As the sun set in downtown Columbus Thursday afternoon, a mega-sized tour bus chugged down Fifth Street and idled to a stop alongside the curb in front of Rosenzweig Arts Center. It wasn”t an unusual sight except for one thing: The words “Poverty Tour” splashed across the side of the bus.
Los Angeles broadcaster Tavis Smiley, dressed in a suit and accompanied by a small entourage, strode in the door of the arts center, shook hands with Lowndes County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Kathy Arinder, hugged Caledonia resident Lee Wilson and began looking for food. His companion and cohort in the “Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience,” Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West, was down the street, photographing himself in front of the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center, Smiley explained.
“We”re hungry,” he said, heading upstairs, where a Southern-style meal had been prepared for the duo. “He”ll catch up.”
Many have asked why the two chose Columbus as one of the 18 U.S. cities to spotlight as they examine poverty in America, and Smiley had a ready answer: He likes to be unconventional; he wanted to show that poverty exists everywhere, and West — a big fan of Tennessee Williams — wanted to see the playwright”s birthplace.
Still, with a median family household income of $37,068, Columbus isn”t the first place you would choose when looking for poverty in Mississippi — a fact Smiley brusquely acknowledged.
“This is not about creating an image of abject poverty,” he said. “If I wanted to do that, I didn”t have to take a bus from Los Angeles to Mississippi. I could have stayed in Los Angeles.”
The way Smiley sees it, the American definition of poverty needs to be changed. There is not just financial poverty, he said. There is poverty of hope, poverty of opportunity.
When he learned about the Wilsons, who live in Caledonia with 10 of their 12 children, he knew their story was one he wanted to tell. Disturbed by reports of military veterans unable to find jobs or adequate housing, he wanted to spotlight a military family who was living “paycheck to paycheck.” He wanted a white family, because “poverty is not just black folks.” He wanted to shine a light on solutions, not just problems.
He found those elements in the Wilsons” plight.
In November 2009, the family moved from a cramped duplex on the Columbus Air Force Base to a Habitat for Humanity home on Kidd Road in Caledonia, where their children — several of whom are adopted and have special needs — could benefit from local special needs school programs. As a requirement of Habitat, the family helped build their home and others, paying through sweat equity as well as an interest-free monthly mortgage.
Smiley and West, along with the producers of their Public Radio International program, “Smiley and West,” interviewed the family and spent Thursday night at their home.
Smiley said the Wilsons represent a growing segment in America — “the new poor,” also known as “the former middle class.”
Those who once had savings have watched their accounts dwindle as they”ve dipped into them to cope with unemployment and health-care crises. Those who once had stocks have either sold them or watched them plummet in value. People who once had comfortable lives now live with the uneasy knowledge that one catastrophe — a layoff, an accident, an illness — could send them out into the streets.
Lee Wilson nodded as she listened to Smiley talk. She has a friend in South Carolina who is living in a car. She said without the help of groups like Habitat for Humanity, she knows her family would not have the relatively comfortable life they enjoy.
Lee Wilson and her husband, Dave Wilson, didn”t mind being profiled by Smiley and West. They were glad to invite the sometimes-controversial duo into their home so the nation could be made aware of not only the issue of poverty but also the good things people are doing to help others.
Likewise, Arinder said she was glad Columbus was chosen as one of the cities on the tour, because it gave her a chance to show the good things Habitat for Humanity has done.
“They”re showing solutions to the problem, and Habitat is a solution,” Arinder said. “Every town has poverty. We need to be aware of that.”
The Columbus segment will air on the radio, as well as television, in about six weeks, though Smiley wasn”t sure of the exact date. Throughout the upcoming year, until Election Day 2012, portions of the Poverty Tour — which began last Friday and ends Saturday — will be interspersed throughout Smiley”s late-night television show on PBS and his two Public Radio International programs, “Smiley and West,” and “The Tavis Smiley Show. ”
According to his website (www.povertytour.smileyandwest.com), the overall mission is “to highlight the plight of the poor people of all races, colors and creeds so they will not be forgotten, ignored or rendered invisible during this difficult and dangerous time of economic deprivation and political cowardice.”
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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