Co-Director, Family Story Project Mia Birdsong

The Co-Director of the Family Story Project joins us as we commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Poverty Tour.

Mia Birdsong is a family activist currently serving as Co-Director of Family Story, where she is updating the nation’s outdated picture of the American family. She was formerly Vice President of the Family Independence Initiative (FII), an organization that leverages the power of data and stories to illuminate and accelerate the initiative low-income families take to improve their lives. Her 2015 TED talk entitled, “The Story We Tell About Poverty Isn’t True,” has been viewed more than 1.4 million times. Mia has been published in SlateThe Stanford Social Innovation Review and The Huffington Post, among other publications. She is a graduate of Oberlin College, a New America California Fellow, and an inaugural Ascend Fellow of the Aspen Institute.


Tavis: Mia Birdsong is one of the new voices to emerge in the conversation about poverty since our original tour five years ago. Her TED talk released last year titled “The Story We Tell About Poverty Isn’t True” has been viewed more than 1.5 million times and counting. Mia is co-director of Family Story which works to update America’s outdated definition of family, and I’m honored to have you on this program, Mia.

Mia Birdsong: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Tavis: Tell me about this TED talk and what you were trying to get across and, obviously, it worked, given that it’s been viewed a million and a half times and counting, as I said.

Birdsong: I hope so. Yeah, I mean, I think the evidence works as we start to change our policies, right? So I think we have an approach in this country that assumes that the reason that people are poor is because there’s something wrong with them, that they’ve made bad choices or they are somehow broken. And what I always say is poor people are broke, but they’re not broken.

The difference between poor people and people who are well off is money. It’s not initiative. It’s not talent. It’s not a desire to have well-being in your life. It’s really that we have an economic system that is structured in a way that doesn’t allow people to move forward.

Tavis: How then does the definition of family and of poverty need to change? And I got a follow-up to that.

Birdsong: Yes. So we have a way of thinking about family in the U.S. that really–where nuclear families are the gold standard. And by nuclear family, I mean a man and a woman, married, raising their biological children in an isolated house, right?

That family structure we think of as a tradition, right? But it’s not. That’s not what families looked like hundreds of years ago and it’s not really what our families look like now. And when you build systems and policies and structures for a family that looks like that, you really leave everybody else out.

Tavis: Our definition of poverty–you told me this a moment ago. I want to go a little further. How do we change in the minds of everyday Americans the definition of poverty?

Birdsong: Well, you mean like the technical definition of poverty or…

Tavis: I think when people think poverty, they think a picture. If you ask them to think…

Birdsong: Right.

Tavis: You see my point?

Birdsong: Yes. So part of it is that we equate–so the definition of poverty is very raced, it’s very gendered, and it is about family structure. So the kind of epitome, I think, for most Americans of what a poor family looks like is a poor single Black mother.

And there is not sympathy for that family structure because, again, when people think of the hardships that a poor single Black woman is facing, they think that it’s because of bad choices and some kind of personal failing. When we think of poverty, we actually need to expand from the idea of somebody in crisis to what is actually happening in America. I know you saw this when you traveled across the country.

We have half the country living on under, you know, $55,000 a year. The middle class is not actually middle class. People who think they’re middle class are not middle class. So when we think about the people who are struggling in America, it’s actually a much larger group of people.

Tavis: Have you been in any heartened by anything you’ve heard or seen up till now on the campaign trail for the White House?

Birdsong: [Laugh] That’s a long pause.

Tavis: That’s a pregnant pause, yeah. Bernie Sanders didn’t?

Birdsong: Yes. I feel like Bernie Sanders spoke to a segment of the American population that has not been spoken to in a long time. But, honestly, what mostly moves me and inspires me is families that I’ve, you know, talked to and worked with over the last 15 years at this point, whether they are no income, single Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi, or they are struggling two-parent families in Oakland, California.

I see a lot of the same things and those folks have figured out because the systems don’t work for them, they’re constantly navigating around structures that were not made for them. What I see is people working together leveraging their social capitol in order to get by.

Because Black families are framed as broken in America, we don’t actually see that Black families have been trail-blazing in the family space for hundreds of years. So we have slavery, Jim Crow, forced migration and the prison system which are all structures that have, intentionally or not, tried to keep us from staying connected to our loved ones.

And the way in which Black folks makes family is very expansive and it’s not bound by blood or law. So, you know, I’m sure that you have aunties who are not the sisters of either of your parents. Everybody I know, most of the Black folks that I know, have these broad definitions of family.

So they have their fictive kin, right? So we have people in our families and that allows us to get by. That’s the reason that we’ve survived so long in this country because we depend on our communities, and that space between community and family is very fluid for us.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this nor do I want to be conversely heady or high-minded in this conversation about poverty in our country. I want to be right where we ought to be. But is it just these structures, as you keep calling them–I’m glad you finally identified them.

But is it just these structures that are holding families back or are we missing something in the conversation about what’s holding American families back?

Birdsong: I think that we assume that in order to have access to well-being and a good life in this country that you have to deserve it. So we talk about the working poor a lot because that frames poor people as hard-working and that, for the American psyche, means like they’re doing something that they’re supposed to be doing. And this has actually evolved since I did my TED talk last year.

