Solutions-oriented Conversations About Poverty

Poverty is a familiar bedfellow in Oregon. Statistics tell the alarming trend. Theater helps shift the numbers into dialogue.

In the first decade of this century, the numbers of people living in areas of concentrated poverty in the state grew to make Oregon home to one of the most severe increases in the nation. Proximity to clusters of poverty is a cruel amplifier: low-income families living in concentrations of poverty face higher crime rates, poor housing conditions and fewer job opportunities.

The problem is both rural and urban: A recent report estimates that roughly one in three of Multnomah County’s 760,000 residents earn less money than required to meet their basic needs. Children, communities of color, immigrants and refugees, single-parent households and persons with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by poverty — with poverty rates for these populations far higher than their rates in the population as a whole, according to a 2014 county report.

A Portland theater recently took on the issue of poverty, with solutions in mind.

Founded in 1999, the Sojourn Theatre blends performance and dialogue to engage communities in conversations about race, class, leadership, demographic change, public education, civic planning, housing and community sustainability.

Their February 2015 run of “How To End Poverty in 90 Minutes," turned the Portland Playhouse into a social-science laboratory. The goal of the experience of the play/lecture/workshop/theatre piece/public conversation: to erase the silence around poverty and provide a starting point for dialogue. Meyer was proud to support the theater's work with a $25,000 grant in October 2014.

During performances, the ensemble members gave each of 100 attendees the opportunity to learn about and actively engage with the realities of poverty in Multnomah County. Together, they decided how to best direct $1,000 of each evening’s receipts — $17,000 total over the run — toward poverty eradication.

“We wanted to host a conversation about poverty where we invite different perspectives and ideologies into a room to wrestle with this often silent issue,” Sojourn Theatre founder Michael Rohd told PDXMonthly. Rohd left Portland in 2007 to teach at Northwestern University, where he developed the show.

After each 90-minute performance, each audience member was handed a ten-dollar bill and asked to spend it on one of five approaches to ending poverty: System Change, Education, Direct Aid, Making Opportunities, and Daily Needs. The exercise aimed to help participants overcome the sense of helplessness that comes from being overwhelmed by issues of poverty.

A reviewer in the Oregonian wrote of the sell-out production: “Sitting alone writing a check to alleviate poverty feels like throwing a pebble into the abyss, while passionately exploring the issue with 99 other theatergoers leads to action with real weight behind it. The revolutionary insight of this production is that solutions are to be found only when we work as a community.”