What Does Justice Have to Do With Overcoming Poverty?

At a time of historic economic growth in America, why is it that income inequality is at its highest level since the Census Bureau started tracking it 50 years ago? How is our healthy economy and low jobless rate masking deep inequalities in income and health that are harmful to everyone in society? Most importantly, what can be done to shift this trend? These are precisely the questions Bay students seek to answer in the immersive course Poverty and Justice. 

For the three weeks, students set aside other course work to focus solely on understanding the complex causes and consequences of wealth inequality through the study of homelessness (or houselessness) in the Bay Area. They deeply investigate the hidden forces that underpin poverty and houselessness from a variety of angles including an examination of their personal relationship to economic class and listening to guest speakers such as politicians, social justice experts, and people who have experienced and are currently experiencing houselessness. Perhaps the most transformative element of the course comes from getting out of the classroom to do regular fieldwork with social service agency partners including Glide, St. Anthony’s, 826 Valencia, Larkin St. Youth Services, and the Tenderloin Recreation Center. By rolling up their sleeves and working side-by-side with experts, advocates, and unhoused people, students develop a vocabulary that allows them to connect, to the topic and to people. Being in close proximity to houselessness and human suffering builds empathy and compassion in students, which deepens their engagement to the work and ultimately drives additional self-directed learning, which is the best way to acquire knowledge. 

By the end of the term, students see how social justice is crucial to the mission of fighting poverty. They begin to understand that poverty is not simply caused by a lack of economic resources or motivation, but is often a result of social injustice or discrimination that prevents people from accessing tools, resources, and the education they need to improve their situation. Poverty and Justice delivers a powerful student experience that expands thinking, opens hearts and ignites a passion for learning that reaches far beyond the topic and classroom and into the world. 

“There are so many highlights in teaching this course but the best moment for me came during Exhibition night. Students communicated deep transformation around their understanding of themselves as a part of a socioeconomic band as well as a new commitment and care for others in our community.”

~ Zoe Bender, after teaching Poverty and Justice in 2018-19