Faculty Spotlight: Ben Curtis

Matteo Ricci professor fighting poverty, raising awareness

Written by Tina Potterf
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
September 19, 2013
Ben Curtis wants to do away with some pervasive myths and misconceptions about poverty—namely that those who are impoverished are lazy, unmotivated individuals who aren’t trying to improve their lot in life.

The reality, offers Curtis, is largely the opposite: people who are impoverished may often be cut off from or unaware of the very resources that could help them immensely. Issues of poverty—locally, nationally and globally—are of great interest to Curtis, who is the director of the Poverty Education Center at Seattle University’s Matteo Ricci College.

The center’s objective is to increase awareness of issues of poverty and explore the most effective ways in teaching about poverty within the framework of social justice.

“A main difference between our center and similar centers at other universities is that they tend to focus more on research,” says Curtis. “Research is great and important but at SU, we can focus on how to improve teaching about poverty. What’s most important to me is the ‘action’ piece. What are we doing about poverty?”

In late spring Curtis was part of a group of faculty, staff and administrators from SU who hosted a delegation of educators from our sister school in Nicaragua, Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) to engage in discussion about confronting poverty through teaching, research and service. Thanks in part to these meetings, future collaborations between the Poverty Education Center and UCA in Managua are already taking shape, including internship placements, study abroad opportunities and possibly even joint classes.

Curtis cites the work that the university and some of his colleagues are doing with poverty on a global level. These include immersion courses in Ghana, Chile, Zambia and Guatemala. Together with Sue Oliver of Albers’ Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, he is also working on promoting the culture of social entrepreneurship at SU to encourage students’ creative ideas on how to alleviate poverty.

“These experiences get our students out of the classroom, so they learn about poverty firsthand and think about ways to solve problems related to poverty,” he says.

One project that Curtis is working on is in collaboration with Seattle Central Community College to offer courses in the Humanities to low-income men and women. The program will be a Seattle version of the nationwide Clemente Courses in the Humanities and Curtis sees lasting long-term benefits.

Access to college courses can improve reading and writing skills and critical thinking, “which in turn can improve people’s sense of efficacy and job skills so they can be successful in whatever they choose to do,” says Curtis.

“Regardless of your educational history or socioeconomic level, you should know about Michelangelo, Toni Morrison, Beethoven, Jane Austen…all part of this rich tradition in the Humanities.”

Curtis is also planning a speaker series with leaders from throughout the world who have had success with poverty alleviation. From this he would propose SU hosting a national conference on the pedagogy of poverty, bringing together a delegation of professors from throughout North America to “find out what’s actually working, to have our students hear about their research and success stories, to have it be a much more intensive learning experience.”
Ben Curtis is the director of the Poverty Education Center at Seattle University’s Matteo Ricci College.