2014 SXSW Interactive Session Spotlight: Listening to People in Need - Lessons for America

Written by Megan Simpson | February 19, 2014

At SXSW 2014, Megan Kushner explores questions of poverty in America

This installment of the Session Spotlight features Megan Kashner, a clinical social worker and an MBA. Kashner has spent her career walking alongside low-income families in America and effecting change, transformation and innovation in the systems and approaches to addressing poverty and self-determined success. As a social entrepreneur and the founder of Benevolent, she’s uniquely positioned to bring forward the compelling, validated and actionable stories of striving low-income Americans during “Listening to People in Need - Lessons for America” at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival.

SXSW: Tell us about your “Lessons for America.”
Kashner: Wonder what it takes to bring a family out of poverty? Question why a low-income kid doesn't study harder, a cashier doesn't go to night school or why low-wage jobs can be hard to fill? In this Core Conversation we'll explore poverty in America through the words and stories of real people and unpack the myths and realities of low-wage subsistence. By asking low-income adults in America what challenge or opportunity they face, we’ve learned a great deal about what Americans in need really need.

SXSW: Have you ever presented this topic before?
Kashner: I have presented about listening to those in need and about bringing dignity and self-determination to the ways we help low-income American families: at The White House, for TedX, at conferences including the Independent Sector, Council on Foundations, Mashable's Social Good Summit, MediaRise, and SOCAP. I have presented at numerous universities and business schools and have appeared on MSNBC, CNN and HLN. My presentations and messages have been praised and promoted by Jean Case and the Case Foundation, Maria Shriver, and Jonathan Greenblatt of the White House. Jean Case was quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy as saying that my presentation was "one of the most innovative approaches discussed."

SXSW: What kinds of people should plan to attend your session?
Kashner: People who think about income inequality, about the future of our country's youth, workforce and education, about dignity, race, class, difference and progress will all be interested in participating in this Core Conversation. If you believe that empathy is a core human and American strength, you'll want to hear and learn from people's stories and experiences. If you prefer action and change to the frustration of watching income and educational gaps grow, you'll want to join this session. People from all professional backgrounds will gain from this session. People in marketing and retail will want to know how to make a difference alongside their customers. People in entertainment, music and film will want to hear these first-person stories and think about how to bring voices and experiences forward. People in education and policy will want to pause to look at the low-income American experience from the micro-perspective rather than always at trends and commonalities. Anyone who cares about our country's low-income families and their children will want to listen, discuss and learn with us.

SXSW: Why should registrants make attending this session a priority?
Kashner: You should attend this session because you want to hear and learn from the experiences of someone else. Because you're genuinely interested to know what happens when Melissa, a 21-year-old young mom suddenly finds herself parenting her school-aged sisters when their mom goes to jail. Because you're intrigued to know how Tasha wound up with a two-hour train ride to and from her job and her two children's schools when she fled domestic violence and the only safe place was a shelter sixty miles away. Because you want to understand what was required of John before he could qualify for and keep his new job. This session will leave us with some stark lessons for how to really help people reach their goals for themselves and their kids and how respecting and listening to people's experiences and stories brings us more understanding than any generalizations and sweeping statements people make about America's "poor."

SXSW: Is this a session that all SXSW participants will be able to follow?
Kashner: Yes. Every person on the planet has knowledge and experience regarding poverty. Whether we've lived it, witnessed it, walked alongside it or narrowly avoided it, poverty is a global truth. People's stories and the lessons we learn from them are accessible to and relevant for everyone. This session will hold value for people who think about poverty every day as well as those who would like to feel they can know and do more.

SXSW: What is the best book that you have read in relation to this topic?
Kashner: Sasha Abramsky's "The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives" is a striking exposition of he stories, policies and economics behind the lives and experiences of low-income Americans.

SXSW: Here’s a fun one unrelated to your SXSW session - what’s your favorite gadget and why?
Kashner: I love my immersion blender. Foodies and cooks will understand why.

Watch this website for more installments of the 2014 SXSW Interactive Session Spotlight. Click here for the complete list of programming for March in Austin. For tips on interesting sessions to attend, visit the new Recommendation page. Register now to attend “Listening to People in Need - Lessons for America” and other incredible programming at SXSW Interactive 2014.