Addressing Poverty

Eschewing Guilt and Negativity

Poverty. It’s not a nice thing to dwell on. We hear the word and we conjure up images of malnourished children in Africa, staring at us with their big haunting eyes and distended bellies. For some of us, we recall annoying homeless people who manage to make us feel guilty every time we pass them without putting a quarter into their coffee cups.

Others of us have watched documentaries that have sent us into foul, depressed moods for hours at the seemingly hopeless attempts at poverty alleviation. The news is filled with stories about hunger riots and ethnic turbulence, and all the non-profit ads seem to throw faceless facts and overwhelming statistics at us. Poverty just seems too large, too messy, too complex and too unbeatable.

There are two ways to respond to typical ‘poverty awareness.’ The first, on one extreme, is to get depressed at the futility of poverty eradication. Poverty makes us feel too bad about ourselves and the state of this world. The second way, on the other extreme, is to search out ways to fight poverty anyway by being extremely proactive and passionate.

Then there’s somewhere in between, the response mechanism which I believe many of us fall into. Most of us are genuinely moved by these issues and we feel pretty bad about poverty when we have the time. We have served at soup kitchens or participated in fundraisers — and we obviously care about the poor, right?

But repetitive poverty awareness campaigns that riddle us with guilt for not doing more and paint only the negativity of the situations make the facts start to become too much to handle.

We grow numb to the images. The MIT bubble starts surrounding us and our lives end up more focused on everything else on our plates. Who has time to search out ways to fight poverty and all its problems?

Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the Institute’s incredible strengths make it one of the best places to work on poverty eradication. MIT is full of hard-working problem solvers, entrepreneurs and innovators. The initiatives in place at MIT already make a significant impact on our world. The problem is that people simply aren’t aware about all of them and don’t know how to get involved.

My personal story is one of good fortune and circumstance. I definitely came to MIT with compassion for the world’s poor, but I never considered doing anything to fight poverty other than the occasional donation. I happened to be surrounded by a people who were very passionate about social justice in my Christian fellowship and in my sorority.

I watched as they poured themselves into various groups and community service projects; I listened as they discussed and debated ventures for tackling problems of poverty. It was a completely new experience for me – normal students, with normal lives, who seriously believed they could do something to fight poverty both during their time at MIT and after.

My world view became rocked by a trip I took to Cairo, Egypt with these students the summer after my freshman year. I lived on the outskirts in a slum with a Sudanese refugee family and taught English to locals living in the area. I listened to their stories of escaping from their village in South Sudan, volunteering with a medical team and living in a foreign city as unwanted refugees.

The slum I lived in was comparatively well off, but still lacked basic needs — they did not have consistent running water or reliable electricity. After leaving Cairo and having some time to think about my experiences, I realized something about the slum really changed me. Something in me wanted to know more about why slums existed and what could be done to improve them.

The rest is history. I joined the Global Poverty Initiative the semester before, and contacted friends in Course 11 (Urban Studies and Planning) who helped me make the switch to a major more in line with my new passion. I’m now taking classes that I would have never seen myself in three years ago, organizing events with people who are set on changing the world, and traveling on an extraordinary adventure to fight poverty.

I was lucky to have the right connections to get to the place I am today. I have friends involved in various international development projects, wise and well connected academic advisors, and acquaintances in different student groups. My friend, Anne Liu ’08 — founder of last year’s Millennium Campus Conference — told me that there were so many freshmen who have told her “Anne, I want to do poverty work. I want to get involved. What can I do?”

“Now the question is,” she said, “how can we keep that energy going? What can [we] do to help them and connect them to the right people and the right resources to really get involved’?” I hope through awareness and education every member of the MIT community can honestly say that they know something about poverty and how to fight it.

Courtney Sung ’10 is a member of the MIT Global Poverty Global Initiative.