Former Greensboro United Way president believes poverty in city can be eliminated

Newsmakers

GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — There aren’t many times you come across someone who’s an “authority” on any particular topic.

But I’m convinced Michelle Gethers-Clark is an authority on poverty.

She’s lived it. And you get the feeling she’ll never stop fighting to end it.

For the last eight years, Gethers-Clark has been the president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Greensboro. She’s just taken a new job as chief diversity officer for VISA, and will be based in San Francisco.

But because of the pandemic, she’s still spending some time in Greensboro working remotely. And I wanted to tap into her expertise before she left.

What sparked my interest is the fact she’s convinced the city of Greensboro can END poverty. I’ve never heard that before. A lot of people use words like “ease” or “lessen the effects of.” But never something as strong as “elimination.”

I keep thinking back to the lyrics of the musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” In the song, “Everything’s Alright,” Jesus confronts Judas who had just chastised Mary Magdalene for using expensive ointment to wash the feet of Jesus. Judas told her the money used to buy the ointment should have been saved for the poor.

Jesus responds, “surely you’re not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot? There will be poor always, pathetically struggling. Look at the good things you’ve got.”

But Gethers-Clark doesn’t see the challenge as most do. Perhaps it’s because she’s experienced it.

“I grew up in generational poverty in New York City,” she told me. “My family grew up in segregated South Carolina and moved to New York for opportunity, for jobs, for a real chance at life. (I was) afforded the opportunity to go to college, afforded the opportunity to reach my full potential because the community came together and lifted us.”

“I have been the product of generational poverty and I have been the product of corporate success. And I decided to bring those two things together for this portion of my life and give back.”

Part of that “giving back” has been her transforming the business model of the Greensboro United Way.

It now only supports financially local charitable organizations that can prove the work they’re doing will help END poverty in the city.

Gethers-Clark believes this is working, and the United Way has the statistics to prove it. (You can look at the statistics yourself on the United Way’s website. Click on the link at the end of this article.)

But there’s still a long way to go.

“People believe that people in poverty are lazy and don’t work,” she said. “Do you know that most people in poverty work, and they work really hard? The challenge is their wages are too low for them to come out of poverty. So we need to make room so that people can leave poverty.”

In Greensboro, that’s a big task. Prior to the pandemic, 57,000 people lived in poverty. Gethers-Clark believes that number’s only grown since last year’s lockdowns.

Even so, that 57,000 is larger than the populations of the surrounding communities of Colfax, Oak Ridge, Summerfield, Brown Summit, McLeansville and Pleasant Garden — combined.

Gethers-Clark says poverty is Greensboro’s biggest problem and challenge. Among other things, it strains our education and health systems as well as contributes to the high crime rate and lack of jobs. It also slows business development.

“The poor will always be with us,” she told me. “But there doesn’t have to be 57,000 of them. Poverty (in Greensboro) will never be zero, but I believe Greensboro, North Carolina, can be the first southeastern city to eradicate poverty in the neighborhood of 50, 60, 70 percent. And that’s where we have to go in order for that to be material”

But to get there, she says at least two major things need to happen.

One, people should start recognizing and respecting each other’s differences as strengths.

“Because often we minimize or we maximize people based on the color of our skin and not our unique and individual identities,” she said. “And identity is what makes America great!”

And two, Greensboro needs to bring all of its “key ingredients” together to get the job done. She says those “ingredients” include extraordinary leaders, a great philanthropic spirit and the greatest educational institutions in the country.

“How do we galvanize all these resources to do it?” she asks. “And so the message I leave is we are better together. And we can do this! It’s doable.”

Spoken like a true authority.

For more information on the United Way of Greater Greensboro and its mission to END poverty, click here.

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