Tammy Thompson, Founder of T3 Consulting, is an Expert in the Psychology of Poverty
Tammy Thompson has taken her personal experiences with poverty and transformed them into helping others. She is a dynamic force who understands the power in experience and the power in struggle. Her openness and optimism has led her to become the owner of T3 Consulting, which offers counseling and training in financial literacy and the psychology of poverty. She is also the Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Catapult Greater Pittsburgh, which engages in emergency resource distribution, peer-to-peer support, wealth building, and more to ensure that systematically disenfranchised communities can achieve economic justice.
Can you tell us about your company and about what you do?
I started my consulting business back in 2009. I was really interested in helping specifically Black women get more information about becoming a first time home buyer. I wanted to help people who never thought they would become a homeowner. I have been homeless and housing insecure before, and home ownership is something that I love getting folks connected to. I started working with people I knew who were considering home ownership and who wanted to get the real information that they needed to know. That progressed into working with other organizations. I have always worked a 9 to 5 job, so this was just something that I was doing on the side. In about 2013, I got fired from a job where I was offering financial literacy programming, development programming, and homeownership programming. I decided I was going to do consulting full time and started working with local nonprofits in Pittsburgh that offer homeownership programming, specifically for low income families. You have to have a special skill set to work with people who have been taught that some of these opportunities are not for them. They think they don’t have the opportunity, credit, or income, and I’m here to correct that and tell them that they can do it and here's now. I realized a lot of these nonprofits were doing this without coming from the perspective that I had as a person who had experienced poverty.
The financial aspect of overcoming poverty is extremely important, but the psychological and emotional component is even more important. Some people don’t believe that it’s for them. It’s not going to matter how much education you put in front of them or how much information you give them. If they have been convinced that this is not something for people like them, it’s not going to happen. So, I started developing this psychology of poverty training based on my own experiences. I used to fall into the mental traps that poverty could create. I had a horrible personal relationship with money, so I started sharing my own personal experiences and traumas with a lot of my clients who were coming from similar backgrounds, and people could resonate with that. It changed the way I was offering financial education and the way I was presenting these technical terms and skills related to wealth building. I started developing programming that had at the core of it, the psychology of poverty and people loved it. I started seeing a lot of success through this program from people who felt like nobody had understood where they were coming from before.
Can you tell us about your journey making your documentary?
When I started working with specifically low income women, I realized that there were a lot of people doing the same work that I was doing who did not have a solid understanding of poverty. They weren’t understanding that poverty was not just about money, but a lot more about experiences and how those experiences were impacting them mentally and psychologically. I woke up one morning and decided I was going to make a documentary about these very issues. I have no training or experience in filmmaking, but it was my heart's work and I understood the importance of storytelling. If someone can see and hear a story, it really changes the way that they view a person, or an environment, or a system. We have become so disconnected from the statistics and reports of poverty that we forget that those are real people attached.
I started doing research and figuring out how to make a documentary. It just so happened that I had worked with an amazing filmmaker, Michael Savinsky, who had done some promo videos for the non profit that I was working for. I wanted to partner with him because I could tell that he had the heart for the work. I made a couple of posts on Facebook asking people to share their poverty experience. I was expecting maybe five or ten people to respond, because I know people don’t really like talking about this. Society has created this environment where people feel they should be ashamed, guilty, and embarrassed about living in poverty. We ended up getting almost 60 women who reached out and said they would like to share their stories. We did focus groups and selected three amazing women to participate who were all from Pittsburgh. Everything happened exactly the way that it was supposed to.
I am really proud of this film, which is called “We Wear the Mask: The Hidden Face of Women in Poverty.” We really showed people how hard people are working to get out of poverty. I was really happy that we were able to get it on Amazon and we want as many people to see it as possible. I think it is creating an environment of empathy about poverty that really needs to exist more in this society. We need to be aware of this negative narrative that people are in poverty because they haven’t worked hard enough or they don’t want it bad enough, or they aren’t intelligent, or are just lazy. These horrible negative narratives just aren’t true. This film represents that in a really beautiful way, and it shows how hard these women are working to put themselves and their families in a better situation.
Now, my business focuses a lot on public speaking and lecturing at Universities and conferences, about the topic of poverty. We offer trainings to help folks who work specifically with a demographic of those in poverty to understand the people that they are working with and the layered issues that come with living in poverty. We also help them to understand the policies and systems that help perpetuate it. Poverty is not an individual issue. It’s not about personal accountability all the time. It also takes an understanding of the systems and policies that were created to keep people in poverty. It’s not just enough to point the finger at those who are suffering in poverty, we have to be collectively thinking about bigger solutions.
What does your company do to help combat the systems and policies that exist to keep people marginalized?
