An excerpt from my master’s research proposal:


A few years ago I was attending a university on the east coast. I had moved across Canada, in part, to try to finally finish my first degree. While I cleaned a house (this is how I financed my post-secondary education), my client played History Repeating performed by Dame Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads (Gifford, 1997). It was a strangely adrenaline-charged experience. In the moment of listening to the song I realized that I had come full circle. From a young girl who cleaned, scrubbed, and served to survive, I had built a career and was now a woman who had returned to clean, scrub, and serve to make a subsistence living. I began to understand that somehow I could not escape the experiences of childhood poverty. I wondered if my life, as generations before me, was doomed to history repeating itself.

Years later, I wondered: If growing up poor affected me this much, it must have affected others. I wanted to explore how growing up in poverty shapes us—how the might and force of the Welfare system and governments affect poor children. I attempted to investigate these themes in a play I wrote for a Canadian theatre course. However, the instructor of this course did not allow me to pursue this topic using a dramatic form. I began to wonder, if I cannot have these discussions on stage, is it even possible to have them at all or am I to be forever shamed and silenced?

In my after-degree in sociology, I returned to this wonder and wrote a paper about White Trash[1], and completed an Undergraduate Research Initiative-funded project on media portrayals of White Trash. I explored being Othered[2] in theory papers. I conducted an independent study to attempt to find subversive class-based humour. Inside and outside the classroom, conversations were silent—or dangerously superficial—on the issue of social class and poverty. As I researched and wrote, I became increasingly pained and shamed. My grades often reflected the tension between my personal knowledge of and desire to explore these topics versus what was implicitly required in the courses. There was no place for my unique experiences and personal insight inside academia. I began to ask how sociology—a discipline that is founded upon understanding social inequality—could reduce social class to mention-in-passing comments in textbooks.

My understanding, still in its infancy, of the complexity of social class and how it intersects with other social characteristics, sat in binary opposition to dominant poverty narratives: the ubiquitous Welfare Queen, George Orwell’s (1963) the lower classes smell narrative, historical stories of justifiably displacing the poor, and various versions of stories of contempt, hatred, and dismissal toward those living in poverty. How well I personally know these stories. How well I know not to talk about these personal stories.

I learned on my childhood education[3] landscapes to silence the sting of poverty; to silence the burn and shame of a stomach as empty as the barren lunchboxes that I pretended contained food as lovely as my classmates. I too recall experiences on the childhood community landscape:

As we entered the laundromat, the women all busily doing their laundry and gossiping about life—weather, husbands, children, neighbours—stopped to stare, and, glare. I was too young to know why. I knew why. The sound of the chair’s legs I was pulling (so I could reach the washing machine) screeched out my identity: that kid from that family. The women, in defiance of my polluting the machines where they had to wash their families’ clothing, rallied around the machines, as if protecting them, prevented me from the task at hand. One of so many experiences of overt exclusion in a public space by a community because of our poverty. I wonder what made these women decide to practice such cruelty. I was ashamed, hurt, disgraced, and unable to process this. As a result, I internalized it and blamed myself for my shortcoming of being from poverty. As if I had a choice.

(From my field notes, January 5, 2015)

The laundromat women, in this rural hamlet, were afraid of our clothes, embedded and embodied with our filth, hunger, and shame. Perhaps they worried that somehow these outcasts’ cast-offs would taint and infect their clothing and, thus their bodies and lives. These women saw and storied the clothing I dragged in black garbage bags, and myself, as dangerous. By protecting the washing machines, “they could remain untouched” by the stain of poverty (Lugones 1987, p. 5).

These are early experiences of exclusion because of poverty and they too frame my higher education experiences (Dewey, 1938; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). While there is unease in the telling of these stories, when uninterrupted, poverty and dominant poverty narratives are destructive; marginalization is damaging (Goffman, 1963, hooks, 2000; Brown & Strega, 2005). Adair (2003) dares to interrupt dominant narratives regarding poverty-class students who are trying to obtain higher education.

I stumbled across Adair’s (2003) writing when researching a paper on White Trash. It was the first time I heard an academic talking about coming from poverty and how it painfully shaped her experiences as a university student. I thought her profoundly brave and also recognized a shared experience. There were others like me, whose experiences of growing up in poverty influenced how they approached and experienced higher education. Although it remains difficult to imagine places or people in higher education who would value my knowledge, interests, and experiences, I had found a footprint in which to take the first step.

[1] White Trash is capitalized in this proposal to signify a specific group that is Othered because of their socioeconomic location.

[2] The term Other is taken up in different ways by educational and social class scholars. I am currently working on a research paper on theoretical perspectives on difference. This research is connected to being Othered because of poverty and how it relates to diversity educational policies.

[3] For ease of reading, education and educational versus Dewey’s (1938) conception of education as experience are not being problematized in this research proposal. Dewey (1938) views education different from schooling by focusing on lived experiences that shape educative or miseducative experiences.

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