Editor’s note: WRAL TechWire Live! hosted a discussion last week that centered on social impact, and how Triangle nonprofits are working like startups to devise innovative solutions to problems facing our region and neighbors. We are reprinting the talks delivered by two of the keynotes. The second is by Geraud Staton, Executive Director of The Helius Foundation, which offers a free 12-week program for qualified entrepreneurs, followed by a full year of coaching. Clients attend regular training events, have access to mentors from the community, and have funding opportunities.
According to Leslie Brown’s book “Upbuilding Black Durham”, at the beginning of the 20th century Durham had the highest number of black millionaires of any city in the world. Now, roughly 22% of all African American in Durham live at or below the poverty line. Sobering numbers, to be sure. But, as they used to say in those infomercials “wait, there’s more.”
Upward mobility is a real issue here in NC. Most children born into poverty in NC won’t reach the median income when they become adults, according to the MDC. According to studies done by Harvard and Berkley, Durham and Raleigh rank in the lowest 6% of counties in the country in upward mobility. A poor black child would have a better chance getting ahead in Queens or Oakland than she would in Raleigh or Durham.
Why is this? Why is there this disparity? There are the obvious answers, such as red-lining, slavery, voter suppression and other generational INTENTIONAL racism and classism. People are working on many of these issues. But, I believe there are hidden problems that most people aren’t seeing. I think I can illustrate those problems with two stories.
The first is the story of monopoly. Around 2004 at NC A&T, Muktha Jost and his partners were studying wealth inequality and used the game of monopoly as a vessel. They would take groups of 6 students to play the game. The first 2 students would play for 15-20 minutes while the others waited in another room. Then, two more students would begin playing for 15-20 minutes. Finally, the last two would join in. A few things happened.
First, the finishing placement of the players was nearly always the order in which they started. The winners of the game were ALWAYS among the first two students. Normally, the third and fourth place students were from group two, and the last place students were from group three.
The second thing they noticed is that the third group of people hated playing the game. Unlike the second group, who felt they COULD catch up (though, it should be noted that they never did), it was obvious to the pairs that started last that they never stood a chance. In fact, the third group was so disgruntled with the game that they hoped to just go to jail. That way, they could spend a few rounds not landing on someone else’s property. It was the only break they could get from the hardship of the game.
There was another, surprising thing found from the experiments and it came from the winners of the game. In many cases, the winners never really acknowledged that they won because of their privilege. They often gave themselves credit because of some “clever” decision or a “lucky” roll of the dice. To make matters worse, they also often blamed the people in last place for not doing better because of some minor decision they made, saying things like “you had a chance, if you hadn’t spent all your money on that particular property.”
This example of privilege can be seen through multiple studies using the game of monopoly. But inherent privilege isn’t the only issue. There is also learned helplessness.
In 1965, Dr. Seligman followed in the footsteps of Pavlov. He did a series of experiments where he would put a dog in a crate, separated by a low wall in the middle. A bell would chime, or a light would flash, and one side of the crate would get an electric shock. The dog would leap the low wall and go to the other side. It learned to do this quickly and without stress.
Some dogs were then restrained, unable to move. They could not change sides and simply took the shock, over and over again. Eventually, the restraint was removed the experiment would happen again. This time, the dogs did not change sides. They just took the shock. And even when someone moved the dogs to the non-shocked side, showing them that there was a safe place to go, the animals would still just suffer through the shock.
This is often seen in POWs, abused children, and in abusive relationships. Someone has taken it for so long that they don’t trust there is another way. Sometimes there is even pride in being able to take the suffering. When that suffering is generational, it must be nearly impossible to break.
So what do we do about it? Using these two experiments, my organization has changed the way we work with entrepreneurs, particularly necessity-driven entrepreneurs who are making less than the fair living wage. But, I believe this applies to so many areas, particularly in mentoring.
For example, we focus on business because the real estate game is already lost. I know in my own case, if everyone of my immediate and extended family all died in a horrible plane crash, my legacy might be $100. There is no generational wealth in my family. Park Place has already been purchased. Because real estate and business are the primary ways to attain wealth in America, the only way I can compete in the game is through business.
We have also adapted because of the learned helplessness model. There was a way to help the restrained dogs, and it wasn’t just showing them that there was another way. It was showing them there was another way OFTEN. The experimenters would have to move the dogs to the safe side dozens of times before they began to believe it. But today’s coaches, mentors and teachers don’t recognize that. They feel that if they can drop some knowledge bomb on someone in poverty that they should be able to take that knowledge and prosper. They believe that if they can show them the way out, their work is done.
We see that it takes many attempts to convince many entrepreneurs that they can, in fact, earn a fair living wage, that they can charge more for their product rather than competing on price, or that they can market to this sector where they know no one and few people look like them. A mentor has to be patient and realize that when the entrepreneur leaves the meeting they have to go back to an environment that does not support entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking. This is why Helius spends 10 weeks training our entrepreneurs in business and another 12 months supporting them, holding them accountable, helping them with funding and removing other obstacles that they run into. We put them in the room with other entrepreneurs, both big and small, so they can see they are part of a group. This matters if they are going to come to believe that they can be self-sustainable.
How does this apply to our everyday lives? It’s simple. Understand where others are coming from. If you are mentoring someone, know that your mentee isn’t just what you see before you, but they are the generations that came before them. They have had, and may still have, restraints that have been there for their entire lives. It will take patience to help them move to a place of safety and comfort, and to give them the ability to move on their own. Save your knowledge bombs. Dedicate real time to helping someone. It isn’t just training that will do it. It will take dedication.
And, if you’re holding all the properties on the Monopoly board, figure out a way to help those that started generations behind.