“What I’ve learned from the workshop is that a lack of empathy is the most important thing that can happen to someone, and a lack of empathy is what people in power often have”
– Student Workshop Participant
This week the ATD Ireland team supported by the Presentation Sisters and the Christian Brothers presented a series of Understanding the Hidden Dimensions of Poverty workshops in collaboration with the Margaret Alyward Centre. These ‘Dignity in Dialogue’ workshops were designed to raise poverty awareness and offer participants an opportunity to learn first-hand about the various causes and hidden dimensions of persistent poverty. Input from people with lived experience of poverty through various mediums was at the heart of these conversations in order to enable participants to hear their untold story, to engage with their journey, and to understand more the challenges and struggle which impact on their experiencing dignity and respect. These sessions were offered in person and online and aimed to highlight the deep rootedness and unfairness of the inequalities within our society that have only been made more apparent by the COVID pandemic.
On Tuesday the15th of February, thirty wonderful 5thyear students from St. Mary’s Holy Faith Secondary School came to the Margaret Alyward Centre to take part in one of these workshops. Dymphna began by giving a warm welcome to the students and introducing the context and relevance as to why these workshops were taking place. She spoke about the importance of being kind and loving your neighbour and how regardless of whether we are a person of faith or of no faith, it is our duty to treat others with empathy and respect, regardless of their background or status.
Martin then provided a fun and interactive activity for the students to first engage with the topic. He asked them to choose one or two words that came to mind when they thought of how someone living within persistent poverty might feel and to write their ideas on a leaf cut out, that was provided. In contrast, he then asked the students to write words that sprung to mind when they thought about the strengths within these struggling communities on a star cut-out – giving the example of the determination and success of the likes of Kelly Harrington. Each student was then given an opportunity to read out their answers. In regards to how poverty might feel, some words given were: trapped, sad, lonely, anxious, fearful, hopeless, stigmatised, ashamed, limited etc. On the other hand words of strength on the star included: hopeful, resilient, determined, empowered, community spirit, empathy, friendliness, different cultures, creativity, fun, togetherness etc. These answers showed a balance between the darkness and hardship those within poverty are forced to face but also the opportunity for colour and light in their strength to push through it. It also provided a good foundation to the continuous train of thought for the next presentation, which was the Hidden Dimensions of Poverty as shown on screen through the cycle of Poverty Tree graphic.
In this section – Ciara presented the tree graphic which was created from the knowledge of an ATD activist who himself has lived within the cycle of poverty, using key words that spoke to his experience. She first asked the students what their initial reaction to the image was, with the question – at first glance, what strikes you about this graphic? The students responded very insightfully.
One student spoke about the person sitting on top of the box and how lonely they looked, provoking a conversation around the isolation often felt by those in poverty and the feeling of the weight of the world being on their shoulders. It also brought to light the issues of a society where one may be forced to appear a certain way on the outside even when there is so much going on inside. This analogy in itself was a good example of the Hidden Dimensions of Poverty. Another student brought attention to the roots of the tree and how it seemed that so much of people in poverty’s experience was determined by deep systematic factors outside their control e.g. structural inequalities, politics, economics and lack of opportunity. This steered the conversation into discussing how ones core trunk of being could be rooted in inequality and how this unjust power dynamic may limit their branches of individual opportunity. The link between this lack of choice and improper access to services/education was noted as was how it can lead to financial uncertainty that effects one’s quality of life and can be detrimental to their wellbeing. The importance and interconnectedness of one’s mental, physical and emotional health in this context was brought up. This was discussed in terms of how poor health, discrimination and a lack of security etc. may lead to poisoned falling leaves of hardship e.g. depression, addiction, homelessness, prison and institutional intervention which in turn rebirths a difficult cycle for future generations. On a more positive note, students also pointed out the possibility for hope, resilience, determination, joy, creativity, family and above all the core value of love as represented in the leaves of the top branches.
