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Needed: A Dickens or Two…and Some Bold Ideas

 You probably remember the moment.  Who could forget? 

 Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’”



 That moment in the life of young Oliver Twist seared an image of poverty and hunger in the consciousness of well-to-do Victorian England and the generations since.  Charles Dickens’ writing helped to abolish debtors’ prisons among other social reforms. He showed, so memorably, that England’s treatment of the poor, particularly poor children, was failing miserably.  And his work led to change.

Another Dickens is needed now.  More than one. Equally important: some bold new ideas.

In Durham, North Carolina, 27% of the children are living in poverty. 

 “…What an incipient Hell was breeding here!” as Nicholas Nickleby described a school of harshly impoverished children.

 A minister working with End Poverty Durham, Mel Williams, writes me about the local present-day situation:

 “With child poverty escalating, we've got to find ways to shock the conscience of the public until positive action is taken.  We need increased public visibility of poverty.  Bring it out of the shadows.  With a 27% child poverty rate in Durham, we've all said:  This is unacceptable.  We've got to change it.  That's our goal.  Finding effective strategies is crucial.

 The NC Legislature has been assaulting the poor, and the national government is no better.  We're seeing the emergence of a punitive attitude toward the poor.  (Moral Mondays are a direct response.)

 I've concluded that we need novelists and artists to help us think outside the box on ways to reduce poverty.  For a start, WRAL-TV in Raleigh is doing a documentary on child poverty that will air for the first time thisThursday, January 16 at 7 pm in Raleigh.

We need filmmakers, novelists, artists to help disrupt poverty— to help bring about social change.  Dickens did it in an earlier time.  Could there now be a cadre of "Writers for Social Change"?  

When Terry Sanford was Governor of NC in the 1960s, he recruited a novelist as his ‘idea man’ for his innovative initiatives. That person was John Ehle.  

 Through Ehle and others, Sanford started an amazing array of progressive initiatives:   The NC Fund (to attack poverty) which became forerunner for LBJ's War on Poverty; the NC School of the Arts, Governor's School (for talented rising high school seniors), the Community College system, and more.”

 Sanford was savvy to recruit a novelist to help come up with remarkable innovations that lifted NC to a new day. We need to do this now." 

     Here’s a thought of mine:  A lot of novelists and other artists seem to have subject matter embedded in their DNA.  None of us want to be told what to write; better that it grows out of passion.  Yet I’m betting that a lot of us have some passion about social justice and that that might more often work its way into our stories and images if we’re simply more aware.     

 As Dickens said in a letter to Wilkie Collins, “Everything that happens … shows beyond mistake that you can’t shut out the world; that you are in it, to be of it; that you get yourself into a false position the moment you try to sever yourself from it; that you must mingle with it, and make the best of it, and make the best of yourself into the bargain.”   


Needed: Bold ideas!

Wild ideas, please! Bold blue-sky thinking: what kind of effort, by an individual or an organization, might help lift people out of poverty? Please let your imagination run loose on this subject and send anything you come up with. Your thoughts will be much appreciated.

The closest thing that has come to me so far is this: offering classes to underprivileged kids and adults in how to find resources.  I remember hearing or reading about a black kid who assumed that public libraries were mainly for white people and he wouldn't be welcome or comfortable if he went in. 

Also, in a friend's memoir, a story about his immigrant parents: When they had no food and his father was sunk in anger and depression, his mother went out and came back with a bag of groceries.  The author said that she knew how to locate and operate the levers of the society that they had landed in.  If kids in the worst poverty knew what was already available and how to make it work for them, that could help a lot of people.


  If you have thoughts to contribute — and I hope you do — please send them along to me or better yet, directly to Mel Williams, at End Poverty Durham.



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13 Responses to “Needed: A Dickens or Two…and Some Bold Ideas”

  1. kenju Says:

    I am not good in the idea department, but if I come up with something, I will let you know. Bless you and the others who are attempting to help end the cycle of poverty. Education is the key, I believe. 

  2. June Says:

    Excellent idea. But someone is sure to throw out some snarky idea like Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Oh, wait … Congress and the NC GA have already done that.

  3. Bob Braxton Says:

    Rev. Mel and I are re-connecting. I first met him my third high school year (the first of Southern High, Alamance County, NC) at the Central NC District student council government gathering where he, a senior that year, was the Vice-President. I see some similarities with efforts at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., ministry called the Radcliffe Room (Sunday mornings early) as well as the Washington Interfaith Network).

  4. Jaclyn Cunnigham Says:

    Thank you so much for bringing this to our minds eye. This is a great article piece with a lot of information, good content!

  5. Beth Browne Says:

    Hi Peggy! I found out about this from Raleigh Friends: Several area churches are cosponsoring a free showing of "A Place at the Table" at the Rialto on Sunday, Jan 26, 2014 at 1:30pm.

    This documentary shows the serious implications that hunger poses to 500 million Americans, one of four of whom are children. Best of all the film offers solutions.

    According to Friends, the movie is excellent and offers interesting solutions to the problem of hunger.

  6. William Says:

    Here's a good idea in motion but might also spark other ideas for ya;)

  7. William Says:

    oh dear, wrong website..

  8. Ginny Fleming Says:

    We bloggers can certainly come up with personal stories to share. We FB posters can "share" posts such as info about the film Beth Browne mentions above. I'll try to write something about my own often-hungry step-grandsons. Their mom gets meager monthly food stamps, but it seems they never feel full, though they're so much better off than many. 

  9. Peggy Payne Says:

    Thank you, William/Guillermo!

  10. Peggy Payne Says:

    Wow, Ginny, thank you for this; this is strong stuff!

  11. Peggy Payne Says:

    CHECK THIS OUT: Very interesting blog post on spiritual awakening and fighting poverty at the kundalini consortium today.

  12. Carole Thorpe Says:

    I'm in Montreal, Quebec, Canada  and am actively involved with social justice at The Unitarian Church of Montreal.  Locally we give to the NDG Food Depot.  NDG is Notre Dame de Grace and is part of the largest borough in Montreal.  At Christmas the NDG Food Depot published an Advent calendar with raffles per day for local merchants.  There is much work to be done with poverty.  I love Charles Dickens and thanks for prompting me to read and research his work.  I appreciate the perspective in North Carolina.

  13. Peggy Payne Says:

    Thanks for the Montreal perspective, Carole. And I’ve gotten interested in Dickens again too.


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