Poverty Action at the Capitol

On Martin Luther King Jr., Day 2014, Statewide Poverty Action Network members and volunteers took their fight for social justice to the Washington State Capitol in Olympia. Over 200 members joined us for a day of action, and together, our network covered the Capitol in ‘Poverty Action Purple’ and made our voices heard, visiting nearly every member of the Washington State Legislature.

We stood for increasing support for basic needs programs, housing, health care, fighting predatory debt practices, and increasing educational opportunities for all Washingtonians. Thank you to all who participated in this inspiring day; without your support this could not have been possible!

For more information about Poverty Action or to become a member, visit: www.povertyaction.org.

Meeting legislators makes Olympia feel less remote

Editor’s note: Anthony Bencivengo is a senior at Nathan Hale High School. For his Senior Project, he is working with Solid Ground and the Statewide Poverty Action Network to engage his peers in the state political process. Here, Anthony reports on lobbying in Olympia with other youth on Martin Luther King, Jr. Lobby Day.

January 20, 2014 –

The inside of the People’s House of the Washington State Capitol wasn’t quite as majestic as its facade. The corridors of the John L. O’Brien Building, where state Representatives have their offices, were hot, crowded with people, and had the slowest elevators ever. But as my group squeezed its way through, I was so excited that I hardly noticed.

part of the Hales H.S. crew in Olympia l to r: Robert Mercer, Francis Britschgi, Naomi Price-Lazarus and Jasmine Shirey. Photo by Anthony Bencivengo.

Part of the Nathan Hale H.S. crew in Olympia, l to r: Robert Mercer, Francis Britschgi, Naomi Price-Lazarus and Jasmine Shirey (Photo by Anthony Bencivengo)

This was a day I’d been looking forward to for awhile. As part of my Senior Project, I organized a group of my fellow Nathan Hale High School students to join Statewide Poverty Action Network’s annual MLK Day legislative lobbying session. We, along with over 100 other volunteers, split into groups by legislative district and spread out to meet personally with our state legislators.

The issues we raised ranged widely, from the unfairness of large Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) to preserving welfare programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). And the people in our groups ranged widely, too. Experienced legislative advocates (who seemed to know everyone in Olympia) helped the rest of us navigate the process. People with mental illnesses told horror stories about the drastically underfunded state agencies they turned to for help. Homeless single mothers shared their equally bad experiences with the unresponsive state welfare system. And high school students like us spoke up, too.

Part of the 46th District team, l to r: Robert Mercer, Sarajane Siegfriedt, Jesse Kleinman. Photo by Anthony Bencivengo.

Part of the 46th District team, l to r: Robert Mercer, Sarajane Siegfriedt, Jesse Kleinman (Photo by Anthony Bencivengo)

We learned a lot from the people in our groups, particularly those with personal experiences of homelessness.

“I sort of had this image in my head of what homeless people were like,” admits Naomi Price-Lazarus. That image was changed by the actual homeless people she met. “Their strength was really surprising,” she recalls. “They keep pushing and trying to overcome all the obstacles they’re facing, and even when they keep failing, they don’t give up.”

“This was definitely an eye-opener for me,” adds Francis Britschgi. “Before, poverty was just kind of something that happened, and it was too bad. But the stories I heard today were almost tear-moving.”

The legislators we talked to seemed to be affected in the same way. “They seemed genuinely interested,” observes Robert Mercer. “The one I talked to was really supportive and enthusiastic,” agrees Naomi. They were already well-informed about many of the issues, shared most of our concerns, and pledged to work to fix the problems we had mentioned.

This experience really humanized our state legislators for us. Upon seeing a teddy bear on the desk of a state Representative, Jasmine Shirey exclaimed, “They’re like people!”

“They were really easy to talk to,” adds Naomi. “It wasn’t super formal or anything.”

It turns out our legislators have their quirks, too (who knew Gerry Pollet had a Lord of the Rings Pez collection?). Francis saw a sign on one Representative’s door that said, ‘Tax the rich or kill the poor.’ “I was surprised,” he says. “It seemed kind of inflammatory.” But it was also a sign that these legislators chose to enter politics not for money or power but because, like us, they are passionate about economic justice. And with our state facing problems that will take a lot of passion and hard work to solve, that was encouraging.

We left Olympia feeling hopeful. Our state legislature, which had felt very remote only the day before, now seemed much more accessible. “I feel like I could go into their office if I needed to,” Robert says. “Or call or email them,” adds Francis. “It feels much more open.”

