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  • For the last 50 years,

  • a lot of smart, well-resourced people -- some of you, no doubt --

  • have been trying to figure out how to reduce poverty

  • in the United States.

  • People have created and invested millions of dollars

  • into non-profit organizations

  • with the mission of helping people who are poor.

  • They've created think tanks

  • that study issues like education, job creation and asset-building,

  • and then advocated for policies to support our most marginalized communities.

  • They've written books and columns and given passionate speeches,

  • decrying the wealth gap that is leaving more and more people

  • entrenched at the bottom end of the income scale.

  • And that effort has helped.

  • But it's not enough.

  • Our poverty rates haven't changed that much in the last 50 years,

  • since the War on Poverty was launched.

  • I'm here to tell you

  • that we have overlooked the most powerful and practical resource.

  • Here it is:

  • people who are poor.

  • Up in the left-hand corner is Jobana, Sintia and Bertha.

  • They met when they all had small children,

  • through a parenting class at a family resource center

  • in San Francisco.

  • As they grew together as parents and friends,

  • they talked a lot about how hard it was

  • to make money when your kids are little.

  • Child care is expensive,

  • more than they'd earn in a job.

  • Their husbands worked,

  • but they wanted to contribute financially, too.

  • So they hatched a plan.

  • They started a cleaning business.

  • They plastered neighborhoods with flyers

  • and handed business cards out to their families and friends,

  • and soon, they had clients calling.

  • Two of them would clean the office or house

  • and one of them would watch the kids.

  • They'd rotate who'd cleaned and who'd watch the kids.

  • (Laughs) It's awesome, right?

  • (Laughter)

  • And they split the money three ways.

  • It was not a full-time gig,

  • no one could watch the little ones all day.

  • But it made a difference for their families.

  • Extra money to pay for bills when a husband's work hours were cut.

  • Money to buy the kids clothes as they were growing.

  • A little extra money in their pockets

  • to make them feel some independence.

  • Up in the top-right corner is Theresa and her daughter, Brianna.

  • Brianna is one of those kids

  • with this sparkly, infectious, outgoing personality.

  • For example, when Rosie,

  • a little girl who spoke only Spanish, moved in next door,

  • Brianna, who spoke only English,

  • borrowed her mother's tablet and found a translation app

  • so the two of them could communicate.

  • (Laughter)

  • I know, right?

  • Rosie's family credits Brianna with helping Rosie to learn English.

  • A few years ago,

  • Brianna started to struggle academically.

  • She was growing frustrated and kind of withdrawn

  • and acting out in class.

  • And her mother was heartbroken over what was happening.

  • Then they found out that she was going to have to repeat second grade

  • and Brianna was devastated.

  • Her mother felt hopeless and overwhelmed and alone

  • because she knew that her daughter was not getting the support she needed,

  • and she did not know how to help her.

  • One afternoon, Theresa was catching up with a group of friends,

  • and one of them said,

  • "Theresa, how are you?"

  • And she burst into tears.

  • After she shared her story, one of her friends said,

  • "I went through the exact same thing with my son about a year ago."

  • And in that moment,

  • Theresa realized that so much of her struggle

  • was not having anybody to talk with about it.

  • So she created a support group for parents like her.

  • The first meeting was her and two other people.

  • But word spread, and soon 20 people, 30 people

  • were showing up for these monthly meetings that she put together.

  • She went from feeling helpless

  • to realizing how capable she was of supporting her daughter,

  • with the support of other people who were going through the same struggle.

  • And Brianna is doing fantastic -- she's doing great academically

  • and socially.

  • That in the middle is my man Baakir,

  • standing in front of BlackStar Books and Caffe,

  • which he runs out of part of his house.

  • As you walk in the door,

  • Baakir greets you with a "Welcome black home."

  • (Laughter)

  • Once inside, you can order some Algiers jerk chicken,

  • perhaps a vegan walnut burger,

  • or jive turkey sammich.

  • And that's sammich -- not sandwich.

  • You must finish your meal with a buttermilk drop,

  • which is several steps above a donut hole

  • and made from a very secret family recipe.

  • For real, it's very secret, he won't tell you about it.

  • But BlackStar is much more than a café.

  • For the kids in the neighborhood,

  • it's a place to go after school to get help with homework.

  • For the grown-ups, it's where they go

  • to find out what's going on in the neighborhood

  • and catch up with friends.

  • It's a performance venue.

  • It's a home for poets, musicians and artists.

  • Baakir and his partner Nicole,

  • with their baby girl strapped to her back,

  • are there in the mix of it all,

  • serving up a cup of coffee,

  • teaching a child how to play Mancala,

  • or painting a sign for an upcoming community event.

  • I have worked with and learned from people just like them

  • for more than 20 years.

  • I have organized against the prison system,

  • which impacts poor folks,

  • especially black, indigenous and Latino folks,

  • at an alarming rate.

