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Rebecca Lewis Pankratz: Breaking Generational Poverty, Poverty Circles, & Poverty Programs


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Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz

Last Friday, @Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz joined our A Better Normal series to discuss poverty circles and programs as well as her own lived expertise. Rebecca is the Director of Learning Centers as Essdack, as well as a poverty consultant, and we met online, via Twitter (her handle is @pOVERty’s Edge. Rebecca is a brilliant speaker, gifted writer, and passionately compassionate. She blends statistics, science, and stories in all her work in a way that makes conversations about trauma, ACEs, and poverty accessible, moving, and shame-free. Our conversation, which was facilitated by @Alison Cebulla (PACEs Connection Staff)  was recorded and is available here:

About Poverty Programs (in Rebecca's own words): 

“Our families come for 2-5 years. Typically it takes 2-5 years for a person to get out of financial poverty.”

“I still build poverty projects. We have 12 in KS right now. So we have like 250 parents that we are working with. The middle class are an important part of our poverty projects, and wealthy people if they show up. We train the middle class how to do authentic connection around mutual respect. Our families are leading, co-leading, and designing the understanding of what poverty is and isn’t in our communities and what our families need from the community, the systems.”

"After graduation, we’ve been recruiting and training middle-class people to come alongside them (core leaders) in what’s called a match and be their friends - not mentors - this is explicitly taught to our middle class. You are not a mentor.  Very rarely, if ever, do any of the middle class who come to the table have ever gotten  out of poverty as an adult So they’re not mentoring, right, because mentor implies you’ve been somewhere I want to go, right? The middle class is trained that this is about connection and support and they also have to build goals for their lives too." 

"We encourage our core friends to go, if our families are caught up in the court system, or if our families are caught up in the school system, we encourage our core friends to go and walk alongside - and not fix it, just witness it. So different. Very soon is what happens when the middle class gets turned into a world they never had access to before. And they start to see some of the disparities and the injustice, right?"

“Setting up the culture of any process, any system, any service we need to get out of the idea that we need to fix people because they are fundamentally broken. Instead, we start asking people what they need, and asking people how are you going to get that, and what support do you need from us?"

Quotes 1

Race, Poverty & the Child Welfare System

Class, like race, said Rebecca is a topic we don't talk about much in this society. One of the attendees, Lisa Kennedy, asked, Can you explain how the (poverty) program looks different for those of color because for Black and Brown people,  the root of poverty can be much different once you add race to the conversation?” 

Rebecca shared that most of the communities she has worked with, to date, in rural KS have been white. However, she is now working in a new community in IL with Black families, and she is still in the “listening and learning," process right now.

“I understand the race factor to a degree,” Rebecca said. She shared that while "just .08 percent of our community is Black - out of 14,000 people," that when she recently visited a prison just 20 miles away, she "was just devastated because most of the guys in there were black and brown and 80% were under 25." When you come from predominantly white areas and most everyone in there is black and brown, we have a problem," she said.

Now that the poverty, trauma, and race work are being done together, in IL, she said she is doing what she always does. "We always need to be going to the people who are experiencing the issues we want to solve and asking them. People experiencing the issues," she said,"are the experts - not the people who have studied it, not the people who have signed on to work with it.” And so, in IL, the white and middle-class friends in the poverty program are turning to poor families of color to lead. 

I mentioned the work of Dorothy Roberts. Roberts is a professor of law, sociology and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania who I've been reading lately. She is the author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (and several other titles). and here are some quotes from articles she has written relevant to poverty and the child welfare system, in general, and how it punishes poor people of color most. For full articles, go here and here and here to see the links at the end of this post.Chronicle of Social Change

Dorothy Roberts

“The vast majority of child welfare investigations and removals involve allegations of neglect related to poverty, and black families are targeted the most for state disruption. Just as police don’t make communities safe, CPS affirmatively harms children and their families while failing to address the structural causes for their hardships. Residents of black neighborhoods live in fear of estate agents entering their homes, interrogating them, and taking their children as much as they
fear police harassing them in the streets.”  

