April 30, 2007

Benefit Concert Addresses Poverty in Ithaca

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Amidst the head-banging and dancing, the focus of the first annual Ithaca Poverty Awareness Benefit Concert was clear: “To create awareness of poverty — that it’s real and alive out there,” said Christian deBrigard, lead guitarist of Amplication, who played at and helped organize yesterday’s event. Aside from Amplication, the event included appearances by Mubsi, a South African R&B artist, and bands Jimkata and Ayurveda. Several speakers also took the stage.
deBrigard, a co-founder of Ithaca College’s Ithaca Achievement Program, decided to hold the benefit “to make an impact, to raise money,” but most importantly, “to do something physically,” he said, referring to the music blasting just meters away over Ithaca Commons’ Bernie Milton Pavilion.
I.A.P. was not alone in planning the event. Students for Economic Equality president Melanie Serrou also helped get the event off the ground.
S.E.E.’s mission, “To spread awareness of economic disparities in the U.S. and Ithaca, and to work toward economic equality,” hits close to home for Serrou, who “Grew up in poverty,” and “understand[s] what it’s like growing up poor,” she explained. “I didn’t know how much of an issue poverty was in upstate New York until I moved here,” she said.
Serrou said the presence of poverty in Ithaca was not apparent to her upon arriving at Ithaca College because of the makeup of the student body.
“I was shocked … I felt like the only working-class person in the world,” she said amidst references to expensive clothes, sports cars and other objects that made Serrou feel “alienated” when she first arrived in Ithaca last fall semester.
However, after taking a class entitled “Social Movements,” Serrou decided she had to do something in Ithaca which eventually led her to S.E.E., deBrigard and yesterday’s concert.
Serrou’s internship with the Tompkins County Workers’ Center brought her in contact with the Ithaca community as well. Pete Meyers, the organization’s coordinator, spoke about the problems Ithaca and Tompkins County face when it comes to underprivileged, lower-class workers.
“New York’s minimum wage is $7.50 per hour; New York’s living wage is $9.83 per hour,” Meyers said. Living wage, according to Meyers, is “a moral value,” and is what many consider to be the hourly rate that people actually need to live in today’s society.
“If Autumn Leaves can pay living wage, why can’t Barnes & Noble and Target do the same?” Meyers asked, referring to the local used book store.
Meyers then told the story of a woman who “Makes $10,400 a year working at K-Mart” but who “can’t afford health care, and doesn’t qualify for K-Mart’s health care plan because K-Mart only lets her work part-time,” he said.
Ultimately, the problems faced by this woman and others, “Won’t change until workers themselves are motivated to redefine the system,” Meyers said, commenting that large corporations must also do something to effect such change.
Despite whatever effects such companies may or may not have on Ithaca, there are certainly programs in place to help its community members find work and stay above the poverty line. Mayor Carolyn Peterson spoke on such programs.
“[Poverty] has been an issue since I became mayor 20 years ago,” Peterson explained. “We have programs in place that we have adjusted over the years, including helping people pay their deposits to begin securing housing,” she said.
One recipient of Ithaca’s food stamp program is Sarah Carthan, grandmother and caretaker of six children, including one who is paraplegic. Carthan and her family were at yesterday’s benefit, which raised over $500.00 for hers and for other underprivileged families in Ithaca.
“I really enjoyed [the concert],” said the retired Carthan. “It was good to get out of the house — I really am appreciative, from the bottom of my heart,” she said.
Carthan’s life has been one of constant work to support herself and her family. “I’ve worked since I was 13 years old,” she said. Her jobs have taken her from Ithaca’s Atlanta Dental to Cornell Plantations and Noyes Community Center.
After moving with her grandchildren out of a house whose roof had collapsed due to rain, Carthan settled into a three-bedroom, which her son Wayne described as “Too small for us … my grandmother sleeps on the couch.”
In spite of these conditions, Carthan said that “It doesn’t take much to make us happy … we make do with what we have.” Carthan is in the process of pre-approval for a loan to move into a larger home, and has paid off over $15,000 in debt over the years to do so. She has $5,000 remaining to pay off, however. 75 percent of the donations from yesterday’s benefit will go toward the Carthan family to assist them with their debt.
“We take every little thing we can get,” Carthan said.