Theory “Rides the Bus” at the Territories of Poverty Conference

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Author:
Christina Gossmann

“When people ask me what I do and I tell them that I work on poverty, I get one of two responses,” Emma Shaw Crane told a room full of attendees during her closing remarks at the Territories of Poverty conference. “One answer is ‘Oh my God, I love KIVA [a non-profit microfinance institution]! I actually have this woman that I’m lending five dollars to every month’ or I get the raised eyebrows and ‘Oh, how is that going?’”

newsletter-emmavertical The audience chuckled, and Shaw Crane continued to explain that these common reactions represented the often limited scope of thought about poverty scholarship.

The interdisciplinary, intergenerational two-day conference took place on the 14th and 15th of September and was hosted by the Blum Center for Developing Economies and the Department of City and Regional Planning. In two panels on Friday and one panel on Saturday morning, 12 academics from different disciplines, each with a unique set of experiences and opinions, worked on expanding the definition of poverty scholarship. The discussion was built around three major themes: new paradigms of the welfare state, the ethics of encounter and geographies of penality and risk.

Working at the intersection of these three themes, Shaw Crane was not afraid to challenge traditional poverty scholarship and the scholars who had influenced her throughout her academic and professional career. As an undergraduate at the University of California Berkeley, she was surprised to learn that “experts on poverty” had often learned about poverty in an elite environment, a trend that Shaw Crane felt necessary to change. Instead of staying in the classroom, theory should dare leave academia to enter the field; in essence, theory should “ride the bus,” Shaw Crane suggested, borrowing the metaphor from poet Ruth Forman. Shaw Crane decided to pursue the minor in Global Poverty and Practice (GPP) because it undermined the hierarchy of top-down poverty scholarship.

“The minor is a project of dislocation,” Shaw Crane said. “Because it sends undergraduates, me included, into the field to engage in the messy and contradictory and complex work of poverty alleviation and the work of building power with community organizations and government institutions.”

Shaw Crane’s own path since graduating from UC Berkeley can be seen as a testament to this interdisciplinary approach of theory and practice. After receiving the University Medal, an award given to the student with the most outstanding academic record, Shaw Crane researched the impact of the new healthcare system in the lives of families living with HIV in Bogotá, Colombia as a Fulbright fellow. She returned to the Bay Area to work in a community health clinic and organizing project in Oakland, until she joined the Blum Center as a research fellow earlier this year. Together with Professor Ananya Roy, Shaw Crane co-directed the Territories of Poverty conference, a get-together of her “intellectual dream team, an inter-generational, inter-disciplinary wish-list,” as she jokingly referred to the panelists.

According to Shaw Crane, the conference is also a project of dislocation, from studying “the bodies and places and behaviors and choices of the often pathologized poor” to examining and challenging institutions that manage and govern poverty. Poverty then, explained Shaw Crane, is no longer a problem of specific people, “for whom the rest of us can choose to engage with, with benevolence and often tremendous self-importance,” but poverty is a larger process that reflects how capitalism works, how inequality is produced, spatialized and governed and how the middle-class makes and unmakes itself.

In her closing remarks, Shaw Crane brought attention to another inspirational piece within this new paradigm of poverty scholarship that was introduced by Michael Katz, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Not only do the conference and GPP minor provide specific implementation strategies, but they show that the gap between theory and implementation is filled with power, “very serious and constructive and problematic and complex, but nonetheless, power,” Shaw Crane said.

“That is something I need to write on a Post-It note and carry around with me for the rest of my life!” With these words, she looked into the audience of practicing poverty scholars and poverty scholars to be. Many heads nodded in agreement and numerous hands took the note down, to make sure not to forget.

It is building awareness around the notion of power and possibility—through this conference and the minor—that enables new frontiers in poverty scholarship.

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