Remaking America | From Poverty to Prosperity

Packed house for the Remaking America event

Last Thursday, I went to the Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity event presented by Tavis Smiley at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium.

Before the event, I found a public parking garage that charged about half the fee of the GW lot. Unfortunately, it was a cash only lot and I was about fifty cents short. Thankfully, the parking attendant said he would make up the difference.

As I approached GW, there was a line stretching around the block with almost 30 minutes before the start time. Some of my ticket-less friends had stayed away fearing they would be turned away as an usher walked up and down the queue stating that only pre-registered ticket holders would be allowed in. I didn’t make it in until nearly 40 minutes later and by then they were no longer checking tickets.

Suze Orman

What followed was an inspiring two and half hours of some of the best American progressive social, political, economic commentary. The audience was refreshingly engaged and frequently erupted into shouts of support and loud applause.

Tavis Smiley moderated the discussion and began with the devastating statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau that when the perennially poor, new poor, and near poor categories are combined together that nearly 1 in 2 Americans or about 150 million people are living in or around the poverty line. Many of the people in the new poor category were until recently among the middle class. Vicki Escarra, the President and CEO of Feeding America, highlighted the reality of food insecurity and that 50 million Americans are hungry each day, many of them not knowing where their next meal will come from.

Barbara Ehrenreich hammered away on the point that for too long poverty has been seen as a character flaw by both those on the right and some on the left. Rather than as a result of low wages, the inability to find work, and the system increasingly being stacked against people trying to get out of poverty.

Dr. Cornell West lamented that while nearly 56% of children live in or near poverty, the poor have been pushed to the margins of society and their plight and concerns are largely invisible on the national stage. West chastised our political leaders beholden to corporate interests and greed to actually lead on the issue of poverty, which he labeled the major moral and spiritual of our time. According to West, poverty is as much an issue of national security as are the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Michael Moore

Michael Moore observed that America has always had a poor working class going back to the legacy of slavery. Certainly, America would not be as rich and prosperous today had it not benefitted from hundreds of years of slavery. Moore continued that financial institutions miscalculated in going after the white middle class through the mortgage crisis. Now, that poverty has an increasingly white face added to that of people of color, we see more grassroots anger and movements like Occupy Wall Street beginning to take shape.

Suze Orman remarked that “there is now a highway into poverty and no longer even a sidewalk out” and that many of the people that call into her show are the former middle class who are now the face of the new poor. They are of all backgrounds and colors and Orman reminded the audience could very well be the person sitting next to you.

Majora Carter

Majora Carter emphasized the importance of environmental equality and restructuring to provide a tools for economic development. Environmental inequality means that some communities bear the burdens of living in close proximity to factories, waste treatment facilities, and fossil fuel production while not receiving the benefits of parks and other community enhancements. According to Carter, research has demonstrated a link between proximity to fossil fuel emissions and learning disabilities, which in turn might lead an individual to drop out of school. And since those without even a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated, this in turn destabilizes both families and communities leading to a vicious cycle.

But things are not all doom and gloom, it seems likely that President Obama will be re-elected this year. Suze Orman has launched a debit card in hopes of getting debit card purchases to count toward a consumer’s credit score. Majora Carter sees hope despite conflicting emotions about ideas for urban renewal and gentrification. Others see continuing hope in the large numbers of everyday people coming together to mobilize for change through unions and the occupy movements.

Orman challenged the audience to ask themselves what they will do to keep themselves out of poverty. What are you doing to keep yourself out of poverty and to alleviate poverty from our society?


  1. Sounds like an awesome event with lots of good, relevant info. Reading your summary makes me wish I would of been able to attend.

    1. Jams, it was awesome, my mind was still buzzing from the event so that I stayed up very late into the night.

      Off to the “What is the truth about Islam in America: Everything you’ve always wanted to know – but were afraid to ask” event at the Newseum tomorrow, you in?

  2. I agree the symposium was awesome. It was an eye-opener and these discussions should take place all over the world.

    I will see you tonight. InshaAllah

    1. April, I meant to email you so we could connect at the event, missed you. I arrived early was sitting in one of the center rows down front. Had fun, although, wish there had been more time for Q&A.

  3. Wooohooo! Great event! This topic is near and dear to my heart as a future family physician who plans to work with underserved communities, many of whom are these Americans (and immigrants, and refugees!) around or within the poverty line. Social determinants of health are of great interest to me, and poverty, neighborhood, income inequality are some of the big ones.

    But ever since public health school, my thing is always…okay, good, we have the stats down, the epidemiology of poverty, if you will…now, solutions! And I like how you call for solutions here, but I would love to hear about perhaps this conference kicking off an initiative to get people to use the creativity they put into such youtube “campaigns” as “Sh*t People Say” into real micro and macro solutions to poverty! But, as such, you posed questions you want me to answer.

    What am I going to do to keep myself out of poverty. Practice medicine! That has always been my plan, and while primary care pays the least of all of the specialties, iA I’ll be able to pay off my educational debt and my debt to society while serving God and my fellow human beings! In terms of what I’m going to do alleviate poverty, while being a slamming (haha, if I may borrow super old slang) family physician will help improve the health of those in poverty, I also hope to work in a Community Health Center, maybe found one of my own, similar to the original ones, as seen in Dr. Jack Geiger’s Out in the Rural (see here): This is an awesome way to combat poverty at a community level, and CHCs still enjoy bipartisan support, and hopefully will continue to…

    Sorry, loooong comment, but this stuff gets me all riled up! 😀

  4. Chinyere, I, too get riled up about these issues and love public health with a focus on solutions. I’m considering a career in public health and maybe working at a CHC. We should meet up sometime, seems like we have quite a few things in common. May Allah place blessing in your time, wealth, and efforts.

    I asked a question but didn’t answer it myself. Part of my stay out of poverty plan is maintaining a zero balance on my credit card at the end of each billing cycle. I’ve also latched on to the novel idea, which somehow got lost in the transition into adulthood and easy credit of delaying instant gratification by actually waiting and saving up money to buy the things I want.

    On a side note, Chinyere, just read your story in the anthology, loved it!

    1. Salaam!

      Yes, we definitely have to meet up, especially while I’m still on this coast! According to my rank list, I may find myself in…Seattle, iA! They have great family medicine there! But yes, CHCs are, I believe, the way to go right now, even if health care reform does pass…because even with greater access to insurance, folks will still fall through the cracks and access to providers is crucial. The program I want to match at and the specific CHC was founded by the Panthers in Seattle in 1970. …that sounds like me! 😀

      Yayayay, I’m glad you loved my story! I still have to reread it because I only read the edited version once, so it’ll be a surprise to read it again! I’m loving reading rest of the anthology…until I almost didn’t go to sleep last night, and my friend chided me…

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