for Povery Studies
As an outgrowth of the activity on campus surrounding the theme of poverty, several faculty members are working to establish a Center for Poverty Studies.
According to Professor and Chair of Economics John Fitzgerald, the faculty members are hoping to bring in speakers on domestic and international poverty issues and start a "course cluster" either in the catalogue or on a web site. A course cluster is a group of courses aligned around a common component that would help interested students find these courses.
Professor of Studio Art Thomas Cornell said he hoped that the proposed center would help students determine their responsibilities to society.
"We have to be willing to be critical in our concept of the common good, and a substantive way of doing it is by looking at poverty," Cornell said.
"It may not be in the end a formal course of study, but it recognizes a moral responsibility and it recognizes personal issues of interest of many faculty. Bowdoin students have to confront what their responsibility is toward poverty, toward an appropriate sense of equality," he said.
Cornell emphasized the idea that students have a moral responsibility to the common good and that the center could be a way to navigate that responsibility.
"Bowdoin used to be an all men's Christian college. Now what replaces that one religion? It's not a theocratic institution, and I think the notion of working towards eliminating injustice and working towards distributive justice is a worthy means of establishing cultural and religious value," Cornell said.
"President Hyde's 'Offer of the College' was written in 1906. Now, a hundred years later, we want to freshly define the good in relationship to issues of global, distributive, and environmental justice. These are foundational to Bowdoin and to education," he said.
Bringing it home
In discussions with students, faculty, and staff, many stressed the importance of both education and action, and praised Bowdoin's interdisciplinary approach to the issue of poverty, saying that approaching an issue from a variety of perspectives enriched and increased their understanding.
"It's been this interesting confluence of talking about poverty from different disciplines and aspects, but also from the academic piece and practical work piece," said Jennings.
"So it's been, I think, a really potent mix of ideas and experiences. They're an amazingly smart and committed group of people. I've learned a lot from all of the people in the room. It's been a great experience, and I'd like to think more about how to adapt it?what else you could do to offer similar experiences around the same or different topics in the future," she said.
Klingle also commended the College's approach.
"Community service is fine, but all too often, community service, when it is not envisioned as a long-term commitment, is a short-term solution or limited engagement to something that is far more complex," Klingle said.
"Likewise, the classroom is a way for students to get exposed to those issues, but the way you can integrate those two perspectives is setting up student-faculty interactions for outreach," he said.
Yaffe agreed, saying, "Everyone in this class is genuinely concerned with what we're studying."
"It helps to have some classes where you've got different backgrounds, but we all share something in common in that we really want to try to understand this. Any class where you have a bunch of people that are passionate about an area is what Bowdoin should be about," Yaffe said.