Session is officially over: The dust has settled!

After 176 days and edging into a 3rd special session, Washington state’s 2015 legislative session ended in the second week of July. The final budget includes $185 million in new revenue from closing several tax loopholes and increasing some fees. It takes key steps to strengthen our state safety net; invest in early learning, K-12 and college education; provide emergency mental health services; and more.

Legislative Building, Olympia, WA

Legislative Building, Olympia, WA

Working closely with our communities, we are happy to report that our advocacy led to important wins for equity in Washington state. Here is how our main campaigns fared:

Basic Needs
After years of cuts to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), we saw a 9% increase in the cash grant! This increase also benefits immigrant families who rely on State Family Assistance to meet their basic needs. State Food Assistance was funded fully at 100% (instead of 75%) of the federal SNAP benefit, assisting immigrant families living on low incomes in buying enough food for their families. And Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) now has a 12-month eligibility assessment, which means that a parent won’t lose help with childcare if their income increases slightly due to extra hours or overtime from one month to another.

Unfortunately state funding for Washington Telephone Assistance Program (WTAP), including Community Voice Mail (CVM), was eliminated. CVM provides a stable, secure way for people facing homelessness or who are in crisis to stay connected to critical resources – such as housing and employment opportunities – and accomplish their goals.

Roadblocks to Re-Entry (for previously incarcerated people)
All three of our main campaign priorities – Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs), Certificate of Restoration of Opportunity (CROP), and Ban the Box – gained positive momentum this year though none were passed into law. The LFO bill was voted out of the House almost unanimously and was moving through the Senate before an amended version died on the floor. We are excited to build on this momentum next session!

Consumer Protections
Due to a groundswell of opposition from all across the state, including a lot of media attention, we prevented “small installment loans” (the new payday loan) from being passed. We also prevented passage of several other laws that would weaken our debt protections. We’ll most likely have to keep fighting this fight in the years to come, but it’s worth it. The strong consumer protections you passed in 2009 have saved Washington consumers nearly half a billion dollars in fines and fees.

Your emails, phone calls, stories, and letters supporting revenue and investments in equity in our state made a real difference! Thank you for all the ways you made your voice heard this legislative session to generate revenue and invest in all families in our state. Visit the Statewide Poverty Action Network website for more information.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrates 25 years

Shelley Hawkins, longtime disability awareness trainer at Solid Ground Transportation, tells me she’s going to teach me something. She asks me to hold my arm out. In order to assist her from her chair to her walker, I loosely extend my arm. She straightens my arm, tells me to widen my stance. She hoists herself up, using my weight rather than my strength. As both a trainer and user of the ACCESS van service, Shelley has a comprehensive understanding of what people living with disabilities require. She instructs her drivers to never lift passengers. They can lift themselves with a little leverage.

ShelleyHawkins

Shelley Hawkins is a Solid Ground Transportation trainer.

For the past 25 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provided that leverage for disabled people to pursue autonomous lives. The act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, and governmental activities. Shelley reminds me that the ADA equal access provisions mean nothing if they are not implemented effectively. She’s devoted the last 15 years to train ACCESS drivers on disability awareness, ADA compliance, and passenger assistance.

Tomorrow, July 22, Disability Rights Washington will hold a 25th anniversary rally at Westlake Park to celebrate the meaningful freedom the legislation has afforded the disabled population. Shelley recalls how “30 years ago, no one was even talking about this. People with disabilities stayed home.” Before ADA, social agencies provided accommodating transportation services only to people living below a certain income threshold. The ADA extended eligibility for those free services to anyone who could no longer take a fixed route due to physical or cognitive impairments.

Shelley trains ACCESS drivers – a service that provides curb-to-curb transportation – because she realizes that transportation is the crucial element of autonomous living. Without services such as ACCESS provided by the ADA, people with disabilities face daily frustrations – unable to get to the grocery store, or perform the essential errands that others take for granted. Even where ADA ideals fall short in practice, Shelley appreciates when “[she] knows they tried to fix it. That matters.” We should celebrate the signing of the ADA because it represents a step in the right direction, the result of people advocating for themselves.

Additionally, I hope the 25th anniversary of ADA opens a conversation about how disability awareness can be improved. In Shelley’s eyes, the ultimate goal is to eliminate obstacles that demand outside assistance. She shared an anecdote from her trip to Germany: “You can’t put an elevator in a castle, but the Germans will pick you up and carry you to the top of the castle if that’s what you want to do.” Although the final outcome appears the same, anyone would prefer the independence of the elevator.