I really think that we actually need to assume that every family in America deserves to live a life of dignity and that they don’t have to earn that. That just by existing, they should have access to the things that give us all well-being. And I think if we had that as our like bottom rung in terms of like what we want for people, I think we’d be asking very different questions about how we move people forward.

Tavis: Politically, though, I hear you and I totally agree. But politically, what does that look like?

Birdsong: That’s a good question. I am not a policy person, so…

Tavis: Policy-wise, what does it look like?

Birdsong: I mean, it could look like universal basic income. It could look like reparations. I think it could look like a lot of things. You know, I think there are a lot of folks who hear that and they’re like that’s crazy and impossible. You know, people wouldn’t go for that. But I also think that we’re at a time when we really need to start being more imaginative and dream bigger. Like think about what do we actually want for each other?

I see kind of the divisiveness that has been revealed from Trump’s candidacy. And while I have my opinions about him as a person, when I look at the folks who are supporting him, a lot of what I see is fear. I can relate to that. I can relate to the feeling that the things that you want for your family are being taken away from you.

Now I disagree with who they think is doing that, but I think that sense that we all actually need to be in this together and we actually need to be thinking about a country that cares for each other as a solution to poverty and as a solution to a lot of things. And I think, if we had that mindset, we would ask very different questions about what policy needs to look like.

Tavis: I want to come back to that in a second, but since you mentioned, Trump over the last couple of weeks we were on hiatus around here, but certainly I was following the news while I was on vacation. And Trump over the last couple of weeks has framed the Black family the way he apparently thinks Black America operates.

And he’s kind of framed it as a downtrodden people, an unemployed people, a desperate people. What do you make of the way that, in the campaign at least until now, he has framed his appeal to these Black poor families that you work with?

Birdsong: You know, I can see that that would be attractive to folks because I think one of the things you experience as a Black person is often the struggles we do face being invisible. But what I actually see is people who are incredibly creative, who are deeply innovative, who are magical and deeply caring of ourselves as communities.

So I don’t think of us as downtrodden. We have to deal with a lot of stuff that we shouldn’t have to deal with, of course. And we are disproportionately represented among the prison population, among people in poverty, among people going to the crappy schools, all of those things.

But that’s not about us. That’s really about America and how America functions. So I’m clear that Black folks in America are not going to be kind of taken in by a message like that about themselves, but also from somebody whose track record clearly indicates that he doesn’t really care about us.

Tavis: Let me get back to this point you raised earlier. I would have framed it this way, that there is in this country any number of different kinds of poverty. One of them, to my mind, is a poverty of imagination. That’s what you kind of intimated a moment ago. There’s a poverty of imagination.

I wonder what it’s going to take for us to be more creative, more innovative, about the way we think and address the issue of poverty and income inequality and economic immobility? I ask that because I could point to 10 other industries where we are thinking as creatively and as innovatively as any people on the planet. But for some reason, we seem stuck or mired…

Birdsong: Antiquated.

Tavis: Yeah.

Birdsong: You know, I am the of the mind that, unless the people who we are looking to support and whose lives we want to improve are actually at the table and have some kind of power in terms of decision-making, we’re not actually going to get the solutions that we need.

Tavis: If they were at the table, what would they be saying to the policy makers? What do you hear?

Birdsong: I mean, I think–so I hear right now you –we don’t give poor people money. We have programs and we have services and there’s a lot of hoop jumping when it comes to accessing like basic things like healthcare and childcare and education. If we just handed out cash and stopped paying lots of folks to navigate and mitigate kind of how people access services and programs, I think we’d be a lot better off.

Tavis: And if I said to you that the powers that be, including many American taxpayers, don’t trust poor people with cash?

Birdsong: That’s absolutely true, and this is our problem because, again, we think that poor people are poor because they’ve made bad decisions as opposed to recognizing that we have a system that doesn’t actually work for folks.

I think that part of it is about the middle class really opening its eyes and understanding that their version of middle class is not their parent’s and their grandparent’s version of middle class. There was a brief period where our economy allowed a middle class family to survive on one income.

That was like, you know, 40 years of our history and that’d didn’t happen before that and it hasn’t happened since then. And I think we really need to be rethinking like what does the good life look like? You know, this is the first generation of folks who are going to be worse off economically than their parents.

What I think we’re seeing is that folks are really redefining what it means to be better off. My friend, Courtney Martin, has just released a book called “The New Better Off”. It’s about how young people are really changing the way we think about how we create family, about what work looks like, what does success mean.

I think as we begin to redefine those things, and I think young people are really pushing for that to happen, we’re going to see more folks at the table who resemble, you know, low income folks.

Tavis: Are you hopeful?

Birdsong: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m a parent, so I can’t have kids if I’m not hopeful. I feel like hope is a form of resistance. Hope is how we’ve survived so long in a country that wants us either dead or in servitude. So I’m always hopeful.

Tavis: Thank you for your work, Mia.

Birdsong: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you on the program.

Birdsong: All right. Take care.

Tavis: Thank you. That’s our show for tonight. Tomorrow we’ll look at the issue of housing with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Goodnight from L.A. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: September 8, 2016 at 5:09 pm