Monday, July 15, 2019

Book Recommendation: "A Day at the Fare"

I'm really excited about an author talk on our agenda at the RESULTS International Conference this year. Pamela Covington, author of "A Day at the Fare: One Woman's Welfare Passage" told an incredibly compelling story from her book. Her book was on my summer reading list, and I just completed it a few weeks ago. I truly appreciated it and highly recommend this easy-to-read, relatable narrative. It perfectly illustrates two things a lot of Americans struggle to understand: why it's so difficult for a woman with children to leave a loving relationship that has turned dangerous, and how difficult it is to navigate (and leave!) the U.S. system of financial assistance for women who need help NOW.

Her journey is a living nightmare for many women this very instant and an unspoken lurking nightmare for any unemployed mother who relies on the salary of a partner. Ms. Covington herself fell into that second category as she was raising two kids in a committed relationship with a comfortable, dual-income, suburban lifestyle. I encourage anyone to read it, especially if you are a cis-gender man who will likely never be in her situation or a woman who thinks she won't be. It's an important read for creating understanding and empathy.

Here are a few things that jumped out at me about her journey in poverty...

Pamela Covington telling stories
Small Decisions Can Have Devastating Impact
In the beginning of the book, Covington relates the harrowing time when she had to flee her home for the safety of her boy, her baby, and herself with only $900 in her pocket. She had to pack and prepare for her departure in secret, then try to leave quickly. In her haste to depart before her partner came home, she packed all her clothes and those of the kids first, so they ended up in the very bottom of a packed-to-the-gills car. Certainly, she wasn't thinking at the time that it would take days to find a safe place for them to land long enough to even unload to the point of finding clean clothes! Small mistakes balloon in size when you don't have money.

Common Mom Problems Can Escalate to Crises
In another instance, she related a story about how she simply forgot to take her diaper bag with her on a winter day. This is where it got super-relatable to me as I remember feeling helpless one afternoon far from home in downtown, wintery Chicago when I had a baby with me for my first outing alone with her...and I forgot to bring the diaper bag. I totally see how this unfortunate thing can happen. How did I get out of it? I scrounged around in the car to find one stray diaper and just sucked up the cost to buy what I needed for the afternoon. But for a mom no spare money in her pocket and using public transportation on an important errand to access more financial resources for the whole family...there's no backup plan. Her story of feeling desperate at the bus stop while her baby's full diaper came loose and fell right out of his pants hit me right in the heart. Especially when NO ONE at the stop offered to help her in any way.

Attitudes of Aid Providers Make a Huge Difference
Throughout her story, Covington encounters many people whose job it is to help her through the system of assistance. An Urban League employee helping her find her first apartment, a YMCA staffer, welfare case workers...they all have parts to play in the maze of assistance, but how they relate to people they serve can uplift a person with dignity or eat away at a person's precious self-confidence. The descriptions of how Covington felt as she interacted with each person showed me a new perspective on the power of kindness offered in the right place at the right time. I have recommended this book to several clergy leaders. It can help congregations think about meaningful ways to provide a quiet intervention of kindness when it's most needed by someone in a tough situation.

The Rent Eats First
Covington herself doesn't use the phrase "The rent eats first" in the book, but her story certainly contains a real-life illustration of what the phrase means. It is so vitally important to have a safe place to rest, clean up, store valuables, and care for children, that rent must come before any other considerations...even food. Unfortunately, that means that unless you qualify for housing assistance (which can take months to receive after application), a huge percentage of any money you are able to get goes straight to the rent. Today, low-income American renters pay an average of 70% of their income to housing, leaving a small piece of the pie for all food, heat, electricity, diapers, sanitary supplies...things many Americans can't even imagine going without for more than a week.

What Can We Do??
This last matter of rent is becoming more and more of a crisis for the United States. According to Harvard researchers, rents have risen by 61% since 1960, but renters' median earnings have gone up only 5%. This week, RESULTS volunteers will go to Capitol Hill with housing on their minds. We'll be asking for members of Congress to consider a "Renter's Tax Credit" for low- and moderate-income renters. A renters' credit would limit rent for low-income families to 30% of their income and provide a tax credit for the balance above that to local fair market value.

If YOU would like to help us take action on the American Housing crisis, call your members of Congress on Tuesday, July 16 and leave them your version of this message: "We subsidize housing via our tax code, but by subsidizing wealthier homeowners rather than renters. Will you support renters' credit proposals to help low-income Americans?"


Thursday, July 4, 2019

Reaching out to Congress is Patriotic

Photo: Cynthia Levin

UPDATE: This blog now contains links and references to a newly released report by the US Inspector General.

Happy Fourth of July! Today, while we celebrate our freedoms with parades and fireworks, let's not forget that one of our greatest privileges as Americans is the ability to contact our elected officials (emphasis on elected, right?) and tell them our best ideas about how to govern our country and communities.

This year, more than any other in my adult lifetime, is incredibly important for us to speak out as we have so many suffering people at our southern border struggling with the double whammy of poverty and U.S. immigration policies. I offer two advocacy actions so that we, as Americans, don't sit idly by in celebration while others are in crisis.

