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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 [email protected] or better yet, directly to Mel Williams, [email protected] at End Poverty Durham.



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