Overcoming Poverty, Increasing Access, and Moving toward the Future

by Joshua Frank – 

This spring, Fulbridge asked ETAs to write about the theme of diversity– “the condition or quality of being diverse, different, or varied; difference, unlikeness” – in their grant experiences. This summer, ETAs from around the world share how the grant year has changed their perspectives on diversity. Read the full series here. 

This piece was written by Joshua Frank, 2016-17 ETA in Malaysia.

One of my earliest memories as a child is of an unexpected bus trip to Minnesota. We were driving down to see my dad fight in United States Boxing Association Championship, where he would be facing off against an undefeated boxer. I remember seeing both fighters in the arena pound each other as their legs shook from exhaustion. My dad refused to sit down during break time in between rounds. He ultimately won, but he had a bloody bout, suffering permanent damage in his jaw as a result of that feud.

As a first-generation African American, I grew up with my family in one of the poorest areas of New York. My parents immigrated from Guyana, an often forgotten country that sits next to Brazil and Venezuela. My father believed that his ticket to the American Dream was becoming Guyana’s first boxing world champion. In the IBF World Championship, I watched my dad clash again, seeing him sustain another serious injury. These struggles my parents experienced were an early lesson in seeing the impossible circumstances poor people have to overcome in order to live better lives.

To me, diversity means a continued awareness of people who are on the opposing end of economic prosperity in America and around the world. Understanding diversity worldwide means truly looking at the complex challenges of poor people, and being conscious of the pressures and ideas that underrepresented groups experience. This year, these lessons could not be clearer as I reach the midpoint of teaching in Malaysia.

As a Fulbright teacher, I was assigned to a rural area in Terengganu, a state on the east coast of the country. I first arrived in Terengganu during flood season, when it was common to have rain pour from above several times today. As I traveled to my placement for the first time, I noticed that Malaysia’s normally beautiful blue waters were instead a gloomy brown color. The flooding season had changed the entire area, sometimes swallowing trees whole with water. Goats, cows and hungry cats reminded me all too much of life where my parents grew up in Guyana, nearly on the other side of the world. People often looked at me with curious and confused stares. With laughter, my mentor explained that there were confused as to if I was Malaysian. I was warmly introduced by my school, and showered with rice, fried food and various vegetables. These were all foods that I had eaten when I grew up with my family, and common throughout the West Indies as well. My school prodded me with questions about what life was like in America, and they were surprised when I pointed about similarities between their culture and West Indian life. These countries have deeper parallels. I realized that they are both post colonial societies with complicated narratives. Malaysia’s continued strong economic growth masks the struggles of people who live in poor areas. 85% of rural Malaysians live on less than $1600 each month. Like the United States, Malaysia struggles with the beneficiaries of growth within its country. As a teaching assistant, I saw how these problems played out within many families. My school, for example, has nearly 1000 students from rural communities in the area, and I am exposed every day to how problems within Malaysia shape its future.

Defining diversity with an awareness of poverty has also enabled me to see very similar challenges between Brooklyn and Malaysia. In both places, I found that people had lost hope in improving themselves based on systematic opportunities. Early into my experience as a Fulbright teaching assistant, I asked my students to describe their perceptions of Malaysia. The students’ responses spoke of bleakness and disinterest in where they grew up. Yet my students eyes lighted with fire and their faces beamed with smiles when we spoke about other parts of the world, especially Paris. This reminded me of my friends where I’d grown up, many of whom also spoke very poorly of their circumstances. From an early age, my friends believed that a lack of opportunities for blacks had put them into a permanent underclass. I would often hear stories about fights at their schools and a fixation on everything but learning. Like my dad, they turned their attention to sports as an outlet for stress and to gain a higher socioeconomic position.

This awareness has also sprung from watching my students in Malaysia talk about their lives as well. My host school invited graduates who performed well on the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM)– the parallel of the SAT in the United States– to speak with students who were only weeks from taking the exam. Nearly 100 students, showing signs of fear and tire, packed into a room in front of the speaker. She was nervous, giggling on occasion, but had a firm resolve in her eyes as she set up a Powerpoint presentation. She became emotional as she began to describe her motivation for success, which was defiance of a cultural norms around her. It was almost as if I was hearing my own voice over a microphone. When I grew up, I had a similar attitude of trying to reach for the better. She pointed at the passivity that living in rural parts of Malaysia could create, and the amazing world of chance that existed just moments away. I noticed a soft and understanding sadness in the eyes of the other students as well. Because of my experience, I have begun to see the universality of how poor people conveyed concerns and struggled with personal battles.

When my parents immigrated from Guyana, I think they shared many of the same concerns and hopes that my students do in Malaysia. These ideas and experiences are stretched across time, and in two countries that people would never otherwise compare. But there are undeniable parallels and truths in the challenges people face. When I walk to school, I occasionally see many local Malaysians operating  small family-owned businesses. It makes me think back to my uncles, who banded together to keep boxing alive in the family by starting Uprising promotions, a boxing business. Many of my students are resigned to the idea of continuing life where they live instead of going elsewhere. These similarities aren’t just a coincidence. They are continued systematic problems that the working poor face to survive. Understanding diversity as a consciousness of such people’s lives will enable us to see otherwise looked over similarities in distant cultures.

Diversity is important because we have to institutionalize more access for people. My grant is nearly halfway done, and I have started to reflect on what being a cultural ambassador will mean once I return to the United States. Raising awareness about diversity’s importance is something that I want to do for the rest of my life.  I think the first step in doing this, however, is to show others how people can have similar experiences despite differences in geography, culture, and religion. When we are more aware of diversity, we can begin to have conversations about how to shape institutions to improve opportunities, to create a world where we can inspire people to feel as if they have a voice as well.

Joshua Frank is a 2017 ETA in Terengganu, Malaysia, where he teaches secondary school. He attended Trinity College from 2012-2016 through the Posse Foundation, a merit scholarship program that sends student leaders to colleges in supportive groups. Josh studied political science in college and wrote a thesis about higher education in America and China. Josh’s family lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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