People with disabilities encounter a host of accessibility limitations that fall through the cracks of the ADA. Oftentimes sidewalks will have curb cuts on one side that don’t match the curb cut on the other side. A flimsy lift rather than a durable elevator; small doors on the accessible side of the building; buttons on the wrong side of the door. These accommodations are compliant with ADA regulations, but in an attempt to incur only minimum costs, companies and public utilities fall short of a minimum humanity. They force people to seek assistance where they could otherwise be independent. Shelley expressed some dismay that “you try to go in and change it; they misinterpret what the disabled populations [are] asking for, and change it in a way they didn’t expect. That’s not helping.” Helping is listening.

Much to the credit of ADA legislation, we’ve made great progress in disability awareness the past few decades. People living with disabilities know they can transport to their jobs affordably. They know they can access the restrooms at their jobs. They can get drinks with friends after work. That’s worth celebrating.

Moving forward, a level of personal thoughtfulness should transcend the bare minimum regulations of the ADA in both accessibility design and disability services. More so, programs should be aware that the less external assistance required the better. Shelley tells her drivers that passengers don’t want them breaking their backs trying to assist them. Straighten your arm, widen your stance – provide leverage.

Ramadan: A spiritual journey of purification & compassion

Editor’s note: As we approached Ramadan this year, I realized that I was woefully ignorant of how Muslims celebrate this important holiday and why. I reached out to see if someone from the Solid Ground team would write about their experience of Ramadan. Abdel Elfahmy volunteered! Abdel, a practicing Muslim, is an Operations Supervisor at Solid Ground Transportation. I am grateful to him for sharing his perspective. 

Ramadan MubarakWhy are they fasting?

Whenever the month of Ramadan begins and the sighting of its crescent is affirmed, this marks the celebration of the willpower and strong determination of every Muslim. (This year’s Ramadan began the evening of June 17 and is over the evening of July 17.) Muslims fast from sun rise to sun set throughout the month of Ramadan out of obedience to their Lord and their urge to benefit from such a great spiritual experience. Muslims embark on a month-long spiritual journey of purification, hoping to disclose the wisdom behind fasting and obtain the abundant rewards of this blessed month, the fasting of which is one of the pillars of Islam.

The following are some of the rationales for fasting in this month:

1) The month of Ramadan is a practical self-training process on the sincerity and honesty of the believer: The one who breaks the fast is breaching the pledge with Allah, therefore fasting improves and increases his sense of honesty when he refrains from anything that could break his fast even whilst in seclusion. Of course one is not forced to fast in the month of Ramadan (there is no authority to check man’s behavior or compel him to observe fasting). One may pretend to be fasting in front of people, if his heart does not have any fear of his Lord. Fasting is an act of worship that is offered to the Creator with full devotion and sincerity, hoping only for the rewards from him.

2) Strengthening one’s willpower and determination: One who can tolerate the pain of hunger and thirst, and controls himself from having a sexual relation with his/her spouse whilst fasting, will strengthen determination and willpower. This frees the person from being enslaved to lusts and desires that are harmful. The month of Ramadan grounds a person in self-control. It is the month of radical positive change. When one fasts, one is in control of themself and exercises full control over habits and desires. Some people lose their temper and become ill-mannered if their meal was delayed from its normal time or if they do not drink their morning coffee or afternoon tea. They have become so accustomed to a certain routine that changing it creates a problem for them. Such people are slaves to their routine and habits, and fasting helps the person overcome this behavior.

3) Fasting is a holistic spiritual experience that poses a huge question mark for those who grasp the wisdom behind this obligation: A fasting person should ponder on the spirit of caring and sharing which fasting develops in Muslims. All fasting Muslims share the same pain, hunger, thirst and bitterness of deprivation while fasting with the poor and needy. Ramadan creates a social and humanitarian context that fosters compassion for the needy around the world. By our voluntary hunger and thirst, we realize what it means to be deprived of basic necessities of life. Ramadan is a time to remember and help those who are less fortunate. Moreover, all Muslims also feel the joy of breaking their fast and relish thankfulness to God. The poor people rejoice at their wealthy brothers who are sharing their pain and suffering with them. They rejoice at the thought that their wealthy brothers help them to ward off the scourge of hunger and bitter deprivation. Fasting rejuvenates the concept of social solidarity among the community.

4) Fasting generates in humans feelings of happiness, peace of mind and spiritual satisfaction, and fosters the unity of the community: It inculcates the real spirit of social belonging, of unity and brotherhood. When one fasts, one feels that he/she is joining the whole Muslim society in observing the same duty in the same manner at the same time for the same motives and to the same end.

5) Fasting is one of the greatest means to obtain forgiveness for sins and removal of misdeeds.

6) Realizing the size of the bounties of God: Fasting makes rich people appreciate the favors of Allah, because Allah has granted what He has deprived many other people from. Refraining from such bounties and blessings for a short period through fasting reminds the rich of those who are continuously deprived, and they thus become grateful to Allah and more merciful towards the needy.

