Playing sheriff: 1 professor, 16 years of poverty education

November 3, 2016

Kuyper’s Social Work Program is renowned not only for the quality of its academic curriculum but also for the practical application of academics in the places where social workers will serve. The following article, originally published on therapidian.org gives a glimpse of how this happens.
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Every fall, Greg Scott dons a sheriff costume and gives his students the opportunity to experience poverty firsthand. He hasn’t missed one in 16 years.

Scott is a professor of social work at Kuyper College and also serves as the Social Work Program Director. All of Kuyper’s incoming social work students take his introductory course. During that fall semester Scott takes the entire class to a local poverty simulation put on by Access of West Michigan—an experience that he says influences their entire career as social workers.

“It opens their eyes to the plight of poverty,” Scott said. “Even a simple thing like going to the grocery store becomes a huge challenge.”

During the 2.5-hour simulation events, attendees are placed in families and asked to assume the roles of low-income individuals finding resources to survive one month in poverty. Scott stresses that it is the physical and personal experience of these roles that is so impactful to his students.

“What they experience is the frustration and the barriers to poverty, and that’s very uncomfortable. And they also get to hear some real, actual testimonies from some of the women that have been in poverty, and that kind of thing is very moving,” Scott said. These last few years, Scott has enjoyed playing the role of Sheriff during the simulation. As students feel pressure to interact with drug dealers, leave children at home unattended, or steal because of lack of funds, the Sheriff represents the local justice system that works to enforce laws and keep peace.

“When you’re poor, and you’re desperate, you have to survive,” Scott said. “You never talk about the future, because you’re only trying to survive for the day.” Sometimes, just as in real life, this desperation leads participants to break the law.

Scott also described the learning experience of other real-life challenges that his students face during the simulation—struggling to receive enough support, being treated like no more than a number to the welfare systems, and the very complex and confusing government systems. These stressors bleed over into family life, causing conflict and continual depression for many families.

“You’re always trying to just stay afloat for that day, and that’s a full time job,” Scott said. By continuing to expose his students to these simulations, Scott hopes to prepare them for their careers as well as change the way they think about people living in poverty. Although the poverty simulations are “rigorous” and “no-nonsense,” they are also conducted with compassion and seek to cultivate true understanding for all participants.

For more information about upcoming poverty simulation events, visit accessofwestmichigan.org and search for “poverty simulations.”