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Sixth-grade classmates’ fates serve as lessons in poverty

Brian Burrow walks through his neighborhood in the West Central area of Spokane. Burrow is examining the neighborhood as part of a post-graduate research project on the long-term effects of poverty. (Dan Pelle)
Brian Burrow walks through his neighborhood in the West Central area of Spokane. Burrow is examining the neighborhood as part of a post-graduate research project on the long-term effects of poverty. (Dan Pelle)

In the 1990-’91 school year, Brian Burrow and 26 other sixth-graders from Holmes Elementary lined up for a class photograph.

Twenty-one years later, Burrow set out to find what had happened to his classmates. He found all but two of those who had been in his classroom, and he tracked down more than half of all Holmes sixth-graders from that year, he said.

In his class alone, four of the kids became teen mothers. One girl’s father killed her mother.

Across all sixth-graders he tracked down, one died in a shooting at a convenience store. Two died from overdoses. One committed suicide. Thirteen dropped out. Seventeen were arrested at some point. Everyone told Burrow they’d at least tried alcohol and marijuana as teenagers.

Just four out of his classroom had graduated from college.

“If you were to compare this to a sixth-grade class from one of the nicer schools, up in Moran Prairie,” Burrow said, trailing off.

Burrow tracked down the fates of his classmates as part of a research project for a master’s degree in business administration at Eastern Washington University.

The problems of West Central, like those in any neighborhood with a lot of poverty, are generally well-understood. But for a lot of us – especially those who pass through only during the final stretch of Bloomsday or on a summer visit to the Cannon pool – that understanding is shallow and impersonal. Easy to ignore.

Burrow would like to make it harder. A West Central resident with deep roots in the neighborhood, he has a somewhat fraught relationship with the place: It’s home, and he can point out its redeeming features, but he’s well aware of the downsides of living in one of Spokane’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

Burrow and his family moved back to West Central in late 2008, after a bankruptcy and foreclosure. Suddenly, his two kids lived on a block where drug sales and violent crime were common. Nearly 100 sex offenders live within a two-mile radius.

“Those are the registered ones,” he said. “They are just the ones that have been caught.”

Burrow does not want to demonize the wealthy or ignore self-inflicted problems among the poor. But he does ask us to consider that children do not choose their environment.

“Why are my children subject to this? Is it fair? Have they done something wrong?”

These kinds of questions sometimes provoke a defensive response among people who don’t want to think too deeply or care too much about the answers. There is a whole rhetorical machine that has been built specifically to crush them. Class warfare. The politics of envy.

Burrow is on the board of directors of Leadership Spokane, the nonprofit that provides civic education to up-and-coming leaders in the community. On a couple of occasions, he’s given a presentation on his research titled “Lessons on Poverty.”

Researchers have studied poverty for years, and advocates have examined root causes and lifelong effects. By this point, there is already a fairly clear answer to some of the questions he’s asking: Poverty does indeed tend to beget poverty. Children born into impoverished families are far more likely than others to wind up in jail, to drop out of school, to suffer health problems and live shorter lives, on and on.

It’s not a life sentence. People do rise out of poverty. But in a broad sense, it’s an affliction that people who don’t know anything about it can glibly underestimate and mischaracterize. Like wealth, once it’s in the family, it tends to stay in the family.

Linda Finney, executive director of Leadership Spokane, says Burrow makes the reality of poverty hard to ignore by personalizing it. In his presentation, he displays a graphic of his block, marking the places where he and his family live. Then he notes the places where drugs are sold and where shootings and stabbings have occurred.

He is still gathering research for his thesis project. Is he learning anything new? It’s possible that he’s simply telling a sadly familiar story in an urgently personal, vivid way. It’s a story that those of us living in relative peace and comfort need to hear frequently.

Burrow hopes that at the end of the project, he’ll have something he can present to decision- makers in government, so they’ll understand a little better than they do, perhaps, who benefits and who is hurt when they cast their votes.

“I want to find solutions,” he said.

So how does Brian Burrow’s West Central story end? Now that he’s back, is he staying?

He smiled at the question. He said there’s a lot more to the neighborhood than poverty and crime. He talked about how he runs past beautiful old homes, massive ancient trees, stalwart people who do their best and help their neighbors. He said he will do his best to help the neighborhood thrive while he’s there, but he’s concerned about his family’s future, his children’s safety, education and well-being.

He plans to move away as soon he can.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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