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‘I Knew I Was the Only Poor Person’

Read what it's like growing up in a poverty and then stepping into an affluent world.

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I forgot my charger once and absolutely nobody had one old enough to be compatible with my phone.

Meg Elison is a writer from the California Bay Area and a recent blog post of hers blew up because it shone light on what it’s like to grow up in poverty and then step into an affluent world in the tech industry. The whole blog post is a series of things she noticed because she was raised in a different class than her coworkers, who were used to the privilege of having financial security.

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because nobody ever wished me a happy payday. Payday was marked in all caps on my calendar, every biweekly occurrence, forever.

She brought a radically different lens to her workplace because of her background, which allowed her to see the unspoken assumptions and values that her colleagues lived with. These were assumptions and values that her coworkers were unable to see — it was just the water they were swimming in. But for Meg, it was like living in a different country.

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because when I talked about paying off my student loans, people expressed their utter shock that my parents hadn’t put me through (college). Were Mom and Pop simply opposed to public school? Did they disagree with my choice of major? 

We don’t talk about class in this country, partly because we like to imagine America as a place where social status doesn’t matter. The American dream is all about having the opportunity to move up in the material world — we believe that where we came from doesn’t have to determine where we are going. 

But the reality is that class does matter because it shapes the way we approach life. It determines what we think and worry about, how we spend our time, even the ways we can care for our bodies. 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because everyone else had good teeth. 

We appreciated Meg’s post (read the whole thing!) because it reminded us that our differences are important. In themselves, our differences do not separate us — they only become a barrier when we place a value judgment on them. 

Our instinct is to overlook our differences, to focus on our commonalities. But when we do that, we miss recognizing something fundamental and essential about one another. And we also endorse an implicit set of values that correspond to the way the majority thinks. If we don’t make room for other perspectives, those values can become oppressive and exclusionary. 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I was afraid to seek mentorship from anyone above me, convinced that even asking would seem like bothersome begging. I watched the people around me network effortlessly, assured of favors and good words put in. I could only think in terms of what I could offer and how I could survive; they were thinking on the next level where they never had to wonder if they were good enough.

The truth is that we are all good enough for the American dream — if it is a dream that gives us the opportunity to be fully ourselves.

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