Speaker challenges poverty with dignity

In another life, Ismael Hernandez could be a passionate communist revolutionary living in Puerto Rico or Guatemala, fighting tooth and nail for the suppression of free enterprise and the downfall of the American establishment. He could follow in the footsteps of his father and many like him, angry at perceived injustices perpetrated on his community by average folk like you or me. His life, however, has not played out this way, to the benefit of the public as a whole. He is instead a prominent author, speaker, political scientist and founder of the Freedom & Virtue Institute. On April 8, Mr. Hernandez spoke in Winants Auditorium in Graves Hall about his experiences and the dramatically different ways he would have us consider poverty.

Mr. Hernandez, a Hispanic black man, began with a heavily abbreviated version of his life story, which is drawn out more extensively in his 2016 book “Not Tragically Colored.” Jokingly, he referred to himself as a “red diaper baby,” raised in the tradition of his father’s strong anti-capitalist sentiments. He eventually came to the United States to study political science, which he believed would enable him to fight democracy at an institutional level. Things changed when he was granted a hefty scholarship, the first inkling in his growing belief that perhaps “the system” was not out to get him. Over the years he would receive his masters from the University of Southern Mississippi, meet his future wife Crystal and have three children. While highlighting the fervent and worthy drive we have to feed the poor, we fail to really help those in need, cherishing the “warm fuzzy feeling” we get after things like food drives over the actual impact. In emphasizing the “unique and unrepeatable individual,” he questioned things such as school supply mass donations, recalling how children in need who feel catered to may become numb to donations.

After founding several “selfreliance clubs” in low-income schools and his institute, Mr. Hernandez spoke with pride about teaching children to farm. They then sold their crops and gratefully received their paychecks at the bank, opening savings accounts, which they used to buy their very own school supplies. Mr. Hernandez said that, while emergencies should get swift alleviation, government welfare solutions tend to ignore the personhood of the very people they try to help. Paraphrasing from his analogy: “Imagine you encounter a poor person on the street, and you give them your sandwich. You’ve built a bond with them; they Instagram treasure your gift! But imagine instead a government agent snatches your sandwich and absently hands it to the same man. That’s not compassion, you see?” Hernandez questioned who is capable of speaking for the black community: “Do I get to speak for you? I want to know what yout think!”

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