COLUMBIA –From the way she talked, you wouldn't have thought Ruby Payne was one of the more controversial figures in the education world.
Her presentation on class differences at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts on Thursday, which was sponsored by the Heart of Missouri United Way, was lighthearted and casual. The audience of more than 150 people laughed as Payne recounted story after story from her own experiences and others, which illustrated ideas she first published in her book "A Framework for Understanding Poverty."
Payne has made her career detailing what she calls a cognitive model, where class is understood not just by the resources available to a person but also by how they think about those resources.
Those present weren't necessarily there just to hear her views; they were looking to start a conversation in the community on poverty.
Tim Rich, executive director of the Heart of Missouri United Way, said before Payne began that he hopes this to be the first of many presentations on the subject of poverty.
Many members of the audience echoed his sentiment. Rachel Mazzocco, a teacher at Cedar Ridge Elementary School, said before the presentation that she was glad to be opening a dialogue on the topic of poverty. Nick Foster, a hospice chaplain with Home Care of Mid-Missouri, said the goal of the presentation, as well as the workshop to follow Friday, seemed to be to create discussion on the topic of poverty in Columbia.
Jack Jenson, a volunteer with the Heart of Missouri United Way, said he thought Payne presented good ideas, particularly on broadening one's view beyond a personal experience. He said he was interested to see where the discussion would go next.
Within the presentation, there was little to suggest how controversial Payne is in academic circles.
Both of the books she was selling at the event, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" and "Bridges Out of Poverty" have been praised by many teachers, but Payne acknowledged that some have accused her of not backing up her model with statistics. She also has been accused of enforcing class stereotypes and generalizing those in poverty.
She said because the concept is new, it still needs to be studied as a concept before it can be explored in research.
Payne said the reason many poor students fail in school is because their thought process is different from their teacher's, and that difference leads to miscommunication between them. She refers frequently to social cues, or "hidden rules," as examples of exactly how this breakdown in communication occurs.
Community member Steve Calloway said he found the presentation insightful but was still thinking about the ideas presented. He also said he was interested in the role of race in poverty, which Payne did not cover, though she briefly cited a statistic saying 58 percent of the poor are white. According to the 2009 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 61 percent of those below the poverty line were white.
Calloway also said he hoped the conversation would expand beyond just schools to the broader issue of poverty in Columbia.
Foster shared Calloway's feeling. "I hope we find a way to bring people of low income to the table," he said.
For Mazzocco, the importance of starting the discussion could not be overstated.
"Nothing breaks your heart more than seeing a child suffering," she said.