With this sense that our legislators are listening comes a renewed determination to send them a message. “All these legislators were so great and make such a good impression,” reflects Francis. “But our state’s still [in trouble]. So what’s up?”

What’s up is the difficulty of getting meaningful reform passed in a legislature where infighting and special-interest influence encourage inaction. That’s why we have to sustain the pressure on Olympia that we began to create today. This event was not a panacea. It was only the beginning of a long fight for change. But now, we feel much more empowered to make a difference in this fight.

“It’s really easy to get involved in politics,” replies Naomi when asked what she takes away from the event. “It was a really great experience,” concludes Francis. “Would recommend. 10 out of 10.”

Editor’s note: Read Anthony’s earlier post on recruiting teens to come lobby, Teens going to Olympia to change the conversation, Anthony Bencivengo, 1/20/14.

Teens going to Olympia to change the conversation

Editor’s note: Anthony Bencivengo is senior at Nathan Hale High School. For his Senior Project he is working with Solid Ground and the Statewide Poverty Action Network to engage his peers in the state political process. In this, the first of his reports, Anthony talks about recruiting youth to join him for today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Lobby Day in Olympia.

January 17, 2014 – Robert Mercer has wanted to make his voice heard for a long time. His mother works at a psychiatric clinic that serves homeless and low-income people, and she has never shied away from discussing the obstacles they face. “Ever since I was a kid she was always grubbing about some legislation or another,” Robert recalls. “I guess it kind of rubbed off on me.” Robert is worried about homeless people who suffer from mental issues but can’t afford treatment. He fears that access to mental health services is becoming increasingly scarce as state funds dry up in an era of budget cuts. The result, far too often, has been homeless people suffering from psychotic breaks he believes could have been prevented if they had somewhere to turn for help.  “They’re in really bad situations,” Robert says, “That more state funding could have prevented.”

Anthony (l) talks to sophmore Tanner O'Donnell about Lobby Day

Anthony talks to sophmore Tanner O’Donnell about Lobby Day

I feel it’s extremely important for our politicians to hear about these issues. That’s why, as my senior project, I’m organizing a group of my fellow Nathan Hale High School students (Robert included) into a youth contingent that will join the Statewide Poverty Action Network (a social-justice advocacy organization closely linked to Solid Ground) in its annual MLK Day legislative lobbying session in Olympia. In a few days, we’ll be meeting with our state legislators to discuss issues facing our state’s homeless and low-income communities.

For me, this is an exciting opportunity. I’ve always been deeply involved with social justice – volunteering at food banks, participating in rallies and frequently writing to newspapers and my state legislators. I feel political discourse at the state level has been overly focused on cutting safety-net programs just as the Great Recession makes them more needed than ever. I hope that by speaking personally to our legislators, my fellow students and I can help change the conversation.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. The group I’ve organized is filled with a wide variety of students who each bring in different perspectives and experiences. The common thread is their passion for social justice.

Nolan Wolf, who recently completed a stint as a state legislature page serving some of the very legislators we’ll be lobbying, is coming because, as a person with arthrogryposis (a physical disability limiting his range of arm motion), he understands what it’s like not to be expected to succeed. People, he says, sometimes see him “as a disability, instead of as a person with a disability.”

Grace Jones’s youth group has hosted middle-schoolers from low-income housing development Yesler Terrace to speak about the documentaries they’re making about the ongoing remodel of their complex to meet safety standards. Aedan Roberts has used his status as an editor for the school paper to publish the personal stories of homeless immigrants. And the list goes on. Conventional wisdom goes that teens are lazy and disengaged, but this dedicated group of student activists is anything but.

All of us are excited to go to Olympia, for a variety of reasons. Besides the chance to make a difference, students in my group see this as a chance to learn more about state government, social justice, and the views of their representatives. Most of us are optimistic that our lobbying will make a difference. “I think it’s important for people to see a large youth presence in groups working for change,” says Grace. “Teens care, we have ideas, and we want to learn more.”

“Maybe, in a year or so,” Robert adds hopefully, “A politician will vote in a different way on something because I swayed them.”

Many of us are nervous, of course. Speaking face to face with experienced politicians can be intimidating for high-school seniors barely old enough to vote. Many of us are afraid of sounding uninformed, inarticulate or timid. But from my conversations with the students I’m going with, I can tell that they have more than enough eloquence, passion and knowledge. We must always first face down our fears in order to face down injustice. That’s another change I hope will be affected on MLK Day – that we will become confident in our own strength and power to create change. Some of us already have. “I don’t really have any fears,” answers Tanner O’Donnell when asked whether the event makes him nervous. “Except for bears. They’re scary.”

