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newman povertyA group of CoSW faculty and staff recently completed Poverty Factor Training, a series presented by the I. DeQuincey Newman Institute for Peace and Social Justice and the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina. A diverse group of faculty and staff completed the four module series, and they now have seals to place on their doors that recognize them as “resource advocates.” This designation indicates that they are willing and able to point students toward resources.

The impetus for the training was increasing concern about some students’ unique challenges. According to CoSW professor and Newman Institute Director Ronald Pitner, “last year, our Dean approached faculty a few times about students who were having financial challenges,” and she was “concerned about what we as a college could do to help.” This discussion resulted in the formation of the Student Empowerment Resource Group (SERG) and prompted faculty to “think of ourselves as first responders to students,” says Pitner, and to “make sure that we are more cognizant of the ways that students are affected by poverty.” Tom Keith, President of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, sees this partnership with the CoSW “as a first step in helping to further educate faculty and staff at UofSC about poverty. Poverty is everywhere and we often don't see it or understand it.”

Helping lead the charge was Katrina Spigner, the Consultant for Community Engagement for the Newman Institute and President and CEO of Re-Source Solutions. Before taking on these roles, she worked for the Sisters of Charity Foundation and developed educational programming for non-profits across South Carolina under the auspices of Carolina Academy. In 2014, she piloted a training on generational and situational poverty for teachers in the Richland 2 School District. “It far exceeded what we expected,” she says, and “teachers had tremendous ‘a-ha’ moments.” Poverty Factor Training is “designed to push you past your thinking into a different way of perceiving people who live in poverty.”

Poverty Factor Training is successful because it is customized to the audience. The first day of the Poverty Factor Training consisted of an icebreaker in which participants identified goals that would shape the following days of training. The experiential lessons that followed also presented a special opportunity for faculty and staff to come together to have difficult discussions about the challenges faced by students coming from generational poverty.

Participants examined the mindsets of people who live in wealth, live in the middle class, and live in poverty, explains Spigner, considering issues based on each of those mindsets. “How does a person who lives in wealth think about education, or friendships, or community, or education?” asks Spigner, and how does that compare to the mindset of someone living in middle class or poverty? “For example, for someone living in wealth, the question is not going to college,” she suggests, but which Ivy League institution is the best fit. For middle class individuals, the question may be how to ensure scholarships. For people in poverty, “college is often not even on the radar,” says Spigner. It’s important to examine topics like education from these different perspectives since so many of our institutions are situated from a middle class perspective, she explains.

Poverty Factor Training “exposes faculty and staff to the many dimensions of poverty that exist today,” says Keith, expressing gratitude for the CoSW “for embracing this effort and making it a success.” Pitner hopes that more faculty and staff will complete the training. “Our ultimate goal is for us to conduct the Poverty Factor Training again, not only within our college but also with different entities on campus,” he says, and Spigner confirms plans for a training in the spring semester. Spigner affirms that the Newman Institute’s goal with Poverty Factor Training “wasn’t just to keep it within the walls of the College of Social Work, but to offer it wherever there was an opportunity.”

An upcoming training will be tailored to school nurses in Lancaster, SC. Poverty Factor Training “is appropriate for any person, any vocation, that is in a helping vocation” says Spigner. Hopefully, Poverty Factor Training will continue spreading the message about how students are affected by poverty and how to address it in a productive and empathetic manner. As Spigner reminds us, “poverty has no face; it could be anybody,” and now the CoSW will be better prepared to meet their needs.

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