We Are Not Poor

| | General Leadership

Following is an excerpt from my father, Jim Ernst’s, memoirs. I am sharing it here because in his story lies a wonderful demonstration of the power of our beliefs.

“We didn’t have much food in the house. We lived in a one family house in Baldwin, NY on Long Island. I was born during the depression, and there wasn’t much call for house painters, which happened to be my father’s line of work. He drank most of what little he was able to make when he did get some work. Very little remained and was available for food. There were many nights when I remember going to bed hungry.

I think I was about 5 at the time. We had just moved into a six family house in Brooklyn, NY. My grandmother owned it and the rent was only $5 a month because my Momma was the janitor. I heard my folks talking about the fact that we had lost the house in Long Island due to foreclosure. An auction followed. I only found out much later what those words meant.

I began roaming around my new neighborhood, which was lined on both sides of the street with attached three or four floor tenement buildings. One day I heard some people talking about something called “Relief”. That happens to be what they called Welfare back then. I quickly ran home to my mother to tell her about it.

“Just think, Momma, if we applied we could get money for food, and even for rent.”

My Momma sat me on her lap and quietly explained to me that “relief” was for the poor people. I grew up in that railroad style cold water flat thinking I was not poor. To this day, I believe it was the truth as she saw it from her point of view. She was a very proud woman.

So while we didn’t get relief we got a hard working Momma instead. She went out late in the evening to clean office buildings to get enough money to put food in our mouths. That was my Momma.”

My dad went on to create a financially secure life for himself and his family. So did his sister. And so did his 3 cousins who lived upstairs from them. I don’t know the specific statistics for their neighborhood, but I am willing to bet they beat the odds. I also believe it is no accident that these five particular individuals changed their circumstances.

In talking with all of them through the years they share at least two beliefs in common: the belief that they are not poor and the belief that they are 100% responsible for their own lives.

My grandmother’s circumstances took a very unfortunate turn. Yet she stayed true to her beliefs and her own standards for integrity and dignity. Perhaps she could have accepted relief and made all of their lives easier at that time. She certainly did not begrudge others from accepting the help.

Instead it seems she gave them a greater gift – the gift of believing they were not poor so that some day they would no longer have to be.

As leaders our beliefs have the power to shape the worldview of the people who are following us. What beliefs are you leading with?


Enter A Comment

ava diamond   |   06 October 2009   |   Reply

Great story, Susan. I’m from Westbury, by the way, not too far from Baldwin. My sister still lives in the house we grew up in.

I absolutely agree that our perceptions create our reality, and that leaders are charged with expanding the thinking and the perceptions of the folks they are privileged to lead.

When I speak to leaders, I talk to them about “painting the picture” (the vision) for their folks. I talk about making it big, and bold, and making it so real for them, that they begin to be able to imagine themselves in that picture, in the new reality.

It’s the leader’s job to help people see how big they can become, and to expand their perceptions about what they can accomplish.

It’s the leader’s job to help people see that they are 100% responsible for their choices, and for their results.

It’s the leader’s job to hold true to the vision of what’s possible.

And it sounds like this was done so well in your family, Susan. Thanks for sharing the story.

Susan Mazza   |   06 October 2009   |   Reply

Well said Ava!

Colin Lewis   |   06 October 2009   |   Reply

Susan you always have a way of stopping me in my tracks and you have done it again….I will be reflecting on the ponts you raise for a few days I am sure…Ava and Mike’s comments say so much and I would add Mike Todd’s quote “Many times I have been broke, but I have never been poor”.


Susan Mazza   |   06 October 2009   |   Reply

Thank you Colin. Great quote. I look forward to hearing about what you discover in your reflections!

Sue Seiff   |   07 October 2009   |   Reply

Thank you for sharing your dad’s story, for providing so much inspiration, and for being my friend.

(couldn’t resist using the nicknames.)

lawrence berezin   |   07 October 2009   |   Reply

Wonderful, poignant story. Our Dads have a great deal in common. I think a leader makes an implicit promise to the people he leads, that she will help them grow professionally and personally.

I love to mentor people, teach them how to learn, and develop skills from all the resources that surround them. I begin my focus on the weakest member of the team; and the quality I work on is generally, self-confidence.

Great post. Love reading your stuff.

Rebecca   |   07 October 2009   |   Reply

I found you through a mutual friend, Sue Seiff. Your dad’s story hit so close to my heart. Thank you for sharing it. My parents raised 10 kids on a farmer’s income. And yet I never felt anything but comfortable. Never wanting. And yet, looking back, I had so much less than most people at that time. It’s a powerful realization. My parents did a fine job of shielding me from the perspective of others and instead offered a dignified and hopeful point-of-view that allowed me, as well as my 9 siblings, to reach for an American Dream of our making. This, for me, is such a simple and powerful idea that your father bestows: our way of communicating the reality of what we want to be to our next generation; our chance to lead the youth of today to become the hope of tomorrow; our obligation to teach these gifts and not to expect them to be taught by others or to be a natural development.

Thank you for this. I think there are some wonderful applications of this philosophy, especially when it comes to our young girls, who need the leadership more than ever, now.

Wonderful to “meet” you and thanks!

Kellie Garrett   |   04 June 2012   |   Reply

Susan, this is a great story that shows our beliefs shape our thoughts, and our thoughts shape our actions, and our actions shape our lives. Thanks for the reminder!

Susan Mazza   |   04 June 2012   |   Reply

Thanks for stopping by. “Our beliefs shape our thoughts, and our thoughts shape our actions, and our actions shape our lives” – well said!