Fighting for Joy When Poverty is Fighting Against You
Ta’mara Hill was a summer intern with Camelback Ventures through a partnership with the Walton Foundation and the United Negro College Fund. The photos featured are some of her personal snapshots from this summer.
I’ve never been much of a crier, but I’ve deemed the last few months as the Summer of Tears. I started the first leg of my summer adventure by visiting D.C. for the first time for a weeklong UNCF summit. In my free time, I visited the historic monuments of our Nation. The size, precision, and presence of America’s past leaders was comforting and at the same time, empowering. So, when I had turned from the Lincoln Memorial, and looked across the water of the National Mall, into Capitol Hill and started weeping, I took it as my first real sign of patriotism. It wasn’t until I attended the astonishing theater scene in New York that I finally understood what was happening to me.
After D.C., I went to New York City for the first time. Sitting in a Broadway Theatre for the first time has a way of changing your perceptions of the world. Originally, I had been nauseous after paying $100 for an orchestra seat to one of Broadway’s most famed musicals. That was until I saw men drop from the ceilings in elaborate, realistic, flying monkey costumes. They shrieked but moved gracefully, the music grew, and the opening act of Wicked began. It was the first time I had ever seen a live play so clearly- because for the first time in 7 years of needing them, I had finally saved up enough money to buy glasses. And though the action on stage felt like magic, my first thought before I allowed myself to enjoy the show was, “This is such a waste of money. How frivolous and unnecessary.”
See, poverty has a funny way of making us hate ourselves for enjoying life. When we get to do something life changing, the voice of poverty tells us we are wasting money. When we take the night off to finally relax from our 50 hour work week, poverty snarls in our ear, that we’re missing an opportunity to make money. I hadn’t been crying all summer from the powerful images of the things I was looking at, or even from excitement - I had been crying from a place of pure gratitude, and also fear.
Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, poverty looks different than the usual narrative you hear about poverty in the inner-city - but, if you look past the setting, it’s actually pretty similar. Poverty still looks like your family selling drugs to make ends meet. It still looks like having to boil water on a gas stove for your baths, because your mom had enough money to pay the water bill but not the electric. However, unlike in cities, because there isn’t much public transportation, it also looks like walking 5 miles a day to the public library, during the Heartland’s summer, because all you want it to be able to read books and learn something. It’s knowing that if you don’t make it out, you will get stuck there. It’s knowing you will be stuck either working the farm, in a restaurant, a nursing home, or a school your whole life. Which wouldn’t seem so awful, if almost everyone you knew didn’t hate it.
When I received my chance to travel the United States from the United Negro College Fund as a 2017 Walton Education Fellow this summer, my opportunities increased even more when I was matched to Camelback Ventures in New Orleans. But though the road here has been great, it’s been filled with hardships. Growing up in poverty has somehow separated me from the other fellows in my Walton/UNCF cohort. While they feel anger and discomfort at our living and travel situations for the summer, I feel nothing but joy and hope. While they are going out to the club 2-3 nights a week, I am using my monthly stipend to pay my mother’s bills.
When you have been poor your whole life, to be able to travel the country - at almost no cost to yourself - is a humbling experience. You feel indebted to the people who paid for your trip. You feel guilty for leaving your family in that small town, in that small apartment, with food that comes out of boxes and cans. You feel like an alien, because the people around you are talking about visiting places you’ve never heard of, and singing praises of food you didn’t even know existed. You feel overwhelmed when you get lost in a city you thought you would ever only see on television. You feel sick when you have to eat the fancy food the company purchased for you, and because you have poor taste buds the food tastes strange. You’d rather eat Hamburger Helper or Spam…but you also grew up struggling to buy food, so you refuse to waste it. You feel proud of yourself for what you have made happen so far. You feel hungry for the future in your grasp. Most of all, you feel obligated to be great.
The past two months, living in the Big Easy has been filled with fun, cultural immersion, and development. Living in a city that is so heavily built on the backs of black bodies, and that has a culture that many have tried to emulate, but none can duplicate is empowering and educational. To see the passion displayed by black artists, painting and playing jazz on every corner is life altering.
But at the same time, it is heartbreaking. By using the St. Charles Streetcar as my main form of transportation, I have seen the consequences of increased tourism in New Orleans. Predominantly white tourists fill the early evening streetcars to the brim - and while the mostly black locals are just trying to finish their commute, the tourists clutch their children, purses, and cameras. They pull time and energy from this city, but are still terrified and uncomfortable around the people who make this city what it is. They go to the gentrified areas and digest the imitation creole food, and lackluster jazz music. Their money goes to corporate, commodified versions of the city.They suffice just fine, but the real food and the real jazz come from the people and areas of the city they’ve been told to stay away from.
Living here is where I’ve truly learned to put back into a city, as much as you take out. It’s where I learned that poverty is everywhere you go, and it may look different. It will change the way you experience greatness, but your experience will still be great. During the 6 month Camelback Fellowship, the Fellows and team have 3 summits, each in a different city - the second one was in New York this year, which happened to be timed on my first day of the internship. This was the first time I met the Camelback Ventures team as well. Because of my fellowship with Walton/UNCF and my internship with Camelback, I visited three great American cities for the first time -- places I had only seen on television. As my fellowship comes to a close, my time with the Camelback Fam is also drawing to an end and I am walking towards the future with more hope than I’ve ever had in 2017. Hope for myself and hope for those that look like me. Meeting the 2017 Camelback Fellows as well as the team is reassuring. Camelback is not just preparing entrepreneurs, they are cultivating leaders. Leaders, that if I had had the chance to meet when I was younger, could have offered direction, help, and belief in me, when I didn’t believe in myself.
Poverty will change you. It will whisper mean things in your ear, when you just want to have fun or relax. It will change how you see the world. It will change what you value. It will change how hard you work for what you want. But, maybe most wonderfully is, it will increase your ability to be inspired.
Camelback note: If Ta'mara's words spoke to you, please consider supporting her journey to grad school - Ta'mara is raising money to support the expensive fees that come with applications on a GoFundMe campaign. Any amount helps.