On September 16, 2014 the Columbia College Philanthropy Leadership and Community Engagement (PLACE) Fellows hosted documentary film maker Harry Gantz in conjunction with the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina and United Way Association of South Carolina. The event was held at the Speers Auditiorium on the campus of Columbia College.
The PLACE Fellows Program is a unique, four-year partnership with the Sisters of Charity Foundation and Columbia College designed to increase students’ awareness of the impact of philanthropy on community nonprofits. These students have been charged with finding their “place” in the community in which they will be volunteering and living. For many, that community is Eau Claire, 29203.
The documentary film, American Winter, focused on the lives of eight families in Portland, Oregon struggling in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The film represents an intimate snapshot of the state of the economy as it is playing out in the lives of American families, and according to Gantz, “highlights the human impact of budget cuts to social services, a shrinking middle class, and the fracturing of the American Dream”.
Dispersed between these stories of families are reflections from social service providers, religious leaders and local representatives. These voices offer one similar thought: numerous middle-class Americans are closer to poverty than they recognize.
In an era where corporate profits have skyrocketed to over 400% and personal income has increased 5%, these middle-class families are struggling to meet their basic needs, and many formerly middle class families are finding themselves in financial crisis, and needing assistance for the first time in their lives. Meanwhile, the social safety net that was created to help people in difficult times has been weakened by massive budget cuts, creating a perfect storm of greater need and fewer resources to help families in trouble.
Following the viewing of the film, Gantz led a discussion where students, professors and community members were able to discuss the core causes of this economic crisis as well as possible solutions. It was an opportunity for the PLACE Fellows to learn of the plight of so many in the country and “connect the dots” for their service work in their local community.
A common theme with participants of the discussion was relationships. Those of all ages agreed that to begin to fix these problems, relationships between strangers and relationships between social workers is where it needs to start.
Gantz is touring across the U.S. to share this story with other groups focused on poverty. As it was said during the discussion, assembling a group of people passionate about an issue like poverty is only the beginning of a movement.