Helping stem tide of intergenerational poverty

She lived it. Now Donna Beegle works to help others understand poverty, and to escape it.

“I tell people I’m bilingual. I speak fluent middle-class language, and the language I grew up with — in crisis,” the Oregon woman said last week.

Beegle, 52, has a doctoral degree in educational leadership. She taught public speaking at Portland State University. She is now president of Communication Across Barriers, a training and consulting company that offers strategies for fighting poverty.

“Poverty 101” is the title of a workshop she will lead in Everett Sept. 26. That’s the day after Beegle is scheduled to deliver a keynote address, about intergenerational poverty, at United Way of Snohomish County’s Spirit of Snohomish County Breakfast.

Recognizing top volunteers, the breakfast will be held at 7:30 a.m. Sept. 25 at the Tulalip Resort Casino. Spotlighting poverty at its breakfast will follow United Way’s latest initiative to take on the issue. The local United Way announced Tuesday that over the next three years it will distribute up to $330,000 in grants to groups working to reduce intergenerational poverty.

Beegle’s early life was a harsh lesson in family poverty.

“I was born into a migrant labor family,” said Beegle, who lives in Tigard, Ore. “Most of my early memories are from Oregon and Arizona, and a little time in California.”

Her family picked crops. She went to school when she could, but not for long.

Beegle said it’s a myth that Latino immigrants are the only migrant workers. She was born in Arizona, into a struggling American family.

“Poor whites are out there in the fields, too,” she said. “There was never any stability. We were constantly moving. I didn’t have the luxury to go to school more than three months at a time.”

She remembers asking a teacher what a word meant. “She would say, ‘Look it up in the dictionary.’ I would find five more words I didn’t know,” Beegle said.

At 15, Beegle quit school and got married. She had five brothers. Each one, she said, has been incarcerated. “As the only girl, I was sheltered. I had special treatment,” Beegle said. With a mother she described as “unbelievably resourceful,” Beegle said she grew into a resilient person who wanted a better life.

When her marriage ended, she was living in Portland, Ore., with two small children.

An organization referred her to a welfare-to-work pilot program. She learned that although she had struggled with school, life had taught her a lot.

“They didn’t give up on people. I walked out every day a little taller,” she said.

Beegle said her mentor was a University of Portland communications professor, the late Bob Fulford, who taught a course called “Communication Across Barriers.” She was working on her master’s degree at the college when Fulford suggested starting a consulting business.

She eventually taught courses at Portland State. But she and her mentor also created the business that aimed to develop training people in authority how to overcome communication problems arising from poverty and racial differences.

One problem Beegle has seen is labeling poor children as “not very bright” because their experiences don’t fit the norm. “Kids are placed in special education because tests ask middle-class stuff,” she said.

United Way of Snohomish County spokesman Neil Parekh said the “Poverty 101” workshop, scheduled for 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at Everett Station, is for anyone who works with the public in Snohomish County. Participants will learn meaningful ways to mentor, how to communicate better, and why it’s so hard to escape poverty’s grasp.

The goal is to help the helpers, to offer tools for replacing the shame and isolation of poverty with hope and skills for navigating employment or school.

“I work with any group that serves people in poverty. I have trained police, judges and court system administrators. This is my 23rd year of working all over the nation,” Beegle said.

In 2010, the Portland State University School of Social Work dedicated its Donna M. Beegle Community Classrooms in her honor. Last year, Beegle was a panelist for a CNN Dialogues forum on poverty called “Today’s Other America.” Last week, she was in Shelton presenting a program for doctors.

Today, she is far from the dirt-poor world of her childhood. Poverty, though, persists.

“We have a long way to go,” Beegle said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;

Sign-ups for breakfast, workshop, Days of Caring

United Way of Snohomish County’s Spirit of Snohomish County Breakfast is scheduled for 7:30 a.m. Sept. 25 at Tulalip Resort Casino. Donna Beegle will speak about intergenerational poverty. Tickets $30; reservations needed by Friday. 425-374-5570 or

“Poverty 101,” a workshop led by Beegle, will be held 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sept. 26 in the Weyerhaeuser Room of Everett Station, 3201 Smith Ave., Everett. Cost is $25. 425-374-5511 or

Volunteers are needed for United Way’s annual Days of Caring Sept 13-14. Registration due by Friday. 425-374-5549 or

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