Skip to main content
Seattle University


Engaging Poverty

Written by Mike Thee
June 19, 2013

You might think that poverty, at least its broad contours, is pretty well understood by the general public.

And yet in talking with Ben Curtis of Matteo Ricci College, it is clear that even some of the most straightforward aspects of poverty are widely misunderstood. Notions on why people are poor, how much international aid the U.S. government dispenses-not to mention how poverty is defined in the first place-are frequently off the mark.

That's what makes Seattle University's Poverty Education Center, which Curtis directs, so important to the campus community and beyond. Hosted by Matteo Ricci College, the center was launched in 2011, having grown out of the Poverty in America classes that have been taught by the college's faculty for 20 years.

Ben Curtis, director of the Poverty Education Center in Matteo Ricci College, is pictured here teaching a class in Zambia.

The center promotes the teaching of issues such as inequality, deprivation and injustice at all levels of education and to a variety of audiences, says Curtis. It provides teachers and students with a deep, humanistic understanding of the economics, politics, history, culture and ethics of poverty in the United States and around the world. Its programs help educators develop effective pedagogical strategies and resources for bringing the topics of poverty and social justice into their classrooms. The center organizes workshops, conferences, seminars, lectures and other events connected to the theme of poverty education. It sponsors classes, research, publications and educational outreach to general audiences.

While a number of universities have centers dedicated to issues on poverty, what makes SU's center distinctive, Curtis says, its multidisciplinary approach. "Poverty should be taught from many disciplines, including political science, philosophy, economics, the arts and so forth. (The center) is an opportunity to break down academic silos and be more intentional about working together to address issues of poverty."

"I am grateful to Professor Curtis for his work on the Poverty Education Center," says Jodi Kelly, dean of Matteo Ricci College. "Under his leadership, the PEC has become the junction where key objectives of a Jesuit education intersect: a place that encourages students' desire to work for justice with the challenge to think critically about the causes and consequences of poverty. The PEC also serves university-wide goals by having students look through multiple lenses--like economics, philosophy, the arts and political science--to build the necessary skills to suggest reasoned, persuasive arguments for policy changes."

SU already has an impressive cadre of faculty who are significantly engaged in teaching or researching poverty. Curtis knows of at least 20 or so professors who teach courses on the subject. The idea behind the center, he says, is to expand and enhance SU's teaching and research of poverty. For students, the center provides opportunities such as immersion programs in developing countries and in the U.S. that allow them to learn about poverty in an experiential way.

And yet the center's reach extends far beyond SU's campus. As one example, the center provides workshops and curricular support for teachers at local Catholic high schools, as they are mandated to incorporate a social justice element into their coursework. The center is also partnering with Seattle Central Community College to deliver humanities coursework to low-income adults looking to restart their academic careers in order to pursue an A.A., and eventually perhaps transfer to SU to complete a B.A.

As part of its outreach to both the campus and wider community, the center sponsors events and programming on issues of poverty. Last month's half-day conference, "Jesuit Universities Engaging Poverty: Perspectives from Seattle and Managua," which the center co-hosted with the Office of Jesuit Mission and Identity, explored opportunities for SU to engage poverty in collaboration with sister Jesuit school the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA). Curtis spoke enthusiastically about the new possibilities that emerged from the conference and marveled at the turnout. "It was amazing that 130 people actually gave up their Saturday morning to talk about poverty."

These are just the sorts of conversations Curtis would like to see more of, especially given all the misinformation out there. He ticks off some of the common misconceptions on poverty such as why people are poor-"Many believe it's the poor person's own fault." Another prevailing thought is that the United States contributes a substantial percentage of its budget to helping developing countries address poverty, with many people putting that figure as high as 25 percent. In reality, U.S. foreign aid is far less-under one percent of the federal budget.

For Curtis, though, the biggest misconception is how narrowly poverty tends to be defined. He argues for a definition that goes beyond simple economics. "(Poverty is as much about) not having your rights respected, not having an adequate education, not having basic health needs met, not being able to control your own reproductive rights. These and others are forms of poverty," he says.

And yet it's not so much the study and teaching of poverty that energizes Curtis. It's how this knowledge is translated into action that he is most passionate about-how students are compelled by a course they took or an immersion experience to get involved in making a difference, or how the research conducted by a faculty member leads to a real-world application that improves the lives of those on the margins of society.

Asked if it's ever difficult to maintain a positive outlook when engaging with poverty so directly, deeply and continuously, Curtis replies, "There are a lot of reasons to be hopeful, a lot of good stories (on how poverty is being eradicated). We really have to tell both stories-here are the injustices, and here's how they're being righted."