We Walk Among You: Poverty in the Ivory Tower – The Feminist Wire

We Walk Among You: Poverty in the Ivory Tower

By Zoel T. Rodriguez

poverty in the IvoryTowerI was in class today talking about poverty. We were discussing public benefits. Or rather, something having to do with poverty and poor people and how terrible it is that some people do not have stable jobs or income or food or access to hospitals. And I was sitting there trying not to think about my own situation, because I feel I shouldn’t be thinking about it. Somehow, thinking about poverty makes me feel guilty.

I worry that I should not feel or talk about my personal experiences, because that would be attention-seeking behavior, which would then be indicative of all my childhood struggles, and I would be dissected by my peers. I feel like a stereotype. Today, I cried because I felt like the stereotypical broke minority chick with the neurotic boyfriend, unstable mother, and a teenage sister who’s in her own world. Yesterday, I cried because I felt that we might become so poor and miserable and depressed that little white maggots would devour what’s left of the apples and pears and completely cover the walls and floors. And there we would live.

I am a graduate student at one of the nation’s best universities. I am an indigenous woman-in-the-works, a sister, a daughter, a volunteer, and I live below the poverty line.

Today in class, we spent a great deal of time talking about the emergence of our reluctant welfare state and the ongoing worry that people receiving welfare might become dependent on it. We talked about ineffective programs and how the ever-changing political climate was affecting progress, and how disadvantaged people are just fucked all around.

At my university this year, as I suspect was the case in prior years, the racial composition is over 70% white. I hate to use stereotypes, but I’m going to assume that most of the people with great opinions about social justice, those people who look horrified at the percentages of people who don’t have enough to eat, have never had to experience intergenerational poverty. So while discussion went on in class, I played with the backgrounds on my Word document and began to panic about the things I had to get done.

Disengaged, I spent the remainder of class thinking about how I could locate my Medicaid case worker, so that I could cancel student insurance, so that I could get some student loan money back, so that I could pay a ticket that doubled last week, so that the amount doesn’t increase, so that my car doesn’t get the boot, so that I can go to field placement, so I don’t get behind on hours, so that I can complete my field placement hours, so that I can graduate. Yup. This class is spot on. Poverty is a complex thing, and hunger sucks. And have I mentioned that I also have to call DHS to see if I can list my sister as my dependent because my $189 in food stamps are not enough to feed three people? (My mother is not working because of long-standing mental health issues.)

I decided to attend graduate school because this is what we’re supposed to do to not be poor like our parents. At least, this is what my father says. He never loses an opportunity to remind me that he has tried to ensure my sister and I don’t have to work long hours of difficult labor, like he has had to in an infinite number of jobs. My father nearly lost half his hand in a factory job accident, and yes, access to health care and insurance IS really fucked up, especially for undocumented people.

My story goes like this: I was born into relative economic stability, but divorce and my mother’s subsequent emotional instability and economic crisis pushed us back into hunger, second-hand clothes, free toys from a community organization at Christmas, emotional abuse, and anger. And I internalized and externalized all those anti-social behaviors commonly associated with poor people of color.

Then came problems in high school: a low GPA on graduation from high school, poverty, a decision to attend community college because people said it was less expensive. Then I was not so sad anymore, and I graduated with an A.A. degree with a better GPA, applied to one university, got into that one, went to that university, hated that university. More sadness and poverty, but I graduated with a great GPA. I suppose I could have ended it there and obtained a job. My experiences could have landed me decent-paying employment, I might have secured my own apartment, severed ties with my mother and sister, and possibly made it to the other side of the poverty line.

But I received a degree in a stupid major and had to continue studying on to get a “Carrera.” So I applied to two graduate schools that are considered ‘prestigious,’ was accepted into both, chose one, received loans, stayed with my mother and sister, found three jobs, and then dropped one. More worries, sadness, and poverty.

Why am I writing this? Because I tried to Google stories about other graduate-level women of color who are living below the poverty line, and I found very few. I was trying to find an online connection with someone, anyone, who understood. But I did not find any such stories, and so I’m writing my own. At the risk of sounding naive, maybe other women like me are looking for someone to relate to. I hope that my story will pop up in Google as a source of comfort.


Zoel T. Rodriguez (a pen name) is currently in graduate school for a Master’s degree. She has been in the struggle for social justice and activist work since high school through environmental justice, advocacy for youth, and fighting for justice for indigenous and American Indian people. Her writing experience has been kept on the personal level, but she is excited to begin sharing her thoughts, questions, fears, and ticks with others.


  1. Ariel

    February 5, 2015 at 8:59 am

    Get your mother on disability for her mental health diagnosis, if she’s not on it, already.

