By Ivanna Neri, FII-Austin Site Director
In the early 70’s, my family arrived to Juarez, Mexico, a border town adjacent to El Paso, TX. While, I was born there a few years later, it was never truly my home. At the time, my grandparents wore many hats doing whatever it took to make ends meets. In the morning, they were cooks who would sell 1,000 tamales in the border factories at 6 am. In the afternoon, they worked in their carpentry shop and night, they would sell food again. Living paycheck to paycheck, they were still able to send their three kids to college, two at the University of Texas at El Paso and my mom who attended a school in Juarez. Their hard work and willingness to do whatever it took to provide for their family opened doors of opportunity for their children and generations that followed — including me and my brother.
Eventually, my grandparents established a life in the U.S. Being labeled by their low-income status, they were targeted as “uneducated,” “cheaters,” “wetbacks,” “needy,” “bad parents,” among other common misperceptions. The system judged my grandparents as untrustworthy. Society assumed that they had low incomes because of poor decision making and that somehow, they were looking for a handout to improve their situation. Because of this negative perception and shame, my grandparents chose not to apply for welfare or any social program and have remained true to that decision to this day.
My grandparents’ story is not unique. Unfortunately, there are entities who are fighting to combat poverty in the U.S who continue to perpetuate this narrative by designing metrics and outcomes for the poor and performing research on poverty alleviation all based on the perceived shortcomings of low-income people. In doing so, we miss an enormous opportunity to leverage people’s potential and harness their drive to improve their quality of life. Low-income people work hard every day to educate their children and make decisions based on their potential, as does every other human regardless of income level. The path to success – and the starting point – looks different for everyone
I invite you to reflect on the successes of your own story and how you got to where you are, to listen to others, and to learn from their perspectives. Why was the hard work and entrepreneurship of my grandparents not seen? Why did no one invest in them? Why did people assume they had no financial skills? Why were they not seen as exemplary role models to their children? Well, no one ever asked. To change systems, we must move away from the idea that we need to fix people and start to think about how barriers in the system can hold deserving families back from showing us their full potential. I challenge you to start changing your own perceptions and to look deep to see the best in people.
Good intentions will not make a change, changing perceptions will.