February 9, 2024
At our 2024 Poverty Summit, hundreds of people gathered online and in the room at Convene Willis Tower in Chicago, ready to learn and share. The event honored the 60th anniversary of the War on Poverty while also uplifting innovation solutions. Through three interactive panel discussions, we explored the intersecting economic and racial issues faced by our communities.
The first panel, Building Better Solutions to Ensure Housing as a Human Right, explored how our systems perpetuate housing instability and treat a home as a privilege. These inequities most affect workers with low income, Black and brown people, women, and more, who historically lack autonomy over their housing choices.
Avalon Betts-Gaston, executive director of the Illinois Alliance for Reentry and Justice, shared her own story of houselessness, owing not to her lack of income, but the lack of support for citizens affected by the criminal legal system. The system is “built to criminalize poverty, mental health, substance abuse disorders, and Black, brown, and poor bodies,” she said.
“Wealth fare” is another part of the story often left out. We can’t talk about the housing crisis — and needed solutions — without also talking about racial capitalism and the commodification of housing. Under this system, wealthy, overwhelmingly white people gained and continued to gain profit and power from the oppression and the exploitation of the working class and poor people of all colors.
For narrative change, we need to build significant power currently lacking in the housing movement, said Lilly Lerner, executive director of Tenant Education Network. Let’s center data-driven organizing, she said, by bringing more networks of people to the table. Tenants mobilizing and creating community land trusts can shift ownership from the real estate industry and tycoons.
Narrative change is key to providing suitable housing options to people who have been “othered,” Betts-Gaston said. Namely, we must center the voices of people with lived because they are closest to the solution.
The second panel, Securing Children’s Futures: Return to Family and Community-Based Supports, uplifted professional and personal stories of a child welfare system rooted in bias and harmful to the very groups it purports to protect.
Carmyn Tassone, who brought lived experience to the panel, said she entered the system because of her mother’s addiction to substances and her father’s involvement with the criminal legal system. She noted the lack of support her mother had in accessing proper resources.
At 18, Carmyn, like many other children in the child welfare system, “aged out” with no life skills. She didn’t know how to get a job, pay rent, manage finances, or meet many of her basic needs for societal survival. Statistics show that children without support, like Carmyn, often age out of one system right into another, including cycles of homelessness and interactions with the criminal legal system.
Despite heavy federal investments in the child welfare system, the courts are overburdened. And because of subjective guidelines on what constitutes neglect — a euphemism for poverty — decisions are not free from racial, gender, or class bias.
In fact, poor children come in contact with the child welfare system at an almost seven times greater rate than other children. They are 50 percent more likely to have contact with the system by their 18th birthday. Black children were 20 percent more likely than white children to be involved in cases in which intervention services were used.
“There is another crisis going on in Chicago right now that has had little to no attention, and that is Black children being ripped from their homes and traumatized,” said Dr. Bonita Carr, CEO of the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cook County.
The panelists agreed about an urgent need to shift investments in the foster system to the family system. In particular, they called for an end to the systematic oversurveillance of Black families. Parents should have the power and dignity to make decisions in their children’s best interest — without unnecessary state intervention.
The third panel, Innovating for the next 60 Years: Entrepreneurism as a Tool for Economic Mobility, looked at how supporting entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurs of color, calls for better policies and increased access to capital. The panelists also named access to business knowledge, mentorship, and networking as other keys to success.
Jeffrey Beckham, Jr., CEO of Chicago Scholars and co-founder of Reach Pathways, said his biggest mistake was not asking for help while working on one of his first ventures. “I would work at a coffee ship every day for four years, and I was sitting around people from IBM and Accenture, another who had run a bus company for years and sold it, someone who had run a successful retail consulting business, and I’m trying to bang my head against the table to try and figure out how to grow mine.”
Meanwhile, Stephanie Hickman, president and CEO of Trice Construction Company, grew up in the business world but still sought to broaden her network to get the information she needed. She didn’t know many fellow black women in business, joking that her thirst for that community led her to every contact she could find, from the owner of a petroleum company to her own eye doctor.
The question of what we can do to support Black and brown businesses came from the audience. The answer is that we each have the power to be very intentional about our money. We can align our spending with our values and frequent businesses in our neighborhood and community.
The fight for economic justice is a fight for racial justice. The systems — housing, child welfare, financial institutions, and more — can work together to either create opportunity or perpetuate inequity. Poverty is a policy choice, and we can make better choices to support people, families, and communities.
All people should have the right to a safe, stable home to build better futures for themselves and their families.