“Most white children who enter the system are permitted to stay with their families, avoiding the emotional damage and physical risks of foster care placement, while most black children are taken away from theirs.”

 “The child welfare system is designed not as a way to assist parents in taking care of their children but as a way to punish parents for their failures by threatening to take their children away.” 

"This punitive approach to child welfare is defective in a couple of ways. First, it places all responsibility for taking care of children on their parents, without taking into account the economic, political, and social constraints that prevent many parents from doing so."

”the price of child welfare practice that relies on child removal rather than family support falls most heavily on minority families." 

Rebecca spoke about how the child welfare system fails families. "When you ask a mom in poverty what’s your number one fear?" Like that:, it's having my kids taken away," she said. She also said the following:

"We have no idea how to yet,... we’re figuring it out, we’re asking questions, how to wrap around parents and heal the home. 

"If you want to help kids, focus on the adults who are important in their lives. That’s how we do this.”

"Anytime we invest in parents we invest in children.”

Selected Quotes from Attendees  
During our one-hour community discussion, we had guests from CA, CO, FL, KS, MN, NC, NJ, NY, PA, SD, TN, WA, and the UK. The chat conversation was robust and these are just a few of the comments shared. 

  • “If you're not at the table,  you're on the menu.” Lisa Kennedy 
  • More summary quotes and notes from  attenee Adriana van Altvorst here (thank you Adriana!). 
  •  “It sounds like Rebecca you know the WHY and have the values and the HOW evolves.....Go to those who experience the issues, have them at the table, ask them what they need and give them options so they can make choices that suit is about walking with not fixing them....disarming and empowering.” Adriana van Altvorst
  •  “I am so grateful for the lens of hope - your brain is still changing all across our lives. The 0-3 or 0-5 emphasis carries an unspoken message that we do not have hope.” @Karen Clemmer (PACEs Connection Staff)
  • “Cultural competence and unconscious racial bias is being explored in depth here in the UK in social work practice since the tragic death of George Floyd.” Shaesta Saleem
  • "Just taking the children “out” excludes the parents. Help the mama learn how to re-parent herself; then she can parent her children.” @Carey Sipp (PACEs Connection Staff)
  •  Take a Safe Babies Courts approach in child welfare…helping the whole family to help the child. After one year, 99 percent of kids suffer no further abuse.”  @Jane Stevens (PACEs Connection Staff)
  •  "Poor children are more likely to have experienced three or more adverse experiences. In 2016, 13 percent of children living below the poverty level had three or more adverse experiences, compared to 5 percent of children in households with incomes more than  twice the poverty level.” @Alison Cebulla (PACEs Connection Staff) 
  •  “Last night’s PBS NewsHour featured (on Brief but Spectacular moment) a pediatrician who helps patients with accessing earned income tax credits (getting money back from government), linking health and wellbeing with erasing poverty:   @Elizabeth Prewitt PACEs Connection Staff
  •  “Changing the way we talk about poverty, as if it’s always there and people escape it, and it’s their fault if they don’t. I prefer to speak about systems that force people into trauma.” @Jane Stevens (PACEs Connection Staff)
  • “I really needed to see and hear from all you amazing people today! This has been a blessing” Jodi Grabowsk
  • “I have been on a LOT of zoom calls. You are THE most authentic person that I have the pleasure to listen to. When you talk - Your thought process is crystal clear...and your message that you are sharing on behalf of the families makes sense. Your words will be a reminder when I am in future meetings...families need to be at the table." Colleen Igo

Resources Mentioned During Zoom Discussion 

About Rebecca Lewis PankratzRebecca lewis Pankratz

ACEs Connection Resources 


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  • Chronicle of Social Change: Chronicle of Social Change
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  • Quotes 1: Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz

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