This past week was spring break for the University of Minnesota –Twin Cities. Typically at this time many college age students flock to warm, tropical places like Florida or Mexico (not unlike some LCMers that went to Oaxaca). However, there were some students that decided to spend their spring break in sunny, warm Minneapolis, MN (not only did it snow earlier in the week, but it wasn’t all that warm or sunny…) to be a part of an Urban Immersion program through the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches. Despite the lack of sunshine and warmth, the experiences had through the Urban Immersion program were eye-opening and thought provoking.
On the first night at Urban Immersion we met a wonderful group of Catholic students from St. Steven’s at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). We talked about service and justice, defined these terms, and applied their meanings in the world in which we live. One of the UNI students talked about the two-step approach to service and justice. It was explained something like this: in order to walk a person needs two feet, similarly there needs to be a two-step approach for justice and service in order for progress to be made. One foot is justice, which we defined as advocacy and fixing the problem that is causing the injustice, and the other foot is direct service, which is providing people in need with the services needed such as food, shelter, and in some cases home furnishings. Both of these “feet” are needed to help people in need so that the cycle of poverty may be broken.
The next evening we took part in a poverty simulation where a small group of students acted as a family of five. We were in charge of spending the parent’s combined salary of $3,000/month (the father made $11.50/hour and the mother made $10/hour –reasonable starting wages in the Twin Cities) to provide housing, transportation, health care, child care, clothing, and entertainment for the family. Throughout the simulation there were many difficulties that arose that emulated what life is like living in poverty, living paycheck to paycheck. At the end of the simulation not one group was able to break even although many cost saving techniques were utilized. This activity shed so much light on the brokenness within our current system – high costs of living and low minimum wages (it was calculated that an appropriate minimum wage should be $14/hour), poor transportation to the areas that need public transit the most, and inadequate health care coverage. This exercise made me indignant towards the injustices strewn about our system. How can a family that is doing honest work and trying so desperately to make ends meet not be able to break even?
Throughout this Urban Immersion experience we were in contact with individuals that live the life of the simulation family every day. We met people through Bridging (a home furnishings organization for immigrants and people with permanent housing), Loaves and Fishes (a community meal program at River of Life Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis), and St. Anne’s (a Hennepin county women’s shelter in North Minneapolis). In my mind, these people put a face and a life story to poverty. These are the people that need the system to change the most, but the system will not change unless there are people to advocate for system reform. To me, a few of the salient issues that need addressing include higher minimum wage requirements, access to more affordable housing, and better transportation to lower income areas such as North Minneapolis. However, these issues will not change unless there are people to advocate for them to change. After this Urban Immersion experience I am further convinced that advocating for others is how the cycle of poverty can be broken. It will take a lot of effort, time, and attempts to try to change a broken system and the minds of people, but ultimately this will result in a better quality of life for all, a healthier Minnesota, and potentially a healthier America. One footstep, followed by another footstep…