Covenanter Honored for Advocacy on Behalf of Poor

Post a Comment » Written on October 14th, 2009     
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CHICAGO, IL (October 14, 2009) – While a graduate student in sociology at Northwestern University in the upscale suburb of Evanston, Covenanter Kathryn Edin also was teaching classes on the subject in the blighted North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago.

She had been hired by North Park University to teach at one of its extension campuses that was strategically located to reach out to first-generation college students. Four of the people in the class were minority women on welfare.

“Ironically the first course I was teaching that these four women were in was Minority Cultures, and I was the only non-minority person in the room,” Edin says, smiling. “I was teaching it out of the book – and they were living it.”

She also would receive an education from them. “I was teaching this class on poverty, and then I would ask them how does it really work.”

EdinNow a professor of sociology at Harvard University and an award-winning researcher, Edin also has become a leading voice on public policy related to urban poverty. That research has been based in part on living among the poor, including one of the nation’s most violent cities, Camden, New Jersey.

It is not a life anyone envisioned while she was growing up in what she affectionately refers to as the “one stoplight” town of rural Staples, Minnesota, where she attended Thomastown Covenant Church.

Edin grew up comfortably in an area that also saw its share of rural poverty. There was virtually no racial diversity.

Her family was committed to caring for the poor and hosted an exchange student from Africa who lived with them at various times over 12 years. “He was one of the only blacks in a few hundred miles, so I remember being fascinated with Africa,” she told North Park’s alumni magazine several years ago. “He piqued my interest in African Americans and race relations in the U.S.”

Still, she did not foresee how that interest would become her life’s work. Earlier this month, North Park presented her with its 2009 Distinguished Alumna Award (accompanying photo), and Edin told the gathering at the Homecoming Banquet,  “I didn’t even know what sociology was before I came here.”

Edin credited two professors as having a profound influence on her. Calvin (Cal) Katter Jr., professor of biblical and theological studies, encouraged her to think critically and passionately. Professor of sociology Dr. Frank Steinhart introduced the student to her future vocation.

What did you learn? “Not much, except that no one can live on welfare.”

Steinhart was the professor who wrote in the margins of her honors thesis that she should attend graduate school. He also led her on “educational forays” to places such as Graceland Cemetery, where students learned that social stratification was evident even in people’s final resting places. “(Chicago hotelier) Potter Palmer at the top of the hill – his servant at the bottom,” Edin recalls.

While at North Park, she completed an internship at LaSalle Street Church, which was her first point of contact with the poor families that became the subjects of her life’s work. Although she initially balked at the idea of attending graduate school, Edin pursued a master’s degree and Ph.D. at Northwestern University.

Edin’s advisor at Northwestern inquired as to what she was learning while teaching at North Lawndale. She replied, “Not much, except that no one can live on welfare.” He challenged her to prove it.

The women in her class introduced her to others in similar positions, and their lives became the foundation for Edin’s thesis and ultimately her first book, There is a Lot of Month Left at the End of the Money.

Edin has become an important contemporary voice because of her old-school approach to research. While teaching at Rutgers University, Edin collaborated with Urban Promise, an organization started by Tony Campolo, and lived for two and a half years in Camden.

Living in the area was necessary for her to do quality research, Edin explained. “The old-time poverty researchers used to live in the communities they studied and I wanted to do that,” says Edin, who moved to the city with her husband, Tim, and adopted daughter, Kaitlin. (They adopted their second daughter, Marisa, after moving to Camden.)

“My husband also is a sociologist and thought this would be a good thing to do from a research point of view, but we also thought it would be fascinating,” Edin added.

That would be one word for it.

“Part of what I hope to do is bring a measure of dignity to the people I’m serving.”

The family rented a studio apartment on the first floor of a building when they moved to Camden. Edin recalls one of the first days, when she was sitting in the apartment.

“We had just moved in there,” she says. “There was no air conditioning and I had the windows up for ventilation. Suddenly a teenager jumped through one window, ran through the room and then jumped through the other window.

“Soon he is pursued by three other really dangerous looking teens (she’s laughing as she tells the story). Of course these are the local drug dealers who are running right in front of me. We quickly learned it wasn’t a good policy to keep both windows open.”

Edin was undeterred, however, as she investigated why poor women put motherhood ahead of marriage – and why they feel they must make the choice. Her experiences are chronicled in her third book, Promises I Can Keep, which won the William T. Goode award for the most outstanding contribution for family scholarship. She published her fourth book, on couple dynamics and father involvement in low-income families, in 2007, entitled Unmarried Couples with Children.

Edin has a passion for working with “stigmatized populations,” a desire rooted in her Christian faith. “Part of what I hope to do is bring a measure of dignity to the people I’m serving.”

She wants people in more fortunate circumstances to have a better understanding of the poor. “You eventually come to the realization that you would have made the same choices had you been in the same situation,” says Edin. “These people are not different from me. They have the same desires and motivations and good qualities.”

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