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Grace Levin ’18.5 is working as a privilege and poverty intern at Addison County's John Graham Shelter this summer.

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Privilege & Poverty Interns Grapple with Big Questions as They Pitch in on Day-to-Day Operations

August 10, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – For senior Grace Levin, a key moment in her summer internship at a homeless shelter came from making vanilla cupcakes with pink frosting.

A sociology major, Levin has studied and analyzed poverty issues repeatedly in the classroom. Hailing from Los Angeles, she’s well acquainted with the face of urban homelessness. But working at the John Graham Shelter in nearby Vergennes has given her yet another lens on poverty in America.

“At the shelter, you get to know people really well. They’re not just faces in the crowd or ‘numbers’ or ‘populations,’” said Levin. “People’s stories get to hold their own.”

Levin’s job has put her at the heart of the shelter’s day-to-day life and day-to-day operations. She’s pitched in on household chores (as do all staff), gardened, read to kids while a parent cooked dinner, helped residents fill out forms and access services, processed gas vouchers, picked up donations, attended weekly meetings with local partner organizations—and just hung out and listened.

Levin used many of these “hanging out” moments to tackle the mountain of zucchini donated by local farmers, baking breads and muffins. One resident in particular was often on hand.

“So one day I asked her if she wanted to help me make the zucchini bread, and a few days later she was like, ‘I have this cupcake mix. Do you want to make some cupcakes?’”

Hannah Kredich ’20 is working as a privilege and poverty intern this summer at HOPE (Helping Overcome Poverty's Effects), which includes the primary food shelf in Middlebury.

    As they worked together, the woman started telling Levin more of her story. In one of those conversations, said Levin, “I was asking her how her day was and she said she had been to this restaurant and picked up a job application and was trying to fill it out but she felt like she didn’t have enough to say and could I maybe help her.”

    Together they tackled the job application; then together they sat at the shelter computer and pounded out a résumé. The woman is now seeking vocational counseling as a next step to set goals and get training.

    “At first I was sort of wondering, ‘Am I being supportive here or am I just baking cupcakes? And is that really using her time and my time well?’” said Levin. “But I realized that building trust and building that relationship are really important. She was able to feel comfortable coming to me and asking for what she knew she needed.”

    Levin is one of 14 Middlebury students placed locally and nationwide this summer as part of Middlebury’s Privilege & Poverty program, an “academic cluster” that brings together faculty, students, and staff interested in studying economic inequality. The program is jointly directed by Center for Community Engagement Director Tiffany Nourse Sargent ’79 and Professor of Religion James Calvin Davis. Seven students work in Addison County at such organizations as John Graham Housing and Services, HOPE (Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects), the Open Door Clinic, and WomenSafe. Seven work nationwide in cities like Atlanta and Baltimore—engaged in refugee resettlement, community development, healthy food access in low-income communities, and providing fair access to the justice system.

    Nationally based interns work through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty, of which Middlebury is a charter member. They attend opening and closing conferences that bring all SHECP interns together to learn about and discuss issues of poverty and social change.

    Addison County interns gather once a week for a seminar on issues of privilege and poverty led by Davis, with Sargent on hand to also help students unpack their day-to-day experiences.

    “The point is to get them thinking about what have you done in the classroom, what are you experiencing this summer, and how do they inform one another?” said Davis.

    Key themes in readings and discussions include “the frustrating complexity of poverty” and “that moral question: ‘What ought we to do about it?’”

    “One of the lightbulbs that goes off is that they have a deeper appreciation for just how entrenched and complicated poverty is. . . . [Another] is a deeper appreciation of the hardness of the experience of poverty,” said Davis. “I think they get a real sense of the vulnerability that comes with poverty that they cannot get just from a classroom conversation.”

    “By having James and me partner together, we’re really melding the theory and the practical in real time,” said Sargent, who’s been connecting Middlebury students with community organizations for over 30 years. “And I think we hold a bigger space as a result of this. We’re extending the students’ understanding of the complexity and nuance of both public frameworks and personal experience, so they become more nuanced in what they know and what they don’t know.”

    They also get to see what happens “when the rubber meets the road,” said Sargent, as organizations grapple daily with resources and tradeoffs.

    Psychology major Hannah Kredich said she originally pursued a Privilege & Poverty internship to better examine the intersection of mental health and poverty issues. This summer she’s worked the front desk at HOPE, whose services include the county’s largest food shelf.

    One of the strengths she’s observed is how the local community pulls together—how local service organizations collaborate and how local farmers and orchardists bring in fresh fruits and vegetables for the food shelf. But she’s been surprised to realize the extent to which employment and poverty can go hand in hand.

    “I think I expected a lot more of the clients to be either unemployed or homeless, but so many of them have one or two or three part-time jobs,” Kredich said.

    At the statewide minimum wage of $9.15 an hour, reports the John Graham website, a household would need to clock 90 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment; moreover, “there is not a single state in the country where a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford a market-rate one- or two-bedroom rental.” Current data puts the overall poverty rate nationwide at 12.7 percent and Vermont’s at 11.9 percent (New Hampshire has the lowest poverty rate, at 7.3 percent; Mississippi, the highest at 20.8 percent).

    A May 2018 U.N. report called the United States “the most unequal society in the developed world.” According to the report, when compared to similar wealthy nations, America has the highest youth poverty rate, highest infant mortality, one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility, citizens leading “shorter and sicker lives,” and highest rate of income inequality despite “its immense wealth” and status as a global leader.

    John Graham codirector Pete Kellerman praised Middlebury’s interns for the “welcomed and positive impact” they’ve had on the shelter and said: “The best advocacy for social justice requires an ability to make informed decisions, recognizing the different realities we all have, addressing those differences with intelligence and compassion. . . . Our interns will carry this unique experience with them and hopefully empower their efforts to reconcile privilege and poverty.”

    For Davis and Nourse, empowering students to meet these and other societal challenges is what it’s all about.

    When students begin connecting their educations to their role as citizens solving social problems, “for me that’s the ballgame,” said Davis.

    “It’s a humanistic approach to a social problem that gives us some of our key capacities that will be necessary if we’re going to make any progress at all on it: empathy, listening, critical thinking, intercultural competence. These are precisely the skills we need to grapple with our world’s most intractable problems.”

    By Gaen Murphree; Photos by Todd Balfour