Tzivia Gover: Her students, and Walt Whitman, inspire poetry teacher to action
LEW HOLZMAN Tzivia Gover works with her poetry class for adult learners attending class at The Literacy Project in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »
AMHERST — I started my Wednesday morning poetry class as I always do, asking the adult learners attending class at The Literacy Project to introduce themselves and say how they are feeling. This week, one young woman, usually composed, cheerful and articulate, slumped in her chair and said, “I can’t do poetry today.” She picked up her notebook and walked into another classroom, followed by another student.
Later I learned these two women, one a young single mother and the other a grandmother, were in danger of losing their Section 8 housing vouchers because the Amherst Housing Authority recently announced that due to budget cuts at the federal level, area voucher programs may have to be reduced. The cuts could mean these two women and their families — and many more like them — could become homeless. So, rather than write poetry, they used the class period to draft statements they planned to deliver at a public meeting on the subject the next day.
As I walked to my car after class I saw one of the two women, M., sitting at the curb in the sunshine reviewing the poetry handout I’d distributed during class, and that she’d missed out on reading. We’d reviewed excerpts of Walt Whitman’s poetry including lines from “I Hear America Singing.” It was the first morning of the partial government shutdown, and as we discussed Whitman’s vision of a nation of individuals working with their hands and hearts to build a democratic nation of equals, members of the class and I couldn’t help notice the contrasts between Whitman’s hopeful portrait of our country and the mean-spirited political maneuvering taking place in our nation’s capital.
Our once-hopeful country had devolved into one where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the gap between the two has grown into chasm.
“This man is very interesting,” M. said thoughtfully now, running her finger over lines of Whitman’s poetry. I sat beside her and soon the conversation turned to the meeting about the housing crisis.
“Our teacher said we should tell our stories at the meeting to get people to do something about this,” M. said. “But people have heard every story there is. Instead I want to tell them their story.”
“Their story? What do you mean?” I asked.
“I want to tell them the story of their responsibility to others in the community.”
I thought about her words as I drove away. It was a magnificent fall day in the Valley and golden foliage glowed in sunlight. It seemed a privilege to live in such a place, and difficult to accept that amidst this quaint beauty ugly things were happening. I decided then that I would attend the meeting, too.
I am glad I did. I was moved by what my students had to say: The younger woman, a single mother of two small children, spoke of her fear of ending up on the streets if her voucher was reduced or taken away.
M. spoke of studying hard for her GED so she could improve her life and move out of Section 8 housing. Amherst, she said, was a place where one could move off public assistance more quickly because of the cultural and educational riches it offers, the safe neighborhoods and reputation for addressing social needs. She appealed to the Housing Authority to consider the importance of keeping low-income housing available.
I also heard the points of view of the members of the local housing authority and the comments of dozens of the 60 or more people in attendance, including those living in Section 8 housing, representatives from social service agencies, advocacy groups and other concerned citizens. I learned that federal budget cuts and the effects of sequestration have meant that local housing authorities simply have less money to work with. And to make matters worse, at the same time that housing vouchers are being threatened, fuel assistance and food benefits (SNAP) are also being cut.
The options being laid out for the voucher crisis were awful: Either make all voucher recipients pay a little more in order to make federal dollars stretch and balance the Housing Authority’s budget … or eliminate a certain number of vouchers so the rest could be preserved at their current level. Each of these options would lead to increased hardship and homelessness in Amherst and surrounding towns. One woman in the audience was dismayed by this situation. She said she moved to Amherst because it was known to be a progressive community, but now she was concerned that when those progressive values were put to the test, Amherst was falling short of its purported ideals.
Others agreed. Making people who are already struggling for survival struggle even more was unthinkable, they said. Instead, let’s “share the pain,” someone suggested. One woman proposed asking landlords to cut rents voluntarily, and to get local businesses to help make that option appealing by encouraging them to offer discounts to landlords who agreed to lower rents. “Get the whole community involved,” she said.
Others spoke of instituting homeownership programs for low-income residents in Amherst and other affected towns.
One result of the meeting is that there will be a public hearing on this issue (tentatively scheduled for Dec. 3) in order to get more input and to consider the problem — and possible solutions — from multiple angles.
I hope this time the room will be bursting at the seams with people from all segments of the community — a Whitman-esque cross-section of citizens, including landlords, parents, business owners, clergy, clerks, students, professors, politicians, athletes, bankers, brokers, tradespeople, activists and artists. I hope more people like myself, who have been sitting on the sidelines unsure what to do or how to act, will come out, too.
“People see this as a poor people’s issue, but shouldn’t it be an Amherst issue?” someone at the meeting asked. Yes, I thought! And in the spirit of Walt Whitman’s vision, how about seeing this as an American issue as well? It’s not too late for our country to become a true democracy where every voice counts, is heard and responded to with compassion and spirit.
Tzivia Gover is the author of “Learning in Mrs.Towne’s House,” a book about her experience teaching poetry to teen mothers in Holyoke.