Please call and write your members of Congress with one or both of these actions and urge them to do the following: 

1) Stand up to the White House and find a way to stop the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers at our borders.

Here's a sample of what you might say:
"The U.S. Inspector General released a report detailing the deplorable conditions in our Rio Grande Valley detention facilities. I urge you to get involved to oppose these practices by our government. Support solutions for people seeking asylum at our borders that does not involve separating families and keeping men, women, and children in inhumane conditions."
Photo: Office of the Inspector General,
Department of Homeland Security
The Office of the Inspector General is not a partisan group. It's not an NGO watchdog group. This is a branch of our own government reporting on conditions that violate human rights in a breach of our own rules. The report spoke of 826 children (31%) being kept over the 72 hour maximum period permitted by the 1997 Flores Agreement without access to changes of clothes. It included photos of human beings being kept in over-crowded cages. It said the prolonged detention of migrants without proper food, hygiene or laundry facilities (sometimes for over a month) requires "immediate attention and action."
Photo: Office of the Inspector General, 
Department of Homeland Security

If you are interested in actions after making your call or writing your letter, look for info from Lights for Liberty is organizing a national day of action with local events to protest conditions faced by refugees on July 12th. 

2) Support poverty programs for impoverished people in developing nations. 

Here's an example of what you might say: 
"I'm asking you to support robust funding for poverty-focused foreign aid, especially those that empower women and promote nutrition. Helping families live dignified lives in safety and security allows them to stay at home instead of leaving in desperation."
I don't know everything about the complex problem of the wave of immigration from Central American countries, but I do know that mothers don't leave everything they have to risk the lives of their children or - worse - send their children north unaccompanied unless they are fleeing much worse things behind them. CARE, knowing this, took three Republican congresswomen on a learning trip to Guatemala to find out firsthand why people are leaving and to see the impact of successful aid programs that are helping families stay in their native countries. Indeed, after the trip, my congresswoman Representative Ann Wagner co-authored an article in USA Today in support of such aid. In describing the assistance provided to local nonprofit partners by the U.S. Agency for International Development, she noted, “Our programs empower moms, save lives, and stabilize the region. U.S. aid tackles the migration crisis by giving poor families the tools they need to stay at home and thrive.”

So, by all means, do go out and have a happy 4th of July and honor our veterans when you see them out an about today. But let's also honor our patriotism and their sacrifices by exercising our rights to speak up for those who need the help of our great nation and those who suffer under our nation's policies today.

Photo: Cynthia Levin

Monday, June 10, 2019

Relationships Are Why I Keep Going

An old advocacy question is popping up everywhere in my life with new urgency. "How do we keep doing our work without getting overwhelmed?" It was alarming to me when two women that I admire very much reached out to me about the same time from different parts of the country asking me how I managed to stay positive and inspired. Alarming because these two women are people admire and hold in my mind when things get rocky for me! Yesterday, as the CARE Action grassroots staff took the stage at the CARE Action Conference in Washington D.C., it was their very first question from an audience full of dedicated activists.

As I've wrestled with this question, I found it helpful that Maxine Thomas, friend and board member at RESULTS, had broken down that larger question into smaller questions. I found them easier to think about. I answered her questions for myself and noticed that my answers centered around a theme of "relationship":

What is your motivation? My relationship to my daughters and my desire to build a better world for them. My relationship to friends facing economic hurdles, loss of freedoms, and intolerance while I fear for their futures.
What slows you down? Being around people who are angry and negative in a non-productive way. As my fellow CARE advocate Megan Mayle shared today, "Anger is emotionally expensive." It takes a lot out energy out of me to hear people repeatedly complain without any intention of offering, searching for, or working toward solutions. I could be using that energy to take positive actions to create positive change.
What do you do to manage the things that plague you? Spend time with great people so we can deepen relationships and inspire each other. I organize opportunities at my home where I invite activists I look up to and create positive things for us to do together. Last week, I hosted a "Renew, Connect, and Act" event where everyone could do two acts of gratitude (writing thank you's for staff of area non-profits for women's health and LGBTQIA issues), two acts of advocacy (writing to Congress about gender-based violence and women's health), and two acts of volunteerism (bringing potluck dinners to refugee families or serving in St. Louis communities hard hit by gun violence). I'm also always on the prowl for chances to meet new advocates I can learn from!

In fact, it is that last sentence that leads me to be at the CARE conference now.  I know that I'm making a lot of new connections that will hopefully grow into new friendships to inspire me throughout the year. Meeting new people who are taking a stand against human trafficking and child marriage is a real boost for me right now. As a bonus, I expect to see a few familiar faces of other change agents I admire on Capitol Hill tomorrow as Bread for the World and the United Nations Foundation volunteers are going to be there, too, sharing many of the same messages around protecting our poverty-focused foreign aid budget.

