Senior hosts poverty exhibit downtown

By Jason Burger, Assistant News Editor

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OBU grad Madison Roach (far left) and student Katie Ward (second from left) discuss poverty with community members in Shawnee at the public library. / Jason Burger, The Bison

Last Thursday, an event led by OBU senior Katie Ward and OBU graduate student Maddi Roach helped raise awareness and discussion about the issue of poverty in the Shawnee area. 

The event, which was held at the Shawnee Public Library, was a part of Ward’s senior thesis project.  With help from Roach, they aimed to create an art exhibit that humanized poverty statistics and promoted empowerment through story sharing. 

“The point of this event is to humanize the statistics of poverty within Pottawatomie County,” Roach said. 

“We really want people to understand that other people’s stories are really significant.  A lot of times, we see somebody and we have a lot of preconceived notions about their background, but this [event] is just really humanizing and it helps us engage other people well.”

Ward also said wanted to get people to empathize with those that are struggling in poverty.

“One of our main goals is for people that come to the exhibit, the visitors, to better empathize with the individuals they are encountering and to realize, ‘These are my neighbors, they are not so-and-so that I just see on the street, I know them, they are just like me, they are people too,’” Ward said.  “By better empathizing, I hope that people will be inspired to do something about this.  I hope people will be encouraged to action.” 

With the posters on display at the event, encouraging people to action was an obvious point of emphasis.  Numerous posters and images of people facing poverty were on display, including one exhibit about Shawnee resident Terry Bowen, who has struggled his whole life due to mental disabilities and spinal meningitis. 

“I didn’t grow up at home, I grew up at a state school for the mentally handicapped,” Bowen said. “I was classified as being, so called, ‘borderline mentally handicapped,’ but I’m not.  I’m mentally disabled, there is a big difference.  I’m a little bit [mentally] slower than anybody in this room, but once I catch on to things, they usually stick.” 

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A part of the exhibit displays photos of Terry Bowen. / Jason Burger, The Bison 

Bowen then discussed the broken system that he was thrown into at a young age, due to his disabilities. 

“When I was eight, my mom got my dad to sign the papers to put me in Pauls Valley School.  They’d hire anybody off the street to take care of us.  They didn’t care about us.  Not a day went by that somebody wasn’t getting beaten,” Bowen said. 

The event at the library also included a panel discussion, which included members and leaders of several nonprofit organizations in the Pottawatomie County area who devote their work to lessening the impact of poverty on people that need help.

Steve Palmer, a leader at the Salvation Army in downtown Shawnee, pointed out the seriousness of the issue of poverty in the area.

“It is very serious.  Just the stats show us that about 25 percent of the people that live in Shawnee are in poverty, and live below the poverty line.  It is also obviously much higher than that in a practical sense,” Palmer said.  “What does poverty look like? It is a lot of people struggling to have a good quality of life.  These people have very few options to move forward in life and to really enjoy their life.  It also looks like a community that is fragmented, and struggling to really come together and be a sustainable community where everyone can live well.” 

At the end of the event, Katie Ward also pointed out that her experience and knowledge gained at OBU inspired her to create the Owning Poverty event. She encouraged other students to use their fields of study in practical ways.    

“This is my senior thesis exhibit, so doing a thesis project doesn’t just mean you are doing a long research paper, it can also mean you find practical ways to impact the community while still doing research,” Ward said.  “This is my practical application by interacting with the community.  My classes have inspired me to find ways to apply my knowledge, so I’m still maintaining the academic rigor, but I’m also applying what I have learned.”

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