Good intentions aren’t enough: Escaping the mindset of poverty porn

Author Avani Kashyap at the Camden waterfront
Author
Avani Kashyap, Student, Washington and Lee University
Date
August 31, 2022
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If you asked me what I wanted to achieve in my summer internship at the Camden Coalition this year, my goal would’ve been to make “meaningful connections” and “build strong, life-changing friendships” with people in poverty. It’s turned around a lot in the last eight weeks.

My first week, my roommate and I stopped by “A Little Slice of New York”, a local restaurant right next to our dorm, to grab some pizza. The cashier asked us why we were here, and I explained it was for a poverty studies internship through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP) and how we were so excited to learn more about the issues in the community.

He smiled slightly at my response. “Camden gets a bit of a bad rep. It’s turned around a lot in the last few years.”

Despite my good intentions, I realized I had fallen into the poverty porn trope. 

“Poverty porn” is conventionally defined as any type of media that showcases the conditions of underserved communities in a way that could be exploitative, sensationalized, or simply disrespectful. Historically, it was a technique used by charities to help raise money and awareness — arguably well-intentioned, but ultimately harmful. In recent years, it has come under criticism for not telling the full story of these communities, adding to a culture of stereotyping and misrepresentation.

These inaccurate depictions showcase the suffering without showing the strength. They portray individuals as helpless when they are actually trying to fight in a system that is prejudiced against them. Often, representations of poverty porn also look at poverty as an unfortunate circumstance rather than a contrived situation formed through underlying systemic inequities.

A critical focus of the SHECP internship is learning about poverty respectfully and addressing it in a dignifying way. I knew what poverty porn was prior to the internship and had been taught extensively that a core value of poverty studies was “respecting the dignity of everyone involved”. I genuinely wanted to help people. So how in the world did I fall into this mindset?

A few days after my conversation at the pizza place, I reflected on my experience with my supervisor at the Coalition. I realized I came into this internship seeking a life-changing experience, which I presumed would occur by seeing the “reality of life”; I imagined myself having a sudden epiphany, being more grateful for what I have and walking out with a fervent passion to better the system.

It was an idealistic outlook focused on seeking personal fulfillment at the expense of the dignity of others. Looking back, many of my goals for the summer did come true but manifested themselves in far more implicit ways than I expected. Rather than having a single “aha” moment, I gained many valuable experiences through community engagement, critical thinking and respectful observation. I realized that I, an outsider, hadn’t come to Camden to change the community, but to simply learn about it and learn from it.

That occurs not through forcing connection, but by opening my eyes to witness the cultural beauty of this city, the teamwork, the progress, the fight – the unifying factors of all human experiences.

My time at the Coalition has taught me to put this theory into practice. Whether it is through using non-stigmatizing, unassuming language in patient outreach calls, learning how various social determinants of health impact patient care, or talking with providers about the barriers to delivering efficient care, I have developed a much more holistic, person-centered understanding of the healthcare system. In fact, much of my learning has not been through my direct tasks, but through observing the ways staff approach patient care and collaborate with each other and the community to build positive relationships and achieve a common goal. 

If I could grab a little slice of pizza with that cashier again today, I would tell him how much I had learned from my poverty studies internship. There would be so much to talk about – the new skills, the career exploration, the friendships – but above all, I would tell him I learned more about how to study poverty. It wasn’t about wishing for a humbling experience but being humble enough to realize there was a lot I could learn from Camden, NJ.

Most of all, I have learned that this is just the beginning. I am still trying to understand the best ways to learn with respect and solidarity. The journey has just begun, and I hope  the lessons I learned from the Camden Coalition will keep me focused on building connection and unity wherever I go.

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