At Solid Ground, everything we do is rooted in our belief that people are the experts on their own lives – and those with lived experiences with poverty best understand the barriers they face and the support they need. But asking people for their feedback and giving them a meaningful seat at the table are two different things.
That’s why, three years ago this month, we formed the Community Accountability Council (CAC) to more deliberately involve people who have experienced poverty in decision making, while also holding ourselves accountable as an agency to our commitment to community-driven solutions to poverty.
The founding CAC members brought a variety of life experiences and expertise to the table – but they all shared an understanding of the barriers that keep people in poverty and a commitment to help Solid Ground clear a path out of poverty for others. Many of those founding members still participate today.
“I felt it was really important that I was in that room, because when you’re trying to find someone who is going to be the chief and champion of poverty programs, you need someone who has an idea of what they’re talking about.” ~Kim McGillivray, CAC Member
What started as a group of people sharing their experiences with poverty and feedback on our programs has evolved into an institutionalized piece of the Solid Ground organization, with clearly defined roles in important decision making, such as selecting new Board of Directors members.
“I do believe the times we spent together, we came up with really good solutions,” says Wendy Cisneros, who volunteered to serve on the CAC in part because her mother had lived at Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing. “It’s an amazing group to be a part of. I’m so happy to be a part of it.”
The CAC’s nine members meet for two hours each month – virtually since the pandemic started – to discuss Solid Ground programs, provide advice to staff who request it, participate in training to strengthen their advocacy, and build on their own understanding of Solid Ground programs and the larger service provider landscape.
CAC members receive a monthly $75 honorarium, meals and childcare during meetings, and transportation to and from meetings. During these times of virtual gathering, members received food delivery gift cards in lieu of shared meals.
Since the CAC first met in April 2019, the group has:
- Developed a charter
- Accessed Verizon Technology Grant funding to provide CAC members who wanted one with a laptop to attend virtual meetings
- Provided feedback and review to develop Solid Ground’s latest Community Needs Assessment survey
- Weighed in on a resolution regarding Solid Ground’s support of the Duwamish and shared their ideas to deepen our support
- Discussed advocacy with Solid Ground’s Community Policy Specialist Will Toaspern, including healthy recovery options and community priorities
- Maintained a supportive community with high retention rates during a global pandemic
- Institutionalized its role selecting new Solid Ground Board members. Board member selection procedures include:
- New “lived experience” Board members must be approved by a CAC vote.
- CAC members meet with all potential new Board candidates and discuss things like their motivations and experiences.
- A CAC representative sits on the Board Development Committee to share back CAC feedback on all potential Board candidates – and this input is weighted heavily.
Decision making with teeth
Just last year, founding CAC member Mary Ruffin joined Solid Ground’s Board of Directors, bringing her personal experiences with poverty to the very top of agency decision making – a first in Solid Ground’s history.
“I went to a couple of Board meetings, and there was nobody who lived in Solid Ground Housing there,” says Mary, who lived on the Sand Point Housing campus for seven years and graduated from law school last year. “I’ve taken nonprofit law, and I totally get that nonprofit boards often don’t fully reflect the people they serve for many reasons. There was definitely a missing piece in terