Dr. Rebecca Brown Masters the Politics of Poverty
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everybody is born broke.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Nothing is fair. Sports, politics, casinos — maybe especially casinos. Because the reality is, in lots of cases, the house wins, always has and always will, and how this sits with you has everything to do with what you might be moved to do about it.
“I’m gifted, or cursed, with an excessive amount of empathy,” says Dr. Rebecca Brown from her new office near Boston’s Dudley Square. After nearly a decade dealing with issues surrounding poverty, first as deputy director of research at Urban Strategies Council in Oakland, California, and now as CEO of Equity Focus Consulting, Brown is setting about doing for the Boston Public Schools district what most directly needs to be done to minimize the misery.
In very specific terms: targeting resource allocation, programming and school practices to the unique strengths and barriers of marginalized students by using big data to shine a light on disparities in academic, social and health outcomes. At Urban Strategies, Brown pored over reports from the Oakland Unified School District until a picture emerged that suggested something other than the obvious. Buried in data on who was being suspended, their race, level of English fluency and whether they were foster kids or not, and so on, was this: African-American male students were six times more likely than white male students to be suspended, at least once, in any given calendar year. In elementary school, specifically, African-American males were getting suspended nine times more than white males.
For? And here’s the nugget that stopped Brown in her tracks: 44 percent of the suspensions were because of “defiance.”
[Eliminating poverty is] largely aspirational, even in the long term. [But] one’s vision shouldn’t be limited.…
“This is an incredibly subjective, poorly defined metric,” says Sarah Marxer, Urban Strategies’ senior research associate. “And very likely offensively culture-bound.” Brown’s analysis and willingness to ask the hard questions, according to Marxer, “led to a statewide effort with the Office for Civil Rights to turn this into legislation that created remedies.”
Score one for the kids, communities and Brown, who explains that having a profound exposure “to the unfairnesses of the world” is what makes her “feel called to speak up about them.”
It’s a surprising explanation from the daughter of a banker father whom Brown describes as “extremely conservative” and an educator mother who believed that success is achieved “almost entirely by hard work and a supportive family.” But Brown soundly rejects the implication that what fueled her journey from a childhood in Minnesota, Missouri, Montana and Nebraska to an interest in poverty crusading was a reaction against homegrown conservatism. “I was social-justice-minded at a very young age,” says the 47-year-old. And with a bachelor’s degree in economics and psychology, a master’s in organizational behavior and a doctorate in organizational psychology, Brown has built a reputation for mounting structural, not political, attacks on systemic poverty.
Structural, and informed by John Powell’s work on targeted universalism, or the notion that strategic investments in communities can produce broad-scale development. Brown first encountered Powell’s theories as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, sending her on a deep dive into educational equity issues and how intimately they are connected to housing stability, economic opportunity and criminal justice reform. After time in the trenches as a teacher, Brown saw a chance to contribute in a more meaningful way by joining Urban Strategies, an organization trying to influence legislation — with the pie-in-the-sky goal of eliminating poverty in the East Bay.
Brown would be the first to agree that the mission to eradicate poverty is “largely aspirational, even in the long term,” but she also maintains that “one’s vision shouldn’t be limited, even if the goals along the way need to be more realistic.” Goals that, Brown argues, should begin here: educational equity, because being not poor starts with having the educational means to advance. Seems like common sense, backed by data Brown gathered in Oakland, but doing well in school begins with students showing up, and chronic absenteeism is inextricably linked to social instability issues.
Meal programs and a later start time to the school day are steps in the right direction, something realized well beyond the Oakland borders. Moreover, “if you focus on reading, and your goal is how to get people there, you’re already doing better than when you operate from the deficit of underachievement,” says Bart Victor, Cal Turner professor of moral leadership at the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health.
But poverty, says Victor, is “a condition of ‘un-freedom’” — which is where any discussion of poverty inevitably dovetails into considerations of race.
In the U.S. at least, Brown found that “when we break down ethnicity within low-income and higher-income populations, you still find disparities by race/ethnicity in and out of public school populations.” Conflating poverty, school reform and race is bold, but Brown’s sole concern is being effective. Accounting for social pathologies while structuring strategies to correct them, “rather than hiding behind poverty as the explanation for it all,” Brown says, might work better. With school absenteeism, for instance, the problem calls for stopping the blame-the-parents game and looking at issues affecting students’ home lives — from health to transportation to domestic violence — and carefully addressing them.
Brown is not alone, or unique, in her anti-poverty campaign. In January, a Whole Foods in Nevada announced it would donate 5 percent of one day’s total sales to anti-poverty initiatives, and the company’s gone macro with its Whole Planet Foundation’s global disbursements of $69 million (in 2017) to alleviate poverty. But such efforts are not without their detractors, including President Donald Trump, who at a recent Republican retreat, according to Newsweek, talked about making cuts to anti-poverty programs, expanding on a theme he put forth at Davos that “the single-best anti-poverty program is a very simple and very beautiful paycheck.” Adds Trump supporter Martin Galinski: “You’re not going to ‘cure’ poverty by paying for programs to fight poverty.”
“For the conservative crowd,” Brown says, “I think there is a perception that the playing field is level and that the U.S. in particular is a meritocracy.” And liberals? “There’s still a perception that the issue is entirely about poverty, without acknowledging additional biases around race and ethnicity.”
Heavy lifting that’s all in a day’s work for Brown — at the end of which, she says with a laugh, “I snuggle with my dog and watch bad TV.”