Mia Birdsong: How Can We Reframe Negative Narratives About Poverty? Activist Mia Birdsong says the stories we tell about poverty don't reflect reality. She describes people in her community who are optimistic about their futures — even if the larger society is not.
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How Can We Reframe Negative Narratives About Poverty?

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How Can We Reframe Negative Narratives About Poverty?

How Can We Reframe Negative Narratives About Poverty?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Today on the show, the case for optimism.

MIA BIRDSONG: Because I think we have a lot to be optimistic about.

RAZ: Mia Birdsong helps run the Family Story Project. It's an organization that's dedicated to changing the stories we tell about families...

BIRDSONG: Oh, yes.

RAZ: ...Who are poor.

BIRDSONG: So, yeah. So I'm connected to folks who are dealing with a lot of stuff that makes life incredibly hard. But in that we see just, like, just incredible moments of human ingenuity and hopefulness, right?

RAZ: I mean, so why does it seem like we're not hearing those stories?

BIRDSONG: Well, I think partly we need more of folks who are marginalized to be telling their own stories.

RAZ: And so the idea behind Mia's work is that those stories, if we actually pay attention to them, contain lessons for helping poor people and optimism, about their future. Here's Mia's take from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BIRDSONG: I was raised by a quietly fierce single mother in Rochester, N.Y. I was bussed to a school in the suburbs from a neighborhood that many of my classmates and their parents considered dangerous. At 8, I was a latchkey kid. After school I'd go to the corner store and buy can of Chef Boyardee ravioli, which I'd heat up on the stove as my afternoon snack. If I had a little extra money, I'd buy a Hostess fruit pie.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRDSONG: We were poor when I was a kid. But now, I own a home in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood in Oakland, Calif. I've built a career. My husband is a business owner. I have a retirement account. I am the exception because of luck and privilege, not hard work. And I'm not being modest or self-deprecating, I am amazing.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRDSONG: But most people work hard. Hard work is the common denominator in this equation. And I'm tired of the story we tell that hard work leads to success because that story allows those of us who make it to believe we deserve it, and by implication those who don't make it don't deserve it.

For every story I hear demonizing low-income, single mothers or absentee fathers, which is how people might think of my parents. I've got 50 that tell a different story about the same people showing up every day and doing their best. What if we recognized that what's working is the people and what's broken is our approach?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: What do you think this narrative comes from, that this idea that poor people are just - aren't willing to work hard? Where's that come from?

BIRDSONG: Well, I mean, it's a narrative that lets everybody else off the hook. The fact is, like, there's - if you're a poor person, if you look at, like, you know, the data and research that's been done over the last several decades, you are likely to stay poor your whole life. And that's not 'cause you didn't work hard (laughter). It's just because that's how our economy is set up.

I think it also allows people who are in positions of power to believe that the things we have are things that we worked hard for and therefore we deserve them, and that means we're allowed to like, hoard them and hold onto them. And if other people want them, they can just work hard for them, too, and they'll get them.

RAZ: So, Mia, in your talk you tell the story of this guy, Bakir, who does work hard, right?

BIRDSONG: Yeah.

RAZ: But, I mean, his story - I mean, it's the kind of story we don't always hear. He runs this, like, cafe/bookstore in New Orleans called Black Star Books. Can you just tell us about his story?

BIRDSONG: Oh, my God. Bakir is a deeply optimistic person. So he's created this - like, Black Star is this little oasis. He - it's a house. He lives in part of it, he and his partner and their daughter. And then they've got the cafe on the ground floor, part of the ground floor. You walk in it's, like, got these beautiful paintings, little tables with, like, groups of folks sitting around. He knows everybody, like, I feel like I aspire to have that kind of community in my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BIRDSONG: As you walk in the door, Bakir greets you with a, welcome black home.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRDSONG: Once inside, you can order some Algiers jerk chicken, perhaps a vegan walnut burger or a jive turkey sammich. And that's sammich not sandwich. You must finish your meal with a buttermilk drop, which is several steps above a doughnut hole and made from a very secret family recipe.

But Black Star is much more than a cafe. For the kids in the neighborhood, it's a place to go after school to get help with homework. For the grown-ups, it's where they go to find out what's going on in the neighborhood and catch up with friends. It's a performance venue. It's a home for poets, musicians and artists. Bakir and his partner Nicole with their baby girl strapped to her back are there in the mix of it all, serving up a cup of coffee, teaching a child how to play Mancala or painting a sign for an upcoming community event.

Everywhere I go, I see people who are broke, but not broken. I see people who are struggling to realize their good ideas so that they can create a better life for themselves, their families, their communities. If this country is going to live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all, then we need to elevate the voices of our unheard. We must leverage their solutions and their ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It kind of sounds like what you're saying is that most of us are pessimistic about the ability of poor people to help themselves.

BIRDSONG: Yes, absolutely.

RAZ: And that there is a reason to be more optimistic about that.

BIRDSONG: Right. I think optimism is a form of resistance. I mean, Tupac talks about roses growing out of concrete, like, that is optimism. Like, people just want to live. So when - I think that that's what we have to be optimistic about is that people will continue to fight.

And I think our job, like people - you know, in the social sector, people who hold power and hold resources - our job is to get a little deeper and to listen more and to let go of our suspicion that, you know, if we give poor people money, they're going to be irresponsible with it or they don't know what to do with it 'cause I'll tell you, poor people know exactly what to do with money because they ain't got none.

They know exactly how much money is in their bank account. They know which bill is going to come in on what day, and they know which bills they can be late on. And they know kind of how to make decisions about where they're going to put their limited financial resources so that they can, like, make it to the next month. So let's leverage that. Let's, like, invest in that. Let's support that and get the hell out of their way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BIRDSONG: Consider this an invitation to rethink a flawed strategy. Let's grasp this opportunity to let go of a tired, faulty narrative and listen and look for true stories, more beautifully complex stories about who marginalized people and families and communities are.

I'm going to take a minute to speak to my people. We cannot wait for somebody else to get it right. Let us remember what we are capable of. We spend a lot of our time and energy organizing our power to demand change from systems that we're not made for us. Instead of trying to alter the fabric of existing ways, let's use some of our substantial collective power toward inventing and bringing to life new ways of being that work for us. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: That's Mia Birdsong. You can check out her talk at TED.com, more ideas about optimism in just a minute. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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