Reprinted from Fall 2010 GTU Currents
Growing up near Harlem, Laura Stivers frequently saw homeless people. There was much diversity in her grade school and many children from poor homes. When she was eight, her family moved to the state of Washington where she lived in a predominately white suburban neighborhood. The social and economic inequalities she observed as a child and her father’s influence as a Christian ethicist, contributed, she says, to ethics and social justice becoming a focus of her teaching.
This fall Stivers is making a transition from working as dean in the School of Religion at North Carolina’s Pfeiffer University to a new job as chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion and associate professor at Dominican University of California. Her book, Disrupting Homelessness: From Charity to Community, is due out this spring.
“In all of my work, I’ve been interested in the intersections between economic, environmental, and feminist ethics,” Stivers says. “I think you have to start with those who are hurt the most — and they are typically women, people of color, and the poor.”
In college Stivers studied abroad in India, Egypt, Taiwan, and Japan, and she later lived for two years in Costa Rica. In Central America she observed the consequences of structural adjustment — the term used to describe policies implemented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in developing countries. She explains: “Developing countries in debt get loans from the IMF, but to get the loans they are required to dramatically reform their economic and social policies. These reforms include privatization of national entities, decrease of government subsidies for social goods, and promotion of exports at the expense of production for domestic needs. These adjustments have often increased poverty and inequality, and prompted unsustainable practices in agriculture and industry, leading many to migrate for work. Meanwhile, the megabanks earn more interest off the loans than the amount of money they loaned in the first place.”
Stivers’ dissertation addressed the question: What is good development? It challenges readers to think broadly about social and economic justice, and ask, what will create flourishing communities?
In her new book, Stivers revisits this question as it applies to homelessness in America, and she outlines an advocacy approach for churches to use in addressing its multiple causes. Soup kitchens, she says, are not enough. Though they offer hospitality in response to a direct need, Stivers says there is “rarely any theological reflection on whether such actions are liberating for the people who the volunteers claim to be helping.” Learning who the homeless really are (the average age of a homeless person is nine years old, she says), educating people about the issues, and doing advocacy work — such as organizing for low income housing and living wages — “could and should be part of a prophetic social movement to end poverty and homelessness.”
What will create flourishing communities at home and abroad? According to Stivers, it includes meeting basic needs, giving people the opportunity for meaningful participation and leadership in communities, and promoting environmental sustainability.