ATD Irelands “What does poverty mean to you?” video, featuring a variety of community activists (some with direct experiences of poverty) was then shown to the students. When asked in groups what struck them most about the video, some of the responses were:
‘When the girl said – just because it doesn’t affect us doesn’t mean it’s not happening, so we should do something about it even if it doesn’t affect us’
‘We thought it was really touching when the guy said he was embarrassed about having an empty stomach’
‘We thought it was really enlightening that people from different backgrounds shared stories that we can relate to aswell”
‘We said that we were absolutely appalled that still in the 21stcentury people are being affected by hunger and that they don’t have access to one of the basic human needs ever, which is food”
“We found it really interesting when the lady was talking about putting dignity and potential together, we said it’s all well and good when you’re nice to someone and you’re polite to them, but when you’re believing that you’re fundamentally different based on how much money they have, then you’re not actually doing anything for them”
The issue of socio economic discrimination and the missing 10th ground in equality legislation was then discussed and during the break the students had the opportunity to visit the Socio-Economic Discrimination: Through the Creative Lens Exhibition, comprising the creative work produced in collaboration with ATD during the lockdown period. On return, after watching a powerful video performance of a poem from the Lockdown Liberties, Tara asked the students to share some reflections on what they had seen/heard. Initial responses included:
“It’s just good that there’s actually stuff out there to educate us for young people like us to educate us on what’s actually going on like”
“One of the lines in the lines in the poem that struck me was ‘would santa believe me if I told him I was never bold’ because I think that there is this stereotype around homeless people and people like that, that they done stuff to get themselves in that situation whereas that’s not necessarily the case you know”
“I think also the point that was raised earlier like how a lot of politicians come from a wealthy background so they don’t recognize that there are people with poverty because they have never really experienced it themselves and so there is so little legislation involved to help people or have sufficient services for people who are struggling with poverty but its also an issue where even though they’re not going through it doesn’t mean they can’t do things to help improve their situation”
Carrying on from this dialogue of showcasing the talents and bringing out the voices of those with experiences of poverty – next, the students were presented with a selection of real life testimonies from ATD activists. Some wise reflections on the moving testimonies were as follows:
“I think that when it comes to [things that we see like this] we don’t really give it context, we sort of put it into a box (…) because again it’s hidden and once we see it in other people we also see it in ourselves so we leave it at a certain level, we take away any context, we take away any background – we just leave it at that level of, they’re homeless, they’re this, they’re that and if we give it any more meaning, we are implicating ourselves in that negativity”
“I also think that like especially how people demonise those who end up in addiction, whether it be with alcohol or drugs without like – there’s a lot of context that we may not see in people’s lives and a lot of time addicts are put on to becoming addicts due to trauma or you know past experiences but a lot of times, that’s taken, that humanity is taken away from them without them like really doing anything just because people see them as like you know a burden on society and we kind of like need to break through that and say well you know they’ve gone through this thing and that’s why they’ve ended up as addicts, they didn’t just decide to say I’m just going to become an addict because I want to because nobody really wants to live that way at the end of the day”
“People just don’t realise how lucky they are because like I know I can’t really relate to that like so I complain about the littlest things ever but I’m so lucky compared to other people”
“It’s kind of just an excuse for the government not to fix the problems even when they know that they’re there, even if one of the parents is struggling with a drug addiction, the answer isn’t to take their kids away and ruin their life you know the answer is to help them out of that and make it so that they can care for their kids because there is actually very few situations in which a child is better off in the foster care system, whether or not it’s a good system, children need to be with their parents and when the government just says no I’m taking your kid what they’re really saying is I don’t want to fix this problem you know we don’t want to deal with this so were just pretending that it’s not there”
In the last section of the workshops – the students were asked (in the context of what they had learnt today): to share their hopes with us by writing them on the other side of the leaf, which were then collected and hung together in symbolism as a future tree of hope. The question was also posed as what changes can they themselves go out and make and what changes have already been made by what they had just heard. Among some of the wonderfully inspiring responses we heard were:
‘For people to understand that people who are struggling aren’t just doing it because they are lazy or, people could have mental health problems. People don’t understand how mental health goes so deep so we need to learn about that more’
‘Just to not judge people from the outside because you don’t really know what’s going on in their life, like even in that video, she was working on her past, but they were still judging her based on what had happened and she was trying to get better, like you don’t really know
‘For people to be guided or helped rather than being lectured or punished for things in their past’
‘I’m looking at it like, meet people where they are, instead of where they should be’
‘I hope that it will be easier to access support and help’
‘For people not to be discriminated against for their class’
‘To know that when you take a child away from a parent you’re also giving the child insecurities’
‘What I’ve learned from the workshop is that a lack of empathy is the most important thing that can happen to someone, and a lack of empathy is what people in power often have’
‘For people to stop believing that they have more worth than another person just because of their social class
‘For people to not discriminate people from different backgrounds’
‘Equality and justice for all, equal opportunities and to get rid of the economic stigma that’s internalized in society’
‘No discrimination and no unemployment towards people in poverty or from different backgrounds or different social classes’
‘Everyone should be treated equally’
‘For everyone to live life to the fullest’
‘For people to not see things as black and white and treat people equally’
‘To stop seeing others as less than’
‘We’re all human no matter how much money you have’
‘I would like to see more knowledge on all issues of the world and the dependency we all have on each other because we all live in each other’s shadows’
‘To spread more awareness so that people really understand the issue even if they’re not going through it and for the government to provide more support to people going through those issues’
I hope that we give everyone is given chances and not judgement on their past’
‘To get more responsibility and care from those who are in government’
‘To get more empathy and understanding’
‘Awareness and education so everyone knows what is going on’
‘I hope the state makes changes to help for the better’
I hope a change is made so that people don’t have to worry about their next meal or how they will take care of themselves or their families”
‘I hope they make a change with young people in poverty to take into consideration their struggles and also to provide more help for people with mental health’
‘To realise that if people are on drugs they’re not just doing it to do it. Like sometimes they might be dealing with trauma so they might be using it to cope’
Lastly in response to what immediate calls for action the students could take to enact these changes. They discussed how for example they could:
‘Bring awareness and help others to get an understanding. To know how to treat people who are experiencing poverty and make them feel equal and just as important as anyone else”
‘Start a conversation, especially for people who do like politics and society in school to open it up to the class and kind of like bring the stuff that we’ve heard today and say this is what’s going on and even come up with a plan that we can do in the school to try and raise awareness so that there’s some type of action being done even in our school community aswell.’
We want to thank everyone who helped organize and support such a powerful event. Our gratitude extends to the Margaret Alwayrd Centre, the Chrisian Brothers, the Presentation Sisters, our ATD activists/supporters and to the staff and students from St Marys Holy Faith School. Thank you to the students in particular for engaging so fully with the workshop and for sharing such wisdom, empathy and strength through your own knowledge and experiences. It was truly encouraging and inspiring to communicate through our ‘Dignity in Dialogue’ workshop with the future generation of leaders, whom have the power to change the world for good – through their ability to walk in the shoes of others and lead from the heart.
For as Ghandi said – “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.
Hope is always possible!