  2. Brian Ragsdale

    February 5, 2015 at 9:52 am

    I hear you and you are not alone. I stand with you as witness to the trauma of life, in my own experience as a feminist, artist, scholar, and human. Many of us have been battered and bruised, but we chip away each day with all of the tools we have in front of us. On somedays all I have is rage, tears of loneliness, and on other days, I celebrate how far we have come as a people. You are not alone. My mother, has suffered and continues to suffer from life challenges and mental illness. Being a woman of color is hard, confronting sexism, racism, misogyny, violence, and invisibility, especially in the wretched treachery that comes with pockets of White supremacy. In this moment, I offer you whatever is good in the universe that will help you. I offer you peace in knowing that you are not alone. I know these dark spaces and although it may feel that you are alone–there are spirits with you. There are no words that I can give to comfort you and us, because sometimes it seems that what we have are “just holes”. But know this spiritually and with the voice of the ancestors holding you still, their presence will sustain you. But know this too–your heart, soul, and teaching matters, the holes matter–some of them our generational, leftovers of what happened to our people. Your life matters, so does every life in your family who you clearly love. All of this is real, hard, draining, and whatever peace that may come from my words, I offer them in peace and solidarity. Yes, we walk among you, and some of us never forget the walk, and I am one of them. Peace and blessings, still here, Dr. Brian Ragsdale

  3. knuj

    February 5, 2015 at 10:47 am

    I hear you and love you. And I echo and feel what Dr. Brian Ragsdale says. Peace.

  4. Dr.SingleMom

    February 5, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    I am not a woman of color so I did not have to deal with the added stress of racism but I do understand every single word of what you wrote about being impoverished and struggling through grad school. I was a single mom with two children as I worked my way through a PhD, on food stamps and state health insurance… now that I am on the ‘other side’ I do have a decent job but it’s taken me a couple of years just to get to a point of *relative* stability. And I often find that I have a difficult time relating to academics who couldn’t possibly begin to fathom real, gritty, grinding poverty… Keep your chin up and know that you aren’t alone. You should check out the Association of Working Class Academics – it helped me to know that not ALL academics come from even the middle class. Good luck to you!!

  5. S

    February 5, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    Notice the very first comment is someone telling the author how to do better. As though Rodriguez is somehow unaware of the existence of disability.

    This is one of the most annoying things that people do whenever someone comes out of the closet as poor and tries to tell about their experiences.

    Instead of hearing and offering the emotional support that comes with someone listening to you – which is the very least that we deserve, they instantly snap to telling you about some government program that it would be just about impossible for the person to be unacquainted with. Most of the time this comes from people who’ve never even used these programs and are just suggesting the few things they know about as an answer.

    The author is a graduate student who is clearly well acquainted with government programs and their many, many, many limits, and yet Ariel instantly assumes otherwise, and swoops in to the condescending rescue. And worse, its phrased as order. Its not even the pathetic “have you tried this?” It’s fucking order.

    And once again, the comments on any article about social justice go to proving the necessity of the article.

    Rodriguez, thank you for writing about your experiences. Mine are not the same, but they overlap in many ways. And its reassuring to hear that others feel the same frustration, and guilt that I do.

  6. moreherstoriesneeded

    February 6, 2015 at 8:16 am

    I, too, am not a person of color but experienced the isolation and challenges of someone coping with mental illness in both undergrad and graduate school. The lack of sharing of our respective stories is unfortunate because we never know which story just might help another to feel more ‘normal’ and less alone. Thank you for sharing yours.

  7. janine

    February 6, 2015 at 11:33 am

    i truly enjoyed… i dont like saying “enjoyed”
    but yes, sister, i did enjoy your writing so much.
    great writing.

    thank you for allowing me to be a witness and a sister. we walk different roads, but with the same struggle. i feel you.

    thank you for being brave. i think this writing and these truths are beautiful in your bravery. thank you for giving words to what so many of us live, know, feel and attempt to survive.

  8. Fannie LeFlore

    February 8, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    Thank you for this honest sharing. Many people I know can relate, including some people of color who have already obtained their graduate degrees.

  9. Alison

    February 9, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story and for putting into words what many other people feel every day. Your words will help, and there is truth and comfort in that.

  10. Christine

    February 12, 2015 at 6:52 pm


    Thanks for sharing a part of your story. I also identify as a woman of color, as first generation Latina here in the US, and I am also in the process of acquiring my PhD.

    The tension you described about teaching courses about poverty while simultaneously experiencing many of the challenges you cover in class really resonates with me. I acknolwedge that there is much about my identity which affords me great privilege however I am starkly aware that I am constantly struggling financially. I often wonder if I fit in at all, how I can relate to students without othering myself in the classroom. I don’t share too much of myself in the classroom, something that has worked against me when it comes to student evaluations. I have received considerable feedback from students that they wished I would share more of myself and my personal journey in the classroom. I feel confused about the expectation that I need to do so in an environment where there are constant day to day reminders that I don’t really belong here and that it is not often safe to do. The risks are great.

    Many of my experiences overlap with yours and many do not. The guilt you talked about is something I also wrestle with. Thanks for opening up this conversation and reminding me that I am not alone. Sending much love.

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