7) Fasting has clear health and psychological benefits: These were disclosed after scientific discoveries were made, and from the insights of those who were blessed with insight and good understanding of the divine obligation. Some of these benefits are:

  • It organizes the person’s heartbeat and relaxes it, since no blood is needed for digestion.
  • It purifies the blood from fat and cholesterol and acids.
  • It relieves the liver from the regular pressure.
  • It reduces the production of the digestive glands, which is usually the cause for ulcers.
  • It protects the person from weight gain, diabetes and kidney stones.
  • It reduces the pressure on the heart arteries.

A fasting person spends his days in carrying out one of the greatest acts, devoting his days and nights during that holy month in remembrance, glorification and worship of Allah, and willfully rejecting all temptations, abominations and the cravings of the human body.

West Seattle Garden Tour: Beautiful gardens support important causes

Garden lovers, save the date! This Sunday, July 19 from 9am to 5am, the West Seattle Garden Tour will offer a day-long opportunity to tour some beautiful gardens in the West Seattle neighborhood: a feast for the senses, and inspiration for creating your own garden havens.

garden-tour_0

Started in 1995 as a fundraiser for ArtsWest, the West Seattle Garden Tour has evolved into an annual fundraising event for Seattle-based community gardens and other nonprofits that promote horticulture, education or the arts. Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link program was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of seven 2015 beneficiaries.  Lettuce Link’s focus on sustainable food production and nutrition education earned it a spot on this year’s beneficiary list.

The 2015 tour will consist of nine gardens all chosen to illustrate the essential elements of gardening utility and aesthetics. This year, Lunch Lecture Guest Speaker Phil Wood will draw on his experiences as an award-winning garden designer and a nationally published garden writer to share the characteristics of successful gardens.

GardenSlider3

Remember, the tour’s turnout decides the funds awarded to the nonprofits, so there’s never been a more important time to stop and smell the roses! Tickets books are $20 and can be purchased at Brown Paper Tickets or any of the following retail locations:

For more information, email marketing@westseattlegardentour.org.

A lesson in empathy

I was blown away by the youth homelessness training program, The Ropes: Understanding and Engaging in Youth Homelessness. I expected a rigidly structured program that presented “scenario A” and then handed us “solution A.” Before even going, I resented what I assumed would be a simplified instruction manual on how to handle anything but simple situations. Reflecting on my own expectations, I feared an “us versus them” dichotomy would permeate the discussion.

Tristan Herman and Joseph Seia, the program leaders at New Horizons, knew better. They geared the three-hour conversation so that the fundamental question was not how can we handle youth homelessness, but how do we handle ourselves in the face of experiences we don’t understand. We could have spent the three hours combing through hyper-specific procedures for handling potential circumstances. Instead, Joe and Tristan compiled a list of effective strategies and spent the majority of the program developing one overarching tool – empathy.

We began the meeting with the important task of surfacing all societal and personal stereotypes. We shouted out the obvious misattributions of criminality and laziness that society unfairly imposes on homeless populations. Even though I recognize their fallacy on an intellectual level, I could feel my own prejudice gnaw at me as I voiced the stereotypes out loud. We deconstructed them. We found the kernel of truth in each stereotype and put it in the context of a system stained by internalized racism, self-fulfilling prophecies, and little upward mobility. I looked my own prejudice square in the face and saw how it distracted, how it dehumanized.

I come from a wealthy suburban town. I grew up in relatively stable family and living conditions. I’ve been afforded every opportunity in the world, and as consequence, I exude privilege. I don’t try to but it’s immediately obvious because it’s my reality – I’m lucky. So I carry a certain level of guilt in even trying to relate to individuals often defined by their misfortune. Tristan and Joe offered enormous insight in how they framed this dissonance.

First of all, youth experiencing homelessness develop a plethora of skills and character traits that demand my admiration:

  • Resourcefulness
  • Resilience
  • Adaptability
  • An unmatched will to survive

I’m envious of how kids my age possess such self-reliance. That’s worth recognizing.

Furthermore, these youth exist in a vastly different culture than I do, however their decision-making rationale is quite similar. They have to keep warm in difficult weather conditions, stay awake in case of danger, and endure the monotony of the day. They develop coping mechanisms. I would too. They must quickly acclimate themselves with street power dynamics, sometimes choosing between survival and morality. I would make the same choice every time. They develop a routine and sense of normalcy that makes uprooting their life on the streets undesirable. I seek a similar comfort in my own normalcy. The skills they develop to survive on the streets translate poorly to a work environment, just as my writing skills would do nothing for me on the streets.

I left the training sessions feeling a little less removed from the struggles these youth face. I didn’t have any more understanding of their experiences, but a greater appreciation for their choices – their human choices. I could see why they were stuck. I would be stuck too.

June 2015: The best & worst of times

If a single month can embody the best and worst of our nation, then I think June 2015 is such a month. I was numb from the horrific murders of nine innocents in Charleston, SC, and disappointed by southern conservatives’ defense of the historically controversial Confederate flag.

