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Getting Out of Poverty Takes More Than Grit

Written by Jesse McGleughlin

Jesse is a recent graduate of Brown University and a 2014 Fulbright recipient.

Earlier this month, Aisha Sultan wrote an article for the Atlantic titled “The Limitations of Teaching ‘Grit’ in the Classroom.” In it, Sultan critiqued the idea that if low-income children just transform their mindsets—develop perseverance, a good attitude, an ability to bounce back from difficult situations, and a strong work ethic—they will perform as well as middle class peers. Sultan cited the work of Tyrone C. Howard, the associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA, who argues that schools must do a better job recognizing the difficult situations young people are in and developing trauma-informed care. “We are asking students to change a belief system without changing the situation around them,” he said. Indeed, Howard points out that schools must recognize—and then seek to address—the structural factors that affect students’ abilities to learn before insisting that shifting young peoples’ mindsets is enough.

I found Sultan’s article deeply compelling. Implicit in her argument is the idea that for many students, coming to school – despite being hungry, living in a chaotic situation, or being unable to access social services— is itself an act of perseverance. And what those of us who work in the social service sector know is that grit alone cannot get someone out of poverty. Claiming that grit is enough veers dangerously close to victim-blaming and to a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.

Sultan’s article resonated with me because I have just come back from teaching at an underfunded high school in a township in South Africa, a country still reeling from the legacy of apartheid.  At the school where I worked, many of my students had lived through significant trauma, including the loss of family members, surviving rape and sexual assault, and living with HIV and AIDS. All of them were living in poverty.

A few months ago, a few of my South African high school students had their own conversation about perseverance. “If you work hard, you will get out,” one student said. “We just need to dream big,” another added. And then a third student pronounced, “It’s not your fault if you are born into poverty but it is your fault if you die in poverty.” The other girls in the room erupted in cheers. The energy was infectious; there was hope and determination. There was grit.

But I found the conversation to be a difficult one. I wasn’t sure what my role, as a white teacher from the United States, should have been that afternoon.  I wanted to talk with my students about unequal starting points and structural inequality. I wanted to find a way to hold their hope and determination and powerful belief in their own potential, while also challenging the idea that if they stayed in poverty, they were the ones to blame. Part of the role of educators, I think, is to talk with students about the structures and the systems that stand in their way, and then to push against those systems. And at the high school where I worked, like many high schools across the United States, even the top students struggle to go to college and if they do go, will struggle to finish.

Now, I’m back in the United States and pursuing a nonprofit career in New York City. While I am not sure whether I’ll end up in the education-sector, I believe that Sultan’s powerful critique can inform broader conversations about service delivery. There is a push, in social service agencies and direct service programs, to teach the “middle class skills” of resiliency and grit, as though these skills will somehow end poverty. Instead, we need to address the root causes of the structures that continue to reproduce systems of inequality.

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