To make sure you catch the next report in Anthony’s series, please sign up to have this blog’s posts emailed directly to you!

Early learning: key to life success

Solid Ground is joining the Children’s Alliance and other members of the Equity in Education Coalition in asking Washington State’s congressional delegation and the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to incorporate the needs and strengths of Dual Language Learners into proposed high-quality early learning initiatives.

“Brains are like buildings – they start with a foundation. Birth through age five is a crucial time to give children the kinds of enriching experiences and environments they need to build a foundation for success – both in school and in life,” states the Early Learning Action Alliance, convened by the Children’s Alliance.

Congress is considering a state/national partnership that would expand access to high-quality early learning for kids ages birth through five.

“As our nation moves toward the promise of providing quality early learning for every child who needs it, we must ensure that programs are tailored to meet the needs of dual language learners who are the fastest-growing segment of young children,” stated Tony Lee, Solid Ground Advocacy Director.

iis-logoThe proposal would:

  • Provide high-quality preschool. A new state/federal partnership would invest $75 billion over 10 years to provide all four-year-olds living in families with low and moderate incomes access to high-quality preschool.
  • Grow the supply of effective early learning opportunities for young children. In the years before preschool, a new $1.4 billion Early Head Start/Child Care partnership would support communities with expanding the availability of Early Head Start and child care providers that can meet the highest standards of quality for infants and toddlers.
  • Extend and expand evidence-based, voluntary home visiting programs. Home visiting programs enhance children’s cognitive, language and learning skills, improve maternal and child health in the early years and leave long-lasting positive impacts on parenting skills. The proposal calls for $15 billion over 10 years for these important services.

Under the current proposal, in the first year alone, Washington is estimated to receive:

  • $61 million for participation in voluntary Preschool for All, helping serve 7,451 children from families with low and moderate incomes.
  • $8 million for evidence-based voluntary home visiting Early Head Start/Child Care partnerships that would help provide 18,723 children ages 0-3 with high-quality early care and education.

Watch this Early Learning Matters: Invest in Us video for more information.

As the proposal moves forward, Solid Ground is proud to stand with the Children’s Alliance and these partners in our community:

Community members are urged to contact their Members of Congress and urge them to support strong investment in early learning. For more information, or to get involved, contact Melissa Bailey at the Children’s Alliance: Melissa@childrensalliance.org.

We’re hitting the road: Poverty Action Listening Sessions begin July 23

Summer is in full swing here in Washington State. That means it is Listening Session season at the Statewide Poverty Action Network! We will hit the road to meet our members and gather our network’s priorities for the upcoming year. We’ll also host advocacy trainings in a town near you!

Over the next few months, we will head to Tacoma, Seattle, Pasco/Tri-Cities, Spokane, Everett, Kent and more. We are also pairing each Listening Session with one of our Advocacy Trainings to make each stop on the Listening Session Tour double as an opportunity to tell your story directly to your legislators!

Protect WA State FamiliesPoverty Action Listening Sessions 2013:

  • SEATTLE: July 23-24
  • TACOMA: Aug. 9-10
  • KENT: Aug. 27-29
  • EVERETT: Sept. 10-12
  • TRI-CITIES/PASCO: Sept. 25-27
  • SPOKANE: October 8-10

Our first Listening Session is in Seattle on Tuesday, July 23 (from 2:30-4:30pm at the 2100 Building, 2100 24th Ave S, Seattle, WA). It will focus on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and State Family Assistance (SFA). We’re especially in need of members with the following experiences:

  1. Do you currently receive TANF or SFA?
  2. Have you received TANF/SFA in the past three years?
  3. Do you have ideas about how to improve TANF/SFA to make it a better program for families?
  4. Are you looking to share your experience using these programs with lawmakers?

If you answered yes to ANY of these questions, we want to hear from you! Please call 1.866.789.7726 to learn more or to RSVP. You will receive $20 for travel expenses; please RSVP for childcare.

Come and share your story and help shape our legislative agenda, then join us on day two for a roundtable discussion with lawmakers on the issues you care about! Spots are limited for these sessions, so don’t delay – reserve your space today!

We need to hear from you!
There is no better time than now to get your story heard. Check back with the Poverty Action website soon for more information about upcoming Listening Sessions near you. And if you are interested in attending any of the dates above, give us a call TODAY at 1.866.789.7726 or email gwen@povertyaction.org to reserve your place at a Listening Session, Advocacy Training or both! We hope to see you on our Listening Session Tour!

