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Education offers path out of poverty, Pulitzer Prize-winning author says

Lecture series speaker Andrea Elliott chronicles family’s journey to stability, hope

Poverty is rooted in a variety of complex factors, and education is one effective strategy to help people realize a more hopeful future, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Andrea Elliott said in her keynote address at The Ohio State University’s 2022 President and Provost’s Diversity Lecture and Cultural Arts Series.

The virtual event was held Nov. 9, hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“The President and Provost’s Diversity Lecture and Cultural Arts Series gives people at Ohio State and in our community fantastic opportunities to engage in dialogue about society’s most pressing problems and issues and work collectively to map out solutions,” Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson said. “For 24 years, this event has connected the community with thought leaders dedicated to advancing inclusion, excellence and diversity and broadening our understanding of each other.”

Elliott is among a series of speakers whose work promotes dialogue on issues that have a nationwide impact, said Yolanda Zepeda, assistant vice provost for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“These individuals exemplify inclusive excellence and whose cutting-edge thinking deserves a wider audience,” she said. “I hope that our students and the broader community will engage around the ideas shared tonight and will find their own perspectives challenged.”

Andrea ElliottElliott is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. She received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her “Imam in America” series of articles about Muslim immigrants. She received the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for her book, “Invisible Child.”

The book expounds on a series of New York Times articles Elliott wrote about a young Black girl named Dasani whose family, including her parents and seven siblings, experienced homelessness throughout her childhood in New York City. For several years, Elliott chronicled the family’s struggles to find safe housing. Dasani’s parents also battled substance use disorders, which led to incidents in which authorities removed Dasani and her siblings from their parents’ care.

“It’s really hard to summarize the toll it takes to be in these systems and to be poor,” Elliott said. “People often assume that poverty is the result of ‘bad choices’… but I think it’s more often about the lack of any choice at all, the absence of true agency. Because when you are so busy surviving, you cannot possibly thrive.”

Elliott’s extensive research included genealogy, tracing Dasani’s family tree to study how generations of slavery and subsequent segregation had impacted the family’s current situation. Elliott found that Dasani’s maternal great-grandfather, World War II Army veteran Wesley Sykes, experienced discrimination that many Black veterans faced.

Denied mortgage assistance and other GI benefits, Wesley Sykes ended up settling in a rent-subsidized apartment in a Brooklyn complex that Dasani and her family would come to know as “the projects.”

“The exclusion of African Americans from real estate … the exclusion of their ability to attend college, to attain decent-paying jobs, to even have the ability to vote lay the foundations of a lasting poverty that Dasani would inherit,” Elliott said. “These historic injustices that were experienced by her family not as history … but as a continued reality is something that is connected to the past, but that is also playing out in real time.”

Education proved to be a lifeline for Dasani. She gained admission to the Milton Hershey School, a private prekindergarten-12th grade boarding school in Hershey, Pennsylvania, that aims to help children overcome poverty by providing them with a cost-free, high-quality education.

Before Dasani entered the Milton Hershey School, Elliott said the youth drew inspiration from New York City public school teachers such as Faith Hester, an accomplished Black woman who was Dasani’s sixth-grade teacher.          

“She’s just a phenomenal example, also, of someone who has survived,” Elliott said of Hester. “She got out of the projects by being bused into a white part of Brooklyn, she graduated high school early and then two master’s degrees later, she returned to her predominantly Black community to teach and to show through her own human example a way out. As if to say to her kids, ‘If I could do it, you could do it, too.’”

Now 21 years old, Dasani is attending community college, holds down a job in retail and is close with her family, who finally has stable housing, Elliott said.

“People always talk about the cycle of poverty,” she said, “but I also see this as a story about the cycle of power, the cycle of resilience that surviving poverty represents.”

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