“I never went to the grocery store. Food was the last thing on my mind. I actually forgot to feed my family,” admitted a SIM participant during the reflection session after Otterbein’s most recent poverty simulation. This student was part of a training session, in the form of a SIM, for over a 120 students preparing for service experiences throughout central Ohio. Otterbein’s Center for Community Engagement, housed in the division of Student Affairs, hosts The Community Action Poverty Simulation* every January for students enrolled in service-learning courses to help prepare them for their civic work ahead. During the experiential activity, students take on the roles of individual family members, responsible for providing food, shelter, and basic necessities for their family over the period of a month, simulated in four 15-minute weeks. As each week quickly unfolds, participants struggle with the complexities of daily life, increasingly complicated by discrimination, powerlessness, poor health, job loss, caregiving, ineligibility for social services, inadequate transportation, an inequitable justice system, crime, and corruption (Nickols & Neilson 2011). Their simulated toils are necessarily compounded by their characters’ situatedness as a particular gender, age, and race.
Simulations are one solution to the problem of cultivating adequate and meaningful ways to train our students to understand the complexities of the lived experiences of people from communities where they will serve. We know that without appropriate pre-service preparation and reflection, community service can reinforce stereotypes about marginalized groups, become mis-educative, and make students feel ineffective as change agents. Everyday, institutions send students out into the community, draped with prejudices and powerful myths about the common struggles of the oppressed. Asking our students to read an article about generational poverty or research statistics on homelessness in their city does not, in and of itself, dismantle stereotypes or ready them for purposeful service that addresses complex public problems. We need to find more meaningful ways to engage our students in deep critical civic thinking and help them to negotiate difference before we allow them to “practice” their prejudices in our communities.
We can learn from specific disciplines like Nursing and Social Work who have historically turned to simulated learning landscapes to prepare students for real-world action. A recent study on the impact of a poverty simulation on nursing students illustrated how even a brief program of interactive learning changed students’ attitudes toward individuals who live in poverty (Patterson & Hulton 2012). Through a process of interactions with bankers, pawn-brokers, social service workers, quick cash dealers, and a corrupt police force, simulations can sensitize students to the realities faced by people living in under-resourced communities and deepen their empathy for others. Results of a study of social work students who participated in a SIM indicated that participants feel the “multidimensional effect of poverty, including feelings of frustration, stress, anger, and hopelessness, as well as appreciate the degree of problem-solving and survival strategies required of families living in poverty” (Zosky & Thompson 2012, p.81).
To prepare students in my Community Change course for “civic apprenticeships” at non-profits, my students participated in the SIM last month. They played the roles of community resource partners instead of family members to help them understand the structural nature of poverty and institutionalization of helplessness. After the SIM I asked them to consider the power and influence people working at community organizations have in the process of helping or hindering the journeys of families living in poverty. I hoped that by analyzing their own power, they might come to dismantle the myth that poverty is the fault of the individual. Emma, a student who played the rent collector, fully realized the impact her decision-making had on the welfare of others:
I didn’t have to play fair, I could evict illegally if I wasn’t treated with respect and I could take bribes from people. But for me, there were moments of compassion. I allowed families to get their houses back, others I just let slide. It was at times difficult to make the decision to evict people and leave them helpless. They didn’t have the power to make decisions. I did.
Results of our assessment survey also indicated that students came to understand that poverty was systemic, a result of “inequality,” “unfairness,” and the necessity of families to “focus on survival.” Reflecting on her role as a social worker, Amber sighed, “I saw how frustrating poverty is to those living in it and those trying to help. It's an endless cycle that really is hard to be broken.”
Simulations can provide powerful landscapes to engage our students in deep, critical thinking about their roles in civic engagement. We need to continue to create innovative new strategies to ready our students for the transition from the comfort zone of their campus to the complexities of community sites. Moving from a SIM to the city enables students to serve with a deeper understanding of the roles we all play in the maintenance of poverty in our own communities. While they may forget to feed their family at the SIM, they are far more likely to remember that it is everyone’s civic role to feed their communities when they serve.
*NOTE: The Community Action Poverty Simulation is a copyrighted experiential learning activity designed by The Missouri Association for Community Action to influence participants’ awareness of the challenges of living in poverty.
Nickols, Sharon Y., and Robert B. Nielsen. “’So Many People Are Struggling’: Developing Social Empathy Through A Poverty Simulation.” Journal of Poverty 15.1 (2011): 22-42.
Patterson, Nena, and Linda, J. Hulton. “Enhancing Nursing Students’ Understanding Of Poverty Through Simulation.” Public Health Nursing 29.2 (2012): 143-151.
Zosky, Diane L., and James Thompson. “Poverty Simulation: An Experiential Learning Tool Emphasizing Economic Justice Content.” Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work 17. (2012): 69-84.