Here at Advance Memphis, we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to witness so often the transformation that happens when genuine relational interaction takes place between our neighbors and others who live in different circumstances. These interactions are not transactional encounters; rather, they go beyond relief to create real empathy and understanding. Recently we had the opportunity to join our neighbors in the 38126 neighborhood and employees of SouthernSun Asset Management in a “Cost of Poverty Experience” (COPE) simulation, which occurred in the Advance Memphis Warehouse. Advance Memphis graduates volunteered to role-play neighborhood institutions, while SouthernSun employees played roles of people in poverty.
A SouthernSun employee described the experience: “During each week [the simulation included four 15 minute “weeks”], you had to complete what seem like simple tasks, such as going to the grocery store, paying rent, and getting to and from work (if you are fortunate enough to have a job). These roles turned out to be much more stressful than I anticipated. Trying to prioritize what had to be taken care of first to not lose your home or job was a struggle… It was a very overwhelming hour.” She also noted, “There were many circumstances that arose that put people in a place to make difficult decisions to provide for their families.”
During the event, we were able to see some light bulbs go off and see our neighbors learn and teach others about what it is like to live in poverty. Here are some of the thoughts from our neighbors who chose to volunteer to be a part of the COPE simulation:
“[The simulation] shows the reality of so many people in the community: just because you have a job doesn’t mean that everything will be easy. “- J. Reeves
“It really is something that we in the urban community deal with. [We] helped people see what poverty feels like and that it is not a myth but what many people deal with every day”- A. Williams
“I liked that… we were able help people see just for a moment what we go through every day” -J. Reeves
“I think we should do it every class to help others not just judge from the outside”- Q. Pitchford
And from a SouthernSun employee:
“It was a beautiful experience to witness this vast group of people come together and empathize with one another while also discussing what one could do going forward to help alleviate poverty.”
So often in America we break down society into categories such as the “haves” and the “have-nots,” but the reality is that we are all in need because poverty goes beyond material possessions. Our hope here at Advance is that, through fiercely loving our neighbors, providing services for sustainability, and engaging people with the truth of the gospel, we will help enable our neighbors in 38126 not only to feel advocated for, but to contribute to changing 38126 and the city of Memphis.
At the beginning of this year, achieving a high school diploma as an adult learner in Memphis, TN, was the hardest it has been in decades. Forget the barriers of transportation, child care, money, and discouragement. Forget being tested on new material, paying at least 15% more to test, or having your previous progress erased at the new year. The reason high school diplomas were hard to come by was because you simply could not test.
It took 2 and a half months before Memphis residents could take the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET), a new test of High School proficiency to compete with the GED, in Shelby County. In fact, there was no test of high school proficiency offered at all in January and the only option for February or early March was to take the GED (General Educational Development) test at Southwest Tennessee Community College’s Macon Road campus near Germantown- almost 30 minutes from Downtown (longer by bus).
It is unclear why a credential that only benefits the city (and nation as a whole), the lack of which is well documented as being a trap for folks to remain poor, would be so elusive for nearly a quarter year, especially in a city already injured by the symptoms and causes of poverty. But the fact remains that GED and ETS (the companies offering high school equivalency tests in Tennessee), the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and Shelby County Schools failed in the first two and a half months of the year to make the tests accessible to residents in the city.
Despite this setback, the first 2 high school diplomas obtained by students in Advance Memphis High School Equivalency Program were earned during the first week that the HiSET was offered in Shelby County. This should not be a surprise. It should be widely known that a high school diploma earned via the GED or HiSET tests represents more than a mastery of the basics of algebra, geometry, English syntax, or US history. Earning a high school diploma as an adult learner proves that the recipient is a hard worker, can finish what they start, can show up when required, and is driven to do more with their life. Waiting to take the test was just another hurdle in the track toward helping themselves toward a better life. For most of my students, their high school graduation is not the end of their journey. Instead, it is a key to open the door to new beginnings, new opportunities, and even new lives. When we refused people the chance to test we didn’t simple fail to offer a finish line, we failed to offer a starting line.
Every GED or High School Equivalency success is a testament to our students’ perseverance; this year, it’s truer than ever.