I'm especially buoyed by meeting advocates more toward the beginning of their journeys who are full of the same sort of energy and enthusiasm I had when I came to D.C. for the first time in 2007. Sharing laughs and long conversations with my Missouri lobby partner, Ally Melvin, amidst our serious legislative preparations has helped bring me back to a mindset before I started to feel burned out from a decade of working on the same problems. It helps me to remember that the problems are getting better. The budget requests we're working on are much higher than they used to be and making important progress. Since 2011, in countries where the US works with local and women farmers...
  • 23.4 million people have been lifted out of poverty
  • 5.2 million families no longer suffer from hunger
  • 3.4 million kids are free of stunting

Looking at the evidence of the impact of our work and helping someone else get on the path of activism has me feeling optimistic about the world. True, not everything is rosy and we have a lot of work to do. But as the Dr. Seuss' Lorax says:

UNLESS someone CAREs a whole awful lot
Nothing is going to get better. It's not!
So tell me...What keeps YOU going?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Raising Harry, Katniss, and Tris

I've written before on World Moms Network about the activism of the teens who started March for Our Lives to take on gun violence, but I didn't address it on this blog because of the poverty focus of this particular site. However, as their youth movement grows even beyond the issue of gun violence and into areas like climate change, I have a few things to say since the topics of advocacy and motherhood are firmly within the scope of my musings here.

I continue to hear comments of surprise from my fellow parents about how "Kids Today" are getting so involved in activism. In general, we're seeing an uptick of kids being more aware of government, advocacy, and social justice. I pick up on this general feeling of "Where is this all coming from?" As usual when kid behavior is involved, the question can be answered: From us. From the situations our generation created. From the things we left undone. And...from the things we parents ourselves embrace in movies and book/movie franchises like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Divergent

How could anyone be all that surprised when thousands of kids raised on a steady diet of ethical rebellion began standing up for their generation and our world? We reap what we sow. I, for one, have sown these seeds intentionally and delightfully. I saw what J.K. Rowling was telling us about taking a stand against racism and fascism. I imagined what it would be like to raise the three fingers of my left hand in salute to Katniss Everdeen of the the Hunger Games in her fight against a system keeping a population distracted and locked in it's economic disparity. I cheered for Tris from Divergent, who broke away from her family to be true to herself and eventually lead a rebellion for those trapped in a social experiment in post-apocalyptic, future Chicago.

I suppose there were many parents who saw only stories of magic and adventure. Famously, there were still others who missed the point and boycotted the Potter franchise because they thought it was anti-religious and promoted witchcraft. But I've long been a fan of fantasy and sci-fi fiction. I love it's power to both take us away from a world of problems while simultaneously holding up a mirror to our society and asking, "Who do YOU want to be in your story?" The stories never show us a literal roadmap for history. Rather, they are inspirational for the spirit.
"Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed." 
-- G.K. Chesterton

The Parkland students who founded the March for Our Lives movement against gun violence have been open about their view of themselves as Dumbledore's Army. And if that is the role my children and their generation cast for themselves, then I cast myself as Order of the Phoenix member Molly Weasley who feeds them, tends to their hurts, worries about them, and also plays backup in case a LaStrange shows up. I am NOT here to take the baton (or wand) away from anyone. We adults had our chance alone. The body count from school gun violence continues to mount. The Order led and fought, but did not finish the job. Now, we must walk beside Harry Potter, Hermoine Granger, Ron Weasley, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky as their partners - not their betters.

Look what happened when a group of these kids were suddenly thrust into a battleground at their school as deadly as the Battle of Hogwarts. Instead of being consumed by their victimhood, they were inspired by the Boy Who Lived to see themselves as the Ones Who Lived and could become Dumbledore's Army. They started building a diverse and inclusive movement by organizing with other kids across the country who had also experienced gun violence. They grew in fame as they took the battle to their own larger than life Voldemort - the NRA - and became household names even as they craved the time to heal. In Emma Gonzalez's own words in her New York Times Op-ed, "All of us know what it feels like to be Harry Potter now." And now a public tide is turning as more adults are following their lead to reach out to Congress. State by state and even in the U.S. House of Representatives, gun violence bills are starting to gain support.

Not all the authors in our bookshelves promoting change gave us heroes and heroines rising up in rebellion. I knew Rick Riordon was masterfully spreading tolerance and acceptance by giving us a sweet love story between male demigods Nico di Angelo and Will Solace several books into the Percy Jackson series once we were all invested in the residents of Camp Half Blood. I knew Riordan was educating ME about gender fluidity in the Magnus Chase series as he grew the relationship between Magnus and Alex Fierro just as I knew how important it was to give Magnus a history of homelessness and a best friend who was deaf. Riordan continued to spread a message of tolerance in "The Ship of the Dead" by giving Magnus' character the ability to defeat his enemy with love and positivity, not force and negativity. 

Now...with all that said. I will have to eat a little bit of crow if one of my kids turns out to be a criminal mastermind like Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl, but as my kids and I read the series to the end, I think we - and Artemis - are all gonna be okay. If you're not sure what I mean by that...well...your adventure awaits :)