Sunday, August 26, 2007

John Young: Minoring in poverty at Baylor

from the Waco Tribune Herald

Deprivation 101. Hasn’t every college student taken it? Stretching the soda crackers. Sustaining one pair of jeans through sophomore year.

If you’ve gone to college, you know poverty. Right?

That’s not the poverty Harlan Beckley and Rosemary Townsend are talking about.

They want students to know of deprivation that isn’t a reality show, or the kind where you can call “time out,” rush home for the weekend and return to the desert island with clean underwear and a week’s groceries.

They want students to know the poverty that defines whole neighborhoods and whole generations. It’s the kind of poverty which, more than Americans would like to believe, helps define this land of opportunity.

“By most measures,” said Beckley, “this country is among the poorest developed nations in the world.” That means that while much of this country is developed and thriving, too much of it is third-world.

Beckley teaches religion at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. With a substantial gift from a businessman named Tom Shepherd, he and fellow faculty members developed something called the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability.

With its own underwriter, Baylor University wants to do something just like it.

The Shepherd Program is about making poverty a concentration — akin to a minor — for students pursuing any number of majors. Even fashion design, for instance. Townsend, Baylor’s director of business affairs, imagines a fashion major who studies how garments are made overseas in sweat shops and at what humanitarian cost.

The key is not only studying poverty in the abstract but actually putting the hip waders on — interning in local or international efforts focused on poverty-related issues: hunger, health care, job training, inner-city education.

Beckley said one student at Washington and Lee who majored in literature directed his poverty concentration on Willliam Faulkner and his depiction of poor whites in his novels.

Several schools are collaborating with and emulating Washington and Lee. Most have student bodies marked by privilege and are only blocks away from gripping poverty.

Baylor has named two faculty directors to launch in the 2008-’09 school year. In the meantime, it will be scouting out internship opportunities and funds to build around a $150,000 gift from Richard P. Cancelmo Jr. of Bridgeway Capital Management of Houston. Cancelmo also is underwriting a program at Rice.

Regardless of one’s major, the goal of the Shepherd Program is to understand poverty and feel empowered to do something about it.

Beckley calls the Shepherd approach a “nascent movement in higher education.”

At Washington and Lee, a stunning one-fifth of the students, from business majors to kinesiology majors, are taking Poverty 101, the gateway course to an academic journey that includes internships and an independent-study “capstone course” focused on a specific emphasis and solutions to what each student sees.

This is a program that turns the phrase “book learning” on its head. The book is being written, or is yet to be written, on the mean streets and blind allies of hopelessness.

Many students raised in landscaped corridors of plenty cannot imagine why a system like ours cannot serve everyone.

The concept behind the Shepherd Program is to impress on even starving college students that what they know as deprivation isn’t even the half of it.

John Young’s column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail: Carlos Sanchez’s column will return soon.

“By most measures this country is among the poorest developed nations in the world” — Harlan Beckley

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