Local residents exchange stories about social class
By Victoria Boggiano, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, January 28, 2008
Liz Ryan Cole, a professor at Vermont Law School, was raised in Hamilton County, one of the poorest counties in upstate New York. She moved to the Upper Valley because she believed it was an environment where her children would learn to respect people for what they could do rather than how much money they had. Cole and other members of the Upper Valley community gathered at the College on Sunday to discuss this and similar topics in "Class in the Upper Valley: A Community Panel."
Event moderator Peter Glenshaw, the Dartmouth's director of Community Relations, organized the event in order to facilitate conversation about societal divisions in the Upper Valley and the nearby town of Claremont, N.H.
"Class is hard to understand and there aren't many opportunities to learn about it or talk about it," Glenshaw said. "We wanted to create a platform for people to have that exchange."
The panel consisted of four professionals who assist families in the Upper Valley and Claremont that struggle with poverty.
Jennifer Williams '85, the executive director of the Children's Fund of the Upper Valley, an organization that provides funding to projects that enrich the lives of Upper Valley children, and a partner in Community Partners Hotel group, noted that middle and upper-class residents of the Upper Valley do not display their wealth and spend much of their free time reaching out to members of the community.
Tom Ketteridge, the managing director of the Upper Valley Haven, a local nonprofit homeless shelter, discussed the benefits of Dartmouth students volunteering at his organization. Ketteridge said the interaction between the shelter's children and college students helps break the cycle of poverty that the children witness from their parents.
"When you grow up in poverty, one of the problems is that you don't have many choices, and usually no one is telling you to go to college," Ketteridge said. "If people don't get introduced to opportunities, their lives just keep going the way they've been going, and they'll be poor for the rest of their lives."
According to Ketteridge, Dartmouth students become the children's role models and make higher education a tangible goal.
Brenda St. Laurence, a parent educator at the family-support organization Good Beginnings of Sullivan County, N.H., spoke about her work helping provide single mothers in Claremont with access to jobs, babysitters, healthcare and other resources."I go into homes and see moms that have no car, no washer and dryer," St. Laurence said. "I ask them, 'If you had a magic wand right now, what is the one wish you would like?'"
Mothers' responses include having a home, drivers' licenses and working motor vehicles. Today, according to St. Laurence, many mothers depend on the "unsatisfactory" Claremont public transportation services to travel to work.
She also noted that, in recent years, Claremont has lost the majority of the manufacturing industry jobs that used to employ roughly 75 percent of the area's working class. Professionals have similarly relocated, so Claremont residents lack access to dentistry and other basic services. St. Laurence said this deficiency makes it difficult for members of the working class to overcome the boundaries between themselves and their wealthier employers.
"I wish I could pack all my families in a bus and bring them to the Upper Valley so that they could be employed," she said.
Jennifer Lipfert, MD, director of Community Health Improvement at Good Beginnings, spoke about the difficulty she has had when interacting with some of the single mothers seeking help. She said she becomes more conscious of her body language, clothing and vocabulary and changes her mannerisms to shorten the gap created by differences in education levels.
She also made a distinction between doing work for the mothers and helping them to help themselves.
"If you're here to join your struggle to my struggle, I welcome you into my home," she said.
At the end of the event, a community member asked the panelists how one could incorporate service into everyday life. St. Laurence responded that people can overcome class divisions and assist the needy without investing money or time.
"We've gotta slow down a bit here," she said. "If you see a mom in a grocery store and that baby's screaming, just give that baby a smile."