Shawn Ginwright

author, professor, activist

Don't Be Poor, Be Happy

Generally, I’m a happy, optimistic and hopeful person. I have a tendency to look for the good in most things. However, I have recently become skeptical about the scores of research that have recently surfaced calling attention to the impact of stressors on the development of children and young people. It's not the overly zealous conclusions researchers make about brain development that use rats, and mice that bothers me. Rather it’s the nearly unanimous conclusion that what really matters in the "secret sauce" to healthy development and learning is better parenting, no excuses teaching, or more robust character traits among children and youth. There is an eerie silence among some educators and researchers when confronted with the question "what are the root causes of stress for young people in low wealth communities in the first place"? More balanced attention to both the policies that create and sustain poverty and therefore stress, as well as the biological, psycho-spiritual consequences of living in poverty is needed.

Having worked for over 20 years with young people in urban schools, and community organizations, I am familiar with limits of arguments that singularly attribute learning, and development to what boils down to "individual" efforts despite the magnitude, complexity and scope of the challenges people face. Writers like Nicholas Kristoff, and Paul Tough accurately point out how environmental stress threatens brain development due to high and consistent doses of cortisol in the body. However, rather than identifying how to transform the root causes of stress from underfunded schools, violence, and joblessness, these writers (and others) overly rely on character development and social emotional learning as the antidote to building healthy strong young people. How might grit, gratitude and purpose (key features of social emotional learning) support learning when kids come to school hungry in the morning, dodge bullets during lunch, and fear the police as they walk home in the afternoon? How much grit actually makes a difference when nothing changes around you? I'm a fan of McFerrin's popular song Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and Pharrel's catchy tune Happy because they simply make me feel good. But these songs are also emblematic of a broader trend that suggests the solution to the woes of the poor can be realized through miraculous individual effort, and profound chemical regulation in the brain.

 I recalled watching the moving Happy at the recommendation of a colleague. The basic premise of the movie was that happiness was something that could be cultivated and sustained despite the external conditions of our lives. Inspiring examples of poor families from the Mississippi delta gleefully enjoying the simple life, eating crawfish on the porch with family and friends, or a man in India finds solace in spending time with his wife and children in a shack. These stories are compelling but incomplete. We don't see what emotionally happens when the man in the Mississippi delta gets sick and cannot afford the medical care. Nor do we see, the how the man from India tucks his beautiful children away at night, but tells them for the fourth night in the row that there is no food.

Happiness is both a function of external opportunities and our internal capacity to hope. Both are intimately tide to one another creating an inextricable elixir of possibility. As I applaud advances in brain research that shed light into the consequences of stress, and positive psychology's claims that focus on character strengths, lets not let toxic public policy off the hook! No amount of happiness, grit, gratitude can alone counter policies and practices that lock undocumented immigrants out of health care, justify police homicide and dislocated residents from poor neighborhoods. We need both a policy of hope, and broader practices of possibilities to usher healthy development, more robust learning and happier young people.


Dr. Shawn Ginwright is the author of forthcoming book Soul Rebels: How Teachers and Activists are building hope among urban youth, Routledge Press. He is a professor of Education and African American Studies at San Francisco State University

Copyright Shawn Ginwright All rights reserved.