Mixed bag budget not good governance

Gordon McHenry, Jr.

Gordon McHenry, Jr., Solid Ground’s President & CEO

“Yesterday, the legislature agreed to a budget with just days to spare before a state government shutdown was to take effect. This budget is a mixed bag. There are some points to celebrate, like a $1.03 billion investment in K-12 education, and the budget holds the line of safety net funding.

“However, there are a number of missed opportunities in the budget that fail to raise adequate revenue to address the long-term needs of our state,” said Solid Ground’s organizing arm, Statewide Poverty Action Network, in the budget analysis it released last week.

Indeed, for people living on low incomes in Washington State, there are some clear successes:

  • No major cuts were made to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and a proposed cap on the number of children in TANF families who could receive benefits was defeated.
  • The state will fully implement Medicaid expansion, giving health insurance to about 250,000 people living on low incomes starting in 2014.
  • Adult dental health coverage was fully restored!
  • $70 million was invested in the Housing Trust Fund.
  • Disability Lifeline programs, ABD and HEN, were protected, supporting people with disabilities in meeting their basic needs.
  • State Food Assistance was restored to 75% (from 50%) of the federal SNAP benefit, helping immigrant families afford enough food to eat.

Stepping back from the specific gains and losses of this budget, we must address the two special session/double overtime governing.

Solid Ground clients and families living on low incomes across our state were filled with angst and uncertainty as they wondered whether they would receive their much-needed state assistance, or whether the government would shut down. They worried whether they would be able to pay rent on time or put food on their tables.

For vulnerable people across the state, this is what is at stake when legislators can’t reach a budget agreement.

Our state deserves strong leadership. By refusing to raise revenue and delaying the passage of a compassionate budget for ideological reasons, some members of the legislature put the needs of our communities at risk and, in the process, practiced incredibly bad governance.

We appreciate that the government did not shut down. We appreciate that the legislature preserved and protected our state’s safety net. And we appreciate that the state made a down payment on our paramount duty to educate our young people.

But, we expect better from our leaders. We expect leaders to rise to the occasion, to boldly address our state’s long-term problems, and to address inequities by raising much-needed revenue. And we will engage our legislators with the goal of holding them to the high standard that civic leadership requires.

Changing lives & systems through advocacy

Advocacy has always been a central watchword for Solid Ground. Throughout our 39 years of providing for people’s basic needs, we have also addressed the political realities that create barriers for people to thrive.

Advocates in Olympia on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2013

Advocates in Olympia on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2013

The more than 50,000 people who come to us each year are the true experts on poverty in our community. Their lives revolve around the challenges of living on less in an increasingly class-divided world. Twenty five years ago, low-income communities organized across Washington State through our Fair Budget Action Campaign and the Welfare Reform Coalition. Both were instrumental in passing the Seattle Housing Levy, creating the Molar Majority to fund adult dental care, and other groundbreaking efforts that get more people to solid ground in our community.Fair Budget eventually became the Statewide Poverty Action Network, bringing together leadership from low-income communities around the state to articulate a community-based agenda and run impactful organizing campaigns. Poverty Action and allied coalitions and agencies have been instrumental in protecting lifeline benefits, passing the Foreclosure Fairness Act, grading legislators on the racial justice impact of their work, and giving previously incarcerated people, teens and other marginalized populations training and support to reclaim their political power.

This approach creates tremendous synergy. The personal becomes political as our advocacy in Olympia is strengthened by decades of direct service and the individual voices of people most impacted by policies. Case managers help identify trends and stories among program participants that seed efforts to make laws more responsive to the needs of people living on low incomes.

At Solid Ground, we believe education is foundational to a better future. In addition to our partnerships to support literacy, skill building and leadership development in Seattle/King County schools, we actively work to close the opportunity gap between wealthier white students and those with lower incomes and students of color.

Disenfranchised people – those experiencing homelessness, immigrants with limited English proficiency, and those who lack education or job experience – can all achieve their dreams if they have access to equal opportunity and resources. By bringing their testimony into the political process, Poverty Action and allies influence laws, policies and practices and set the stage for transformative, generational success.

At Solid Ground, we believe our community can move beyond poverty and oppression to a place where all people have access to quality housing, nutritious food, equal justice and opportunities to thrive. We believe strong advocacy is a vital component of interrupting generational cycles of poverty. We believe effective advocacy starts in the personal narratives of our community.

And we believe that successful advocacy secures long-term, positive changes in our society.

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