I believe that all systems really need an overhaul. If you think about it, all our systems were created in a time where anybody who wasn’t considered rich, or who was a second, third, or fourth class citizen, did not have the same rights. It is intrinsic in the policies that exist, and we have to be aware of that. The very sad part is that the people who are the victims of a lot of these systems, don’t even realize. We do a lot of work discussing history and helping people make the connection between what is happening in their lives and how these systems were built. That is important because the guilt and the shame that a lot of people carry is such a weight that it prevents people from seeing opportunities and possibilities. We have to tear down a lot of the walls and peel back a lot of layers to show people that this may be the life that they were born into, but that doesn’t mean that is who they are. It doesn’t mean it is their forever circumstance. I have been homeless, food insecure, I had a really rough childhood and young adult life that I spent in poverty, trying to get out. I know that the weight of that can be a shackle on how you see the world, and most important, how you see yourself.
How has the shift during COVID affected you and your work?
One thing that COVID really did was highlight and magnify a lot of inequities in our systems. A lot of people that are really struggling now were already struggling pre COVID. A lot of our systems and policies need efficiency changes. We need to be able to get people help easier, and we need to support families in a different way. Our education system is suffering like you wouldn’t believe. Some kids didn’t have laptops so we spent so much time just trying to make sure everyone here had a laptop and access to the internet so they could continue their education. We really need to stay connected to the most vulnerable communities and do better when addressing their needs and COVID has really brought that to light.
We offer a lot of workshops and a lot of our work is one-on-one counseling and because of that, we were immediately able to convert all of our work to a virtual platform. We never had to stop offering our programs. It took time for people to get used to it, but we actually were serving more people in 2020 than our previous two years of operation. Either people now had the time and the opportunity to sit through a virtual workshop, or people just saw a certain urgency. We also ended up serving a lot of people who had never had a need for these resources before. We had people who came in crying because they had to get diapers and formula for their babies and had never had any issues finding those things before. People came who never needed to navigate a food bank or a food pantry before and I think it was tougher for those who had never experienced anything like this before. To be honest, I think a lot of those people were those who had felt negative feelings for people in poverty. When they realized that we all are just one disaster away from needing support and resources, it was tough to face. It is hard to feel optimistic during COVID, but I am hoping that there has been a shift in how people view each other and their neighbors. We can’t depend on our government all the time and we need to be able to offer resources in our communities. If we just give a little bit of what we have to each other then I think we can really change the landscape of what is happening in our communities. We have all been running around in this rat race and not paying attention to what is happening around us. That isolates us and ends up minimizing our humanity. I saw so much love when COVID hit. We partnered with organizations that we had never partnered with before and got tons of donations to support the work. It really was a beautiful spot in a very ugly year to see what can happen when people work together.
Why do you think that some people who have started out in situations of poverty and overcame them, sometimes don’t choose to help?
Society has a way of making people forget where they came from. I have been in spaces where I am the only Black woman, the only Muslim woman, and the only person who has experienced true poverty. People will start talking about these issues in such a negative way and I can choose to do two things: stay quiet and assimilate out of fear of judgement, or I can speak up and say those are my people that you are talking about. I am that person. Unfortunately, a lot of people do choose to judge, and instead of focusing on my work and what I can bring to the table, they are more focused on pitying me. People in this country have been taught to judge, shame, and guilt people in poverty. There are a lot of reasons why people move out of a neighborhood and don’t come back for other people or reach a hand back. They don’t want to be associated with that, or they may be trying to escape their own trauma. They will try to change who they are and alter their persona because they don’t want to be connected to that trauma anymore. I do strongly urge people to tell their stories though. People who are stuck need to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel and sharing stories is the first step to that.
You had mentioned that you are not very good at self care. I wanted to see what you do or what you want to do for yourself?
I am a mother of five. I started having children when I was 17 years old, so I have been a mother for almost 34 years. There really wasn’t time to take care of myself. I was told by society that it wasn’t about me anymore. It doesn’t matter what I wanted or needed, I had to put everything into my children. I also had something to prove as a teenage mother, which unfortunately was geared towards putting my everything into others. I am now 51 years old and don’t know how to take care of myself. It’s baby steps for me. I have to figure out how to turn that off. I realized that it’s not a badge of honor to work into the grave, it is actually detrimental to your mental health. I have committed the second phase of my life to doing some of the things that I like to do and if I don’t know what those things are, I have to be intentional in finding out. I am taking more time off and I hope to be traveling more when it is safe and just enjoying getting to know who I am.
What is next for you and your work?
I am in production for another documentary. T3 Media is the company that we started when we did the first documentary, and we really want to focus on social justice issues; issues that are impacting our communities in a very detrimental way. In the first film, we focus a lot on mothers and single mothers and the impact of that on their lives. Here in Pittsburgh, some of the foundations focus almost primarily on single mothers and children. It is a beautiful thing to focus on, but I really like to dissect solutions and root issues and causes. These mothers did not become single mothers by themselves. This next documentary will give men an opportunity to talk about fatherhood as a Black man in a city like Pittsburgh. I also wanted to point out a lot of the systemic policies that impact a Black man being a father in this country. That has led us down the path of mass incarceration. I can’t wait to tell this story, it’s a beautiful story. The very first focus group we did, I had never seen so many beautiful, strong men just crying and holdin