'Poverty Tour' Spotlights the Poor and Disadvantaged

For college students affected by poverty, community colleges often serve as an affordable means to earn a two-year associate’s degree, as a place where professional development opportunities abound, and as a bridge to a four-year university. Four out of 10 college-bound high-school graduates start their university education at a community college.

These are a few reasons why veteran broadcaster Tavis Smiley and the author and Princeton University Professor Cornel West parked their bus and spoke to a packed room of about 100 students, teachers and others yesterday at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland.

Smiley and West are on 15-city, cross-country trek they call “The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience.” The week-long road trip, ending tomorrow (Friday), is intended to highlight poverty in America in the hopes of bringing the plight of the poor and disadvantaged to the forefront of public policy discussions, according to organizers.

“We’re especially pleased to be here at Prince George’s Community College talking with students,” said Smiley, best known as a PBS talk show host. “Few people realize that between 2008 and 2009, more young people fell into poverty than at any time in American history that we have recorded data.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 45 million Americans live in poverty. Also, more than 20 percent of American children live in poverty, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

Smiley and West describe the tour as an attempt to force the White House and Congress to pay more attention to the poor. “A Declaration of War on the Poor” is one of the tour’s themes.

“We’re on this tour to raise awareness about the issue of poverty,” Smiley said. “We want to raise the level of debate and conversation about the plight of the poor in this country.”

At the event, James Ferguson II spoke about his early life living in poverty and how a grade school teacher inspired him to excel in school.

Prof. Cornel West (left) and Tavis Smiley (right) listen to a student at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland. Photo: Shahanga Lee/NEA PR

“Because my parents were struggling with addictions through most of my adolescence, I was never told that I was smart or exceptional until I walked into Jennifer Glueckert’s fourth-grade classroom at a public elementary school in Milwaukee, said Ferguson, a special assistant to the President at the Council for Opportunity in Education.

“For the first time in my life, I was told that I was a good writer and exceptionally bright,” he said. “From this point forward through middle school, high school, in undergrad and now into law school, I have consistently performed academically within the top percentiles of my class.”

Glueckert now teaches second grade at Dover Elementary School in Milwaukee and is a member of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC).

Poverty is a key factor affecting education attainment for children and students in classrooms, according to research by NEA, which is partnering with Smiley and West on the tour through the Office of Minority Community Outreach.

According to NEA’s report, Children of Poverty Deserve Great Teachers, in most poverty-stricken communities across this country, too many students cannot enjoy the benefits of a great public school because their schools are often chronically under-funded, under-staffed, and unsupported. However, thousands of dedicated, hardworking teachers show up to work each day, determined to provide the best possible education to their students.

For more about the tour, see The Poverty Tour with Tavis Smiley & Cornel West.

For more NEA Resources see the following:

Program helps educators understand poverty obstacles of students trying to succeed.

Nearly one-fifth of U.S. public schools educate students from high-poverty homes.