Each morning felt familiar for the 10 graduate students. A morning lecture was held every day highlighting the different aspects of Jack Kirkland’s seminar, Poverty-Impact of Institutionalized Racism.
The real lesson started when Kirkland and his class would leave the Hubbard House on Church Lane, setting out on different activities to examine poverty and the impact of institutionalized racism up close.
Kirkland, an associate professor of social work at Washington University, acknowledges that it is almost impossible to have equal opportunity based on how social institutions are designed.
“Where you go to school determines where you live. Where you live, determines the job you get and the job you get determines where you live,” Kirkland said. “If your money is limited, you have less equal opportunity, and as a result, you’re in a cycle. You can’t help yourself or your extended generation.”
Kirkland’s goal was to have the students see how these institutional factors come together. He also wanted them to learn that they must work toward change so that the stranglehold of institutionalized racism doesn’t restrict people from upward mobility.
“If individuals do not have access to various equal vehicles ... such as smaller classrooms, excellent teachers, then the geography of that individual will determine how well and how long that individual lives,” Kirkland said.
“For example, many in the black community are unemployed. When young people are unemployed, they are ripe for gangs, drugs and outbreaks of violence,” Kirkland added. “When individuals have police records, they become unemployable. That situation repeats itself when an individual has nothing to pass on to the next generation.”
Kirkland said the students “are learning that while services are provided, it is necessary for black people to be economically competitive to move out of poverty. They have to develop businesses and amass other economic resources to employ their own and use those resources to build up their own communities.”
Students react to what they learned
Gary Durrell Smith, a 26-year-old grad student in social work, learned that if he and the other students only read about poverty and institutionalized racism, they might only see the black community through a lens of research. He praises the project for allowing him and his classmates to interact with these issue in a different way.
“We went to O’Fallon, Fairview Heights, East St. Louis, Kinloch, Mo., to see how a group of people can be moved without realizing they’re being moved,” Smith said. “This happens because they have no power or money. So, they can be moved anytime people who have money decide to move them.”
Half of the 10 students were white and half were black. Smith, who identifies as black, said when the group went to a black church in East St. Louis, everyone was welcoming and warm. There were no negative effects.
But when they went to areas where blacks were the minority, he did not feel as welcome.
“They tell us black people want to milk society and are violent and other negative things,” Smith said. “Professor (Kirkland) has helped us ask the question — how do we help poor people? The most important question is why are people poor? The answer is — institutionalized racism.”
Students visiting the East Side Health District were provided with what Smith called “a dose of reality” about the health issues plaguing East St. Louis.
“There’s malnutrition. There is only one grocery store. The people don’t have transportation. They have to use the liquor store to buy food. It’s a food desert here,” Smith said. “This is how institutionalized racism has impacted these people.”
“The East Side director had to lay off 60 people because Illinois has no budget,” Smith added. “These people have lost their jobs. How are they suppose to eat and pay bills?”
Korinne Mills, 24, a grad student in social work, said, “This week taught me that there are a lot of systemic barriers to block success and the language to express it. “Some barriers are economic in nature. There is limited ownership in this community (East St. Louis).This makes it difficult for people to act on their power. Without ownership, you have a very small voice in what’s said.
For Korrine Mills, 24, she saw a different aspect of the impact during her seminar. She learned that different systemic barriers block success for individuals.
“Some barriers are economic in nature. There is limited ownership in this community (East St. Louis). This makes it difficult for people to act on their power,” Mills said. “Without ownership you have a very small voice in what’s said.”
Describing the week-long seminar as a personal journey, Geraldine Hannon, a 29-year-old grad student in social work from Belleville, said in her “privileged” world, people tend to shy away from people who live in a certain area. She said it’s one thing to study poverty and institutionalized racism at school, but it’s another to see it first-hand.
“We got educated in the true sense of the word,” Hannon said. “[Privileged people] tend to not move to a certain area or not drive through a certain area or tell people they shouldn’t move to or work in a certain area.”
Hannon said sometimes people won’t say “black area,” they’ll use town names or ZIP codes to describe what they mean.
“People need to look inward for our own behavior,” Hannon added. “Don’t make decisions about a community before you’ve been in it.”
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.