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.

Penny Harvest teaches children the power of philanthropy

Anna Zuckerman in yellow got a doggy kiss from Miss Floppy as her fellow Penny Harvest panel members looked on. From left they are Leah Zuckerman, Selma Taber, Amy Ijeoma and Chloe Denelsbeck. Miss Floppy's owner and President of AARF (Animal Aid and Rescue Foundation) at far left is Heather Enajibi. Photo by Patrick Robinson, used by permission of the West Seattle Herald.

As I sat in Room 307 at Madison Middle School yesterday, I was reminded once again why I love my job.

The Penny Harvest youth philanthropy roundtable that aptly named themselves “How to be Awesome” were interviewing organizations that they were considering granting funds.

The questions they asked “were probing and pointed and the answers provided real insights into both the spectrum and depth of their need,” according to a write up about the group in the West Seattle Herald.

I found myself uplifted by the fact that I was sitting in a room with six young people in 5th through 8th grade, and they were having open and honest conversations with adults about real life issues that our communities face every day: child abuse, homophobia, suicide, homelessness, mental illness, animal abuse. Here’s the best part: Not only were they engaged in dialogue, but they were deciding what they can do about it…and adults were coming to young people for help to figure it out!

Real change happens when we engage all parts of our community in problem solving, and young people are critical partners in creating change. These students are doing just as they named themselves, teaching the world “how to be awesome.” Thank you Madison Middle school student leaders.

Editor’s note: If you are interested in supporting Penny Harvest, or want to learn more about the program, email Mike Beebe:

Leadership conference increases skills to ending poverty

Recently, I had the privilege of attending Western States Center’s Community Strategic Training Initiative (CSTI) in Portland, Oregon. As a volunteer with the Solid Ground Advisory Council and a supporter of the Lettuce Link Program, I was honored to get an opportunity to strengthen my community leadership skills. It was refreshing to meet people from different communities and learn about different perspectives and make a few new friends.


Poverty isn't natural

The workshops I attended shaped my views as a community leader and helped give me a greater focus on my role and direction moving forward as a community building advocate. An organization called Smartmeme addressed the power of stories and gave me tools on how to develop new understanding about old stories and community issues.

They taught that,”The currency of narrative is not truth, but meaning…The power of Myth helps us understand our place in the world.” They encouraged participants to “Reclaim images and give them a new meaning.” So I decided to use these strategies with the concept and experience of poverty, to attempt to give it a new meaning in my life. I often find inspiration for understanding complex issues in my life from spending time in the garden. And when I looked for poverty in the garden, I didn’t see it. So, it leads me to believe that it isn’t a natural state of being. Abundance is everywhere, when I choose to connect with it instead of lack.

women staring into space

I'm not daydreaming. It's empowered disengagement.

This idea of changing my relationship with poverty was echoed in the next workshop I attended. “Build on abundance, not scarcity” was the main point that I walked away with. It was a workshop called 1+1 + 10 – Base building for Strong Organizations and Healthier Communities. We ended up talking about building strong political campaigns. I hate politics. I ended up spending a lot of time calming my frustration by staring out the window and strengthening my relationship with the sunshine and trees. That was until the thought came to me about “empowered disengagement.” I’d never heard the term before but began to define it as the power to make a decision to actively disengage from a conversation or system and resist it simply by creating something different. So instead of challenging the belief system that I do not support or staring out the window, I simply began to contemplate and write about a system of order that I would support. What would replace politicians in my life and mind? I wrote and wrote and wrote until I realized what I needed, connection to strong community leaders. Many times they are the common everyday folks that watch out for our children, who keep an eye out on our homes when we are out-of-town, who get extra food from the food bank with us in mind. Or they are the faith-based, nonprofit-based leaders who advocate for the needs of society’s most vulnerable. This was the style of leadership that I decided I wanted to support and focus on moving forward.

Ella Baker

I was most moved by the film called “Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker.” Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia STAND-UP, co-facilitated a discussion about leadership development and skill building and used this story to encourage discussion about great leadership styles. I was most moved by the Ella Baker story, a civil rights activist, and her practice of horizontal leadership. She nurtured the leader in every person. She helped facilitate for others independence. She inspired people of all colors to act, discuss, and explore the issues around human justice. She helped people understand fear tactics that discouraged the building of movements and encouraged them to break through to fears with clear objective.

After the conference, I began to write my path to liberation from poverty. For a personal story that came out of this experience visit and read The Day Poverty Died. Thank you Solid Ground for giving me an opportunity to grow as a community leader.

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