When I was growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, about half the kids were white – mostly Irish, Italian, and Jewish – and half were either black or Puerto Rican. Though the school system was excellent, the differences in the kind of lives we led started to emerge when I was in middle school.
For starters, there was the superficial – the way people talked and dressed was different. Secondly, I noticed the tracking – I was in honors classes and almost no people of color were there with me. I saw them in metal shop and gym. But probably the biggest difference was made clear to me one day in home room.
There were four kids named Johnny in my class, and one day one of the Johnnies – who was black – fell down an elevator shaft. He just stepped right into it. I didn’t understand how this could happen to a kid. Our teacher explained that he lived in a really old dilapidated apartment building and that some families were forced to live in substandard conditions. It was then that I first realized what poverty meant.
Later on when I was in high school, I got a job at Burger King. There were three kinds of people who worked there: high school kids who were middle class, developmentally disabled, and adults from south Stamford, the poorer part of town. We worked in close quarters slinging burgers and fries, and got to know each other very well. I learned a ton.
There was one woman named Tia who had worked there for years. She wasn’t a manager but she more or less ran things, and nobody messed with her. Tia liked me because I worked hard and was polite, so she looked out for me, and we used to talk about our lives. One day we were talking about our plans for the future. I told her I was going to go to college and had to figure out where. Her life was so different: she was raising two kids, working full time at low pay to get by, and assumed she would never go to college. When I missed a day of work, it was good news – I got to hang out with my friends and didn’t get covered in burger grease. But when Tia lost a shift, it meant doing without $50 that she desperately needed to provide for her family.
In college, a light bulb went off that I could work on the solution for kids like Johnny and moms like Tia. I started what has been a lifetime career working on programs and policies to create opportunities for people, to clear the barriers that keep them down, and to give more people a chance at justice and dignity. Today, I am proud to work at United Way and devote my time and skills toward helping move people out of poverty.
No one wants to be poor, and if you give them the tools they will do something about it. I feel like it is my life’s work to help create and spread those tools and open a path so people can get where they want to go.
Lorne Needle is Chief Community Investment Officer at United Way of the Bay Area.