A week and half later, I was filled with relief by the Supreme Court’s ruling that over six million United States residents will not lose their affordable health care. The possibility of losing affordable health care was a result of political battles by persons with copious amounts of power and privilege, ironically, many of whom already benefit from government-provided health care.June FYI

Two days later, my belief in the importance of equality was affirmed by the wisdom of the United States Supreme Court as they ruled that same-sex partners have the legal right to be married and for those marriages to be recognized in all parts of our country. All of this, and in just the last two weeks of June.

The design of our federal government to maintain a healthy balance of power is exquisite. The recent rulings by the Supreme Court regarding free speech, Affordable Health Care, fair housing and marriage equality underscore the historic and continuing role that our independent judiciary has in changing our systems to address oppressions in favor of equality and equitable opportunities.

As I reflect upon the killing of African Americans while worshiping in church by someone heralding the hateful symbolism of white supremacy, playing politics to deny low-income persons the benefits of a rich and prosperous nation, and the continuing resistance to recognition of the rights of some to have legal and recognized loving relationships, I come to the conclusion that we are in a fundamental struggle for the soul of our nation. Our struggles in the 21st century are painfully reminiscent of the civil rights struggles of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. What is clear to me is that the same race, societal, economic and health inequities that birthed the community action movement remain relevant and ripe five decades later.

With this degree of challenge and change, we are exposed to too many 21st century soundbites and much too short on serious civic discourse. We need more thought-provoking and actionable input to encourage and support forward movement. In the month of June, I did hear several statements worthy of sharing with you:

As a nation, we are addicted to incarceration.” -Kimberly Ambrose, UW School of Law, Director of the Race & Justice Clinic: Governing for Racial Equity Conference

“I’m preparing my children for the world while I’m preparing the world for my children.” -Craig Sims, Chief Criminal Division, Seattle City Attorney’s Office: Governing for Racial Equity Conference

“For all the houses we had, I never had a home.” -Jason, an adult Moth Radio participant, sharing his childhood experience with homelessness since age seven: Committee to End Homeless Conference

“Racist teachers? Not intentionally. But as a district, if we know this is going on, why haven’t we taken any real steps to address it as a system?” -Ted Howard, Principal of Garfield High School in Seattle, reflecting on disparities in school discipline correlated to race

This is both the best and the worst of times. While some work has been done, some changes made and some goals realized, there is no room or time for complacency. June 2015 was another call to action, bringing focus and attention to serious issues requiring serious people who are committed to action. I’m glad that at Solid Ground, we are those people.

Just keep driving

A pearl white bus, with the Solid Ground logo painted on the side, pulls up to the Harborview Medical Center on the corner of 9th and Alder. As the doors slide open, the bionic whine of the wheelchair ramp greets us. The ramp does not discriminate between those who need it and those who don’t. Every passenger, whether able-bodied or living with disabilities, benefits from one fewer step to climb. This is the Downtown Circulator Bus – a free transportation service that drives a 30-minute fixed route in downtown Seattle.

Circulator 006MK

Circulator bus driver Joe McCrea

We drive from one side of downtown to the other. Pass the hospital. Pass the ACRS Food Bank, the Public Library, Pike Place Market. Pass the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Every stop along the route was specifically chosen for the practical help it provides to people living on low incomes or who need access to health and human services.

The driver, Joe, is easygoing and genuine. He’s humble about the service he provides, briefly commenting, “The people who use [the bus] can use the financial help.” But he’s careful not to put people in boxes, recognizing that the $2.50 Metro fare is “kind of a lot, for a lot of people,” and that working class people compose a significant portion of the riders. A lot of people just ride the bus – in fact, will take the whole route around – to get from the bottom of the hill to the top. The biggest issue for many people is the hills.

I look around the bus to face an eclectic group of passengers. The high proportion of riders with injuries and disabilities creates an in-the-moment reminder of why the Circulator Bus is necessary – to get people the services they so clearly need. We pass the Downtown Public Health Center, the Community Psychiatric Clinic.

Two passengers in the back chat amiably for 10 minutes before exchanging names and phone numbers. Passengers voice observations about the constant construction, the ever-taller Seattle. They notice things out their windows. A man named Dean calls me over by name. He overheard me introduce myself to the driver and jokes that Joe always tries to hit the potholes. He asks me about my hometown, and shares how important the Circulator has been for getting him to his appointments. His warmth shakes me. There is a certain humanity here not present on the average Metro bus.

We round out the 30-minute trip on Boren Ave, passing The Salvation Army. Soon we’re at the hospital where we started. He tells me how positive his experience driving the Circulator Bus has been. I believe him. He shares that his mantra is to just keep driving. I think we need him to.

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