  • I have worked with young people who manifest hope and promise,

  • despite being at the effect of racist discipline practices in their schools,

  • and police violence in their communities.

  • I have learned from families

  • who are unleashing their ingenuity and tenacity

  • to collectively create their own solutions.

  • And they're not just focused on money.

  • They're addressing education, housing, health, community --

  • the things that we all care about.

  • Everywhere I go,

  • I see people who are broke but not broken.

  • I see people who are struggling to realize their good ideas,

  • so that they can create a better life for themselves,

  • their families, their communities.

  • Jobana, Sintia, Bertha, Theresa and Baakir are the rule,

  • not the shiny exception.

  • I am the exception.

  • I was raised by a quietly fierce single mother in Rochester, New York.

  • I was bussed to a school in the suburbs, from a neighborhood

  • that many of my classmates and their parents considered dangerous.

  • At eight, I was a latchkey kid.

  • I'd get myself home after school every day and do homework and chores,

  • and wait for my mother to come home.

  • After school, I'd go to the corner store

  • and buy a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli,

  • which I'd heat up on the stove as my afternoon snack.

  • If I had a little extra money, I'd buy a Hostess Fruit Pie.

  • (Laughter)

  • Cherry.

  • Not as good as a buttermilk drop.

  • (Laughter)

  • We were poor when I was a kid.

  • But now, I own a home in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood

  • in Oakland, California.

  • I've built a career.

  • My husband is a business owner.

  • I have a retirement account.

  • My daughter is not even allowed to turn on the stove

  • unless there's a grown-up at home

  • and she doesn't have to,

  • because she does not have to have the same kind of self-reliance

  • that I had to at her age.

  • My kids' raviolis are organic

  • and full of things like spinach and ricotta,

  • because I have the luxury of choice

  • when it comes to what my children eat.

  • I am the exception,

  • not because I'm more talented than Baakir

  • or my mother worked any harder than Jobana, Sintia or Bertha,

  • or cared any more than Theresa.

  • Marginalized communities are full of smart, talented people,

  • hustling and working and innovating,

  • just like our most revered and most rewarded CEOs.

  • They are full of people tapping into their resilience

  • to get up every day, get the kids off to school

  • and go to jobs that don't pay enough,

  • or get educations that are putting them in debt.

  • They are full of people applying their savvy intelligence

  • to stretch a minimum wage paycheck,

  • or balance a job and a side hustle to make ends meet.

  • They are full of people doing for themselves and for others,

  • whether it's picking up medication for an elderly neighbor,

  • or letting a sibling borrow some money to pay the phone bill,

  • or just watching out for the neighborhood kids

  • from the front stoop.

  • I am the exception because of luck and privilege,

  • not hard work.

  • And I'm not being modest or self-deprecating --

  • I am amazing.

  • (Laughter)

  • But most people work hard.

  • Hard work is the common denominator in this equation,

  • and I'm tired of the story we tell

  • that hard work leads to success,

  • because that allows --

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

  • ... because that story allows those of us who make it to believe we deserve it,

  • and by implication,

  • those who don't make it don't deserve it.

  • We tell ourselves, in the back of our minds,

  • and sometimes in the front of our mouths,

  • "There must be something a little wrong with those poor people."

  • We have a wide range of beliefs

  • about what that something wrong is.

  • Some people tell the story that poor folks are lazy freeloaders

  • who would cheat and lie to get out of an honest day's work.

  • Others prefer the story that poor people are helpless

  • and probably had neglectful parents that didn't read to them enough,

  • and if they were just told what to do

  • and shown the right path,

  • they could make it.

  • For every story I hear demonizing low-income single mothers

  • or absentee fathers,

  • which is how people might think of my parents,

  • I've got 50 that tell a different story about the same people,

  • showing up every day and doing their best.

  • I'm not saying that some of the negative stories aren't true,

  • but those stories allow us to not really see who people really are,

  • because they don't paint a full picture.

  • The quarter-truths and limited plot lines have us convinced

  • that poor people are a problem that needs fixing.

  • What if we recognized that what's working is the people

  • and what's broken is our approach?

  • What if we realized that the experts we are looking for,

  • the experts we need to follow,

  • are poor people themselves?

  • What if, instead of imposing solutions,

  • we just added fire

  • to the already-burning flame that they have?

  • Not directing --

  • not even empowering --

  • but just fueling their initiative.

  • Just north of here,

  • we have an example of what this could look like:

  • Silicon Valley.

  • A whole venture capital industry has grown up around the belief

  • that if people have good ideas and the desire to manifest them,

  • we should give them lots and lots and lots of money.

  • (Laughter)

  • Right? But where is our strategy for Theresa and Baakir?

  • There are no incubators for them,

  • no accelerators, no fellowships.

  • How are Jobana, Sintia and Bertha really all that different

  • from the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world?

  • Baakir has experience and a track record.