What if we abolished poverty?

Abolishing poverty. It's the class title. It’s the center of Honors Program Director Vicky Lawson’s 30 years of research and the community relationships she’s built. Students in Lawson’s course untangle the interwoven complexities that lead to impoverishment. Ultimately they imagine a more positive “what if.” For example, what if systems and institutions really did serve everyone?

What do you understand as homelessness? What do you understand as poverty?

In Part 1 of this story, hear from current and past students of Lawson’s Abolishing Poverty class as well as guest speakers. Read Part 1.

Poverty, as most of us understand it, is the state of being extremely poor. But, for Honors Program Director Vicky Lawson and Geography Department Chair Sarah Elwood, the question is how poverty is created. People are often quick to characterize those experiencing housing instability as at fault, instead of recognizing the racial, social, historic, political and power structures that lead people to be impoverished. In the Seattle area, those factors include unaffordable housing in the city, lack of health and mental health care, gentrification, extreme income inequality and NIMBY — not in my backyard — politics.

Geography professors Lawson and Elwood also illuminate how our understandings of poverty, including the very definition of success — having a job, owning a house, fulfilling the American dream — are the result of complex histories and structures that stabilize white privilege. Our current culture holds individuals entirely responsible for their circumstances, as though history and public policy played no part. Lawson and Elwood show that the people are fine; it’s the systems that need to be changed.

Photo of Vicky Lawson and Sarah Elwood

Geography professors and co-conveners of the Relational Poverty Network, Vicky Lawson (left) and Sarah Elwood (right). (Photo taken pre-pandemic.)

Referencing BIPOC intellectual traditions, Lawson and Elwood explain that the term ‘poverty’ overly simplifies explanations and understandings of lived experiences of impoverishment. They and other scholars call for abolishing poverty — replacing the idea of ‘poverty’ with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the systems that create it.

At its heart, abolition calls on us to imagine “what if?” What if we replaced a broken system with something better? What if institutional and systemic racism no longer existed? How would that impact housing stability, educational equity, access to healthcare and the like?

To broaden the conversation on abolishing poverty, Lawson and Elwood founded the Relational Poverty Network (RPN). The RPN brings together scholars, teachers, activists and policy makers from across disciplines and the world to explore and critique relationships of power and privilege. They examine the ways that policies perpetuate impoverishment. The members run research projects and host podcasts exploring the complexities surrounding houselessness and impoverishment. The Network’s research is published in journals and newspapers to influence policy and advocacy.

The study of poverty is cross-disciplinary and like all Interdisciplinary Honors classes, Lawson’s Abolishing Poverty class brings together majors ranging from STEM to film studies to business. Students also bring the many intersecting identities they hold into the conversation — BIPOC, refugee, immigrant, LGBTQ+, white, straight. They bring with them their lived experiences and understandings ranging from: “that person in the tent is my family member” to “cross the street when you see a houseless person.”

Photo of Vicky Lawson, Jon Williams and Sarah Elwood

Lawson and Elwood celebrate the opening of the Real Change exhibit, “Portraits for Change” with Jon Williams (center), former art director for Real Change. Williams also created the exhibit. The exhibit came to the UW’s Allen Library in 2020, pre-pandemic.

As part of class, Lawson asks students to examine what they know about houselessness and poverty. She assigns students in the class different topics to facilitate class sessions — ranging from the city’s response to houselessness, to mutual aid organizations, to the history of living outside in Seattle to an abolitionist approach to housing justice.

“Students teaching students is very powerful,” explains Lawson. “They are able to pull in examples that feel relevant to 20-year-olds, helping them place the issues in a context they understand.” This context helped many understand their own families’ experiences, from navigating life in America as an immigrant family to complex reasons that contributed to their family’s experiences with criminal justice or housing instability.

“Students came with an open mind,” shares junior Courtney Hooks. “And, in accordance with the Honors Program, reflection was a big topic, as well as the interdisciplinary nature of this study.”

“The work in this class is in noticing the problem, thinking we know about the problem, and then unlearning it,” says Lawson. “That unlearning comes through a historical and intersectional analysis that looks at race and gender and thinks about the way in which Americans have refused to engage the issue of inequality.”

Unlearning poverty is tough work. It asks us to look inward and examine our own understanding and the biases we hold. It calls on us to look beyond ourselves to discriminatory systems and structures. Lawson guides students through this process, helping them discover that the complexities of the issue expand beyond one field. She teaches that solutions come from collaborations with community members — unhoused and housed — who hold wisdom about needed changes. Hooks remembers her classmates taking steps toward relationship building, sharing reflections on their conversations with unhoused people: “Before, that person was demonized and dehumanized for me. But now I see them as my neighbor, and I feel that something really needs to happen.”

Photo of Courtney Hooks

Student recommendations to support unlearning

Students from the winter 2021 Abolishing Poverty class have a couple recommendations for better understanding issues around poverty and houselessness.

Ania Tureczek

Interdisciplinary Honors, Public Health

Reading recommendation: “Homelessness, American Style” by Don Mitchell

“One of my biggest forms of unlearning was developing the understanding that homelessness often does not stem from an individual’s poor decision making, but rather from injustices derived from systemic structures, institutional discrimination and other external circumstances. This article examined this key idea by framing homelessness as a condition that reflects on the shortcomings of our society rather than the individual themselves. It explains why homelessness is more than a problem in itself that needs to be fixed; homelessness is an ingrained and essential component of the American society and economy created by capitalist structures that are meant to benefit one group but fail another group.”


Courtney Hooks (pictured)

Interdisciplinary Honors, Law, Societies & Justice

Podcast recommendation: Outsiders, published January–October 2020

“Homelessness on the West Coast is rising to crisis levels at a time of historic economic growth and prosperity. Why? KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless team spent one year in a city that’s grappling with homelessness. What’s it like to live outside for months on end? What’s it like when tents come to your neighborhood? How can one small city solve a huge societal issue? This is Outsiders. ”
— The Seattle Times

Video still from student video

Student work from the class

Students leading class discussions is a hallmark of the class. Here are a couple examples of students sharing what they learned.

Rehumanizing our neighbors & rethinking homelessness

By Emma Spickard, ’19, and Chloe SanClemente, ’19

This collaboration by public health majors and Honors students Emma and Chloe was a project for a 2018 iteration of Abolishing Poverty and is still used in Lawson’s current class.

History of Houselessness in Seattle (prezi)

By Grace Fredman, Serena Gilani and Conor Miles

This interactive slideshow was co-created by students from the 2021 class and traces the history of houselessness in Seattle from the 1850s to present day.

Front slide of Prezi slideshow

Video recommendations

Here are a few videos from the Abolishing Poverty class as well as related videos from 2020: The Course.

Videos used in the Abolishing Poverty class

The Urgency of Intersectionality

TED talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw

Now more than ever, it’s important to look boldly at the reality of race and gender bias — and understand how the two can combine to create even more harm. Kimberlé Crenshaw uses the term “intersectionality” to describe this phenomenon; as she says, if you’re standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you’re likely to get hit by both. In this moving talk, she calls on us to bear witness to this reality and speak up for victims of prejudice. (Talk given in October, 2016)


(Un)Knowing Poverty

TEDxBerkeley talk by Ananya Roy

Ananya Roy is professor of city and regional planning and distinguished chair in global poverty and practice at the University of California, Berkeley. She also serves as education director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and in this capacity founded and now leads the largest undergraduate minor at UC Berkeley, a program in global poverty and practice. (Talk given in April, 2013)

— TEDxBerkeley


Related videos from 2020: The Course

The Criminal Legal System as a Social Problem

Lecture by Alexes Harris

In this lecture and follow-up conversation, distinguished teaching awardee Alexes Harris shares her research into how people’s interactions with institutions — like the criminal justice system — shape the outcomes of people’s lives. She delves into how those outcomes are different based on a person’s race and ethnicity, gender, income bracket and other identities people hold.


Reimagining Social Care and Racial Justice

Lecture by Vicky Lawson

Among the lessons of 2020, foremost among them is an ever-present reminder of how we are all connected to one another and how the well-being of one person does impact the well-being of so many others. With that in mind, how can we infuse the idea, ethic and concept of care into our politics, policies, organizations, education and day-to-day lives?

Articles and podcasts from Relational Poverty Network members

Find a moment to read and listen to work produced by Relational Poverty Network members designed to deepen and expand our understandings of impoverishment.


New Poverty Politics for Changing Times

A series of timely conversations between poverty scholars, activists and educators focused on questions of inequality and impoverishment.


Articles authored by or featuring Relational Poverty Network members

On Teaching in the Time of COVID-19: “Narrative Reconstructions and Collective Knowledge” // By Ashvin Kini // Journal of American Studies // June 9, 2020

What Black America Knows about Quarantine // By Brandi Summers // New York Times // May 15, 2020

Coalition’s Efforts Amid Coronavirus Derail Plans For New Women’s Prison // By Victoria Law // Appeal // May 04, 2020

From the Dying World to the World we Want // By Nikhil Pal Singh // Boston Review // April 29, 2020

Working multiple jobs to make ends meet: More common in BC than we might think  // By Iglika Ivanova & Kendra Strauss // Policynote // March 6, 2020

‘They’ve been invisible’: Seattle professor studies role of black grandmothers in society // Interview and feature on LaShawnDa Pittman’s research // The Seattle Times // February 2, 2018

Shop Here, Not There: Science Says Reducing Inequality Is Almost That Simple // By Chris Winters // yes! Solutions Journalism // November 20, 2017

An Unending Cycle: While the city wrangles over policy, homeless people are trying to survive // By Real Change’s Ashley Archibald with partnering contributions from the UW’s GIS Workshop // November 8, 2017

What Ethnic Studies Means to Me // By Koji Pingry // South Seattle Emerald // April 25, 2017



We can end this. But we have to do it together.
Jennifer Tee, Deputy Director, Facing HomelessnessTwo Questions, Nine People video

Originally published May, 2021

What gives you hope?

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