A panel of academics and social justice advocates traced a lineage of deprivation from the pickpocket gangs of Victorian England popularized in the literature of Charles Dickens to the numerous children in today’s Pine Bluff who are faced with chronic hunger.
Rev. David Fleming of First United Methodist Church served as panel moderator for the discussion held at the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas Thursday evening in advance of the Center’s production of the musical Oliver! in late July.
“Charles Dickens was one of the first novelists to use social commentary in his fiction,” Fleming said. “His father was put in debtors’ prison when he was a boy and he was sent to work in a shoe blacking factory at the age of 12. This experience made him a strong advocate for the poor and especially the poor children. He began to use the arts to comment on contemporary issues.”
Susan Coles is an English teacher at Sheridan High School and provided historical context on early 19th century England.
“The book, Oliver Twist, is of course set in the Victorian England experienced by Charles Dickens,” Coles said. “At the time there was an upper class that never worked, a middle class that worked but also had time for other pursuits, a working class divided into skilled and unskilled laborers, and a vast unemployed underclass. The middle class decided that if a person can’t take care of themselves then they must be immoral or evil. There were no labor laws and children were put to work in coal and shale mines as well as textile factories; dangerous jobs that maimed and killed many of them.”
Coles said that this was the environment Dickens grew up in and created a determination in him to expose the plight of the poor through his novels.
“At one point his family could no longer afford to send Charles to school so he began to wander the streets of London, especially the slum areas,” Coles said. “Through his novels Dickens wanted readers to know that poor people are not naturally evil people.”
Coles next summarized the Dickens novel Oliver Twist, explaining that the orphan Oliver grows up in a precarious world that eventually finds him unwittingly becoming part of a gang of young pickpockets run by the sinister Fagan. Coles went on to describe Oliver’s attempts to escape the gang.
Leslie Peters of the Boys and Girls Club of Jefferson County brought the conversation to the problems facing poor children in Pine Bluff.
“Arkansas has the second highest poverty rate in the nation and 2010 figures show that 27.3 percent or 190,538 Arkansas children ages 18 and under are living in poverty,” Peters said. “I bet that was information you didn’t know. Of the children who we serve at the Boys and Girls Club, 78 percent of them come from female single parent households and of that number 51 percent of them have had no more than two consecutive years with their fathers.”
Peters said that when a typical child leaves the Boys and Girls Club on a Friday afternoon the food that they received will be the last meal they eat before going to school the next Monday morning.
“Hunger equals low attention spans,” Peters said. “People think that these kids just don’t want to learn. But I tell people to imagine how they would feel if when they left school at 3 p.m. their next meal wasn’t coming until Monday morning?”
Peters said that a cycle of poverty is created when young children have no role models in their lives to demonstrate the benefits of an education.
“We start with five year olds at the Boys and Girls Club,” Peters said. “Many of them already view education in a negative manner. Few of the people they interact with have a high school diploma and none of them have a college degree. Our concept of character is different than theirs. That is the face of poverty.”
“In the book Oliver didn’t know what he was getting into when he became of the pickpocket gang and today our five and six year olds don’t know what they are getting into but they want to belong,” Peters said.
Steve Nawojczyk was Pulaski County coroner during a time of rampant gang violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is now with the Arkansas Division of Youth Services.
“Crime increased by 300 percent while I was coroner,” Nawojczyk said. “We saw that the gangs in Little Rock — like the gang in Oliver Twist run by Fagan — added to their numbers by recruiting teenagers who we say belong to the 5-H club; hopeless, helpless, hungry, homeless and hugless. Fagan, the gang leader in Oliver, lured boys into his gang by offering them a roof over their heads and something to eat. Gangs today seduce young kids by giving them money for their family and the next thing you know they’re on the street corner selling drugs.”
Nawojczyk said that mentors are critical to keeping children out of the clutches of gangs.
“Kids can’t be what they don’t see,” Nawojczyk said. “If they are able to spend time with a mentor their horizons are expanded and they can see a future beyond what they have known. Gangs are sub-societies created by people who think that the larger society does not want them. We have to tell them that is not true.”
Fleming introduced Karen Palmer, executive director of the CASA women’s shelter.
“The character of Nancy in Oliver Twist loves Bill Sikes with all her heart even though he is abusive towards her,” Fleming said. “She does what she can to save Oliver from Fagan even though she knows that this could cost her her life. Karen Palmer works to help women like Nancy every day.”
Palmer started off her remarks by saying that one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetimes.
“Abuse can be emotional, economic, physical and sexual,” Palmer said. “Since CASA opened in 1982 we have housed 7,000 women. Every day 37,000 women seek the safety of a shelter in the United States. Alabama became the first state to take away the legal right for a man to beat his wife in 1871. The first shelter was opened in Maine in 1967.”