Can you look poverty in the eyes?
Desmond called on an audience of more than 1,200 students, staff and other Madison locals at the Wisconsin Union Theater Tuesday night to face poverty — and to hate poverty.
“It’s my hope that as the years pass, you come more and more to hate poverty — to hate it,” emphasized Desmond.
That seemed to be his goal throughout the evening — to trigger such a deep hatred for poverty that his audience would feel compelled to act against it, and to begin tearing down the systems that created the affordable housing crisis. Desmond implored students in his audience to not just find solutions, but to begin acting on them.
“To you students in the room, I just encourage you to consider the role you have to play in this issue,” he said. “If you come from poverty, from abundance, from business, from finance, from law, from medicine, to art or social sciences, you all have a role to play in this issue.”
One student in particular took his words to heart. Brooke Evans, a UW student who has experienced homelessness herself, asked Desmond to speak about the lack of affordable housing in Madison, particularly for college students. Through tears, she expressed her frustration that the university has seemingly ignored the problem.
“More and more low-income and first-generation children [are coming] to college. We, too, have nowhere to sleep because these communities aren’t created for us...we can’t bring lots of money for universities — and I’m sorry, I can’t do that — but I want a good education, too,” she said. “How many students with this problem would be enough to move the needle? How many students have to wake up with this problem every day for it to be an issue that a university has to take responsibility for?
Her comments garnered applause from the audience and from Desmond himself.
“Your story is a powerful reminder to educators, like me, that there are students in our classrooms dealing with issues a lot bigger than homework assignments,” he said.
Desmond was nevertheless optimistic, explaining that he has seen “a broader coalition forming around this issue,” with more educators and students getting involved in understanding, studying and looking for solutions to the problems that low-income college students face.
If engagement is any indicator, Desmond’s sense of increased awareness is right. Attendance was at an all-time high for the 90-minute event, with another 1,000 tuned in to an online live stream of Desmond’s speech.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who introduced Desmond, said that participation with Go Big Read has also reached a record-breaking high this year. Around 6,000 copies of the book were distributed to new students during convocation in September. More than 200 class sections, the law school, and the Madison police force are reading the book. Other organizations, including the Madison Public Library and local churches, have gotten involved, too, by hosting discussion sessions and reading groups.
According to Sheila Stoeckel, the program’s director, tickets for Tuesday’s event sold out within minutes of going live online.
Chancellor Blank said that perhaps it’s because he is an alum of the school himself that he has garnered such impressive participation and engagement with his work — or, perhaps, it’s simply because of the remarkable nature of his research.
Desmond saw that participation as an opportunity to invite his audience to build on his research and to begin standing up for the cause — a message he reiterated throughout the course of the evening.
“There are solutions within our reach,” he told the audience, which reacted audibly to stark statistics and sent Desmond off with a standing ovation at the end. “But we have to reach.”