When Governor Jay Inslee formed Washington state’s Poverty Reduction Work Group (PRWG) in late 2017, the Statewide Poverty Action Network jumped at the chance to play a lead role. As Solid Ground’s advocacy partner, Poverty Action has 20+ years of amplifying the voices and stories of people most impacted by poverty across our state, sparking critical legislative policy change.
Poverty Action Board Chair, Juanita Maestas, is one of those powerful voices – and as such, she was selected to represent Poverty Action on the PRWG. “My goal,” she says “is to see people get the connections and the resources that they need – not to just resolve homelessness, but being able to get back on your feet.”
“We’re bringing in people with different circumstances and showing that you cannot just make one solution for all these people, because everybody has something different to bring.” –Juanita Maestas, Poverty Action Board Chair
Led by three state agencies – the departments of Social & Health Services (DSHS), Commerce and Employment Security (ESD) – the PRWG is comprised of 40 members representing various nonprofits, workforce and business groups, and state agencies. Its charge is to develop a strategic plan to reduce poverty, honing in on five specific issue areas: Early Childhood Education, Economic Assets, Postsecondary & Employment Pathways, Health & Well-Being, and Social Capital.
Raising voices for racial equity
Marcy Bowers, Solid Ground Advocacy & Statewide Poverty Action Network Director, says that the PRWG’s work “dovetails with DSHS’s existing goal to cut poverty by 50% by 2025, with a focus on racial equity.” Racial equity is at the forefront of all of Poverty Action’s advocacy efforts, so centering it – along with the voices of people most impacted by poverty – is at the crux of what they bring to the PRWG.
To this end, Poverty Action formed a 25-member PRWG Steering Committee comprised 100% of people with lived experience with poverty. Marcy says, “It’s an important component of this work; we really shouldn’t assume that we as agencies and organizations know best.” The Steering Committee will approve the final strategic plan.
Juanita says one of the biggest assets she and Poverty Action contribute is connections with people living on low incomes across the state. She says, “We bring people together through our resources, listening sessions and events. We have a lot of contacts with the other organizations and leaders,” lending strength so they are able to say, “‘We’ve got this going on. Let’s get this done, let’s make some movement.’”
While Marcy convenes and facilitates the Steering Committee, she says her main role is to be “Juanita’s support team and cheerleader.” When the PRWG formed, prior to creation of the Steering Committee, Juanita was one of the few people experiencing poverty in the room. “At first,” Juanita admits, “I was nervous. I was like, ‘Nobody’s going to listen to me.’ And I wouldn’t talk! But after a while, they listened to me.”
Omar Cuevas Vega, Poverty Action Community Organizer, handles a lot of the logistics – travel, food, lodging, childcare – to make it possible for Steering Committee members to attend. He explains, “We’re recruiting folks from all over Washington, bringing them to different parts of the state at least once a month – removing as many barriers to participation as possible.”
Perhaps more importantly, Omar supports Steering Committee members’ leadership development. “One thing I always try to stress to the group is that everyone’s a leader – that’s why they’re there. How do we build upon that? They should be able to take back these lessons as leaders in their communities.”
From real life to big picture
Juanita stresses that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to poverty. “We’re bringing in people with different circumstances and showing that you cannot just make one solution for all these people, because everybody has something different to bring.” She initially faced surprise from some PRWG members: “The look on people’s face was like, ‘Is this really real? These are real people going through this?’”
Marcy adds, “When we first started, there was a lot of momentum to ‘Get people education and training! Get them good jobs!’ What Juanita often brings to the table is that those are all but a piece of a larger set of issues – ONE piece of this puzzle.” Juanita responds, “Where’s the childcare to make sure you can even make it to that step? Is there enough food in the house to provide for your family so they’re healthy and can work? And health care – is that in place so the kids can have their checkups and shots?”
Marcy says, “I have been impressed at how often and specifically people are able to connect something tangible that’s happening in their life to something that’s bigger.” For example, one Steering Committee member described how he was charged childcare overpayments made due to DSHS’ administrative error. “He saw the piece of paper that said, ‘This is what you’re being charged; this is how much you owe; the cause of this was administrative error.’ He brought it to me and said, ‘Clearly, this is a policy that needs to be changed that says I pay for the mistakes of the department. That’s written into law somewhere, and that should be changed.’”
Juanita also describes the overwhelming number of barriers previously incarcerated people face getting back on their feet: “Because when you’re in the system and you get out, there is NOTHING. You really have to dig and look for the resources that you need to get out and survive.”
Thanks to the Steering Committee members’ real-life perspectives, the PRWG has evolved to understand that “we can’t have a conversation just about jobs if we’re not talking about ALL of the barriers people face before they even get to the spot where we’re talking about a living-wage job with training,” Marcy says. The PRWG is “building momentum, getting this issue in front of people who have really big megaphones and platforms for speaking.”
Juanita is optimistic. “We’re kicking ass! It’s exciting, because you don’t know where it’s going to take you. ” She hopes their collective experiences “can build that bridge we want between the communities, the nonprofits, and the higher ups – and have Governor Inslee be proud of the big village we’ve connected with.”