The election of Barack Hussein Obama was a historic moment for the United States of America. By electing him as the first black president, people of color in the U.S. were finally given a voice that they believed could represent them. Before the confirmation of Obama’s presidency, however, there was another trailblazer setting fire to the conventions of the American ballot.
Dr. Lenora Fulani, holder of a Ph.D. in psychology, was the first African American and the first woman to appear on the ballot in all 50 states. On Wednesday, Oct. 24, she joined Dr. Omar Ali to have a conversation about poverty and the mental and emotional health problems that poverty can create.
Dr. Fulani grew up in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood, and was the first of her family to go to college. Despite taking this route to become successful, she feels as if the American school system is failing its low-income students and its students of color. Her reasoning as to why this is boiled down to the fact that in the U.S., we treat people in poverty as if it’s their own fault, rather than the circumstances in which they were born.
She feels as if we treat symptoms of the problem of poverty, such as violence or broken households, rather than going right to the source: psychology. In response to this, she rejected many conventional ideas about the psychology behind poverty and set out to create new tools to address the issues head-on.
Her conversation with Dr. Ali began by addressing the state of politics and the socio-cultural atmosphere. Dr. Ali asked, “I know that many people feel like it is hard to stay positive. It is easy to create and destroy, but it is so hard to build. How have you helped people build in your life?”
Dr. Fulani explained, “By having some sense, as a young person, of how much pain people were in. As a child, I experienced a lot of disruption, which influenced me to become a psychologist because I could see how much pain people were in. I think we have to work to change the world that we live in. I passionately wanted to give people the ability to share the madness and sadness in their lives, and people don’t because the stigma is that when people do they feel like something is wrong with them.”
From there, the conversation became a back and forth between the two on the subject.
Dr. Ali: You’ve taught me that many poor people feel like being poor is their fault. Could you talk about how we can challenge this anti-poverty sentiment?
Dr. Fulani: I teach people that being poor is not a sin or a pathology, it is the reality of what is available. What America has done is turn poverty into a pathology, and people internalize that. I teach people that poverty isn’t a personal failing. We need to change the responses to poverty, like drinking, drug use, etc. You have to embrace where you are and that’s where you grow from.
Dr. Ali: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about independent black politics. I feel as if you look at American history there’s this effort to divide and pit blacks and poor whites against one another. What do you think we need to be doing, in a moment where people look at others as completely different from themselves? How do we build bridges?
Dr. Fulani: When I was running for president, there were serious moves to undermine my party, where people in Malcolm X shirts and cowboy hats all came together. During my campaign, I would get letters from white men explaining to me that they had been racist all of their lives, but they were willing and wanted to join my movement. I think the answer to the question was the same thing that these men realized: remembering that we have more in common than we do that separates us.
Left with these words Dr. Fulani set upon the crowd a charge to action. A charge to act as if those around us who are different, are human, in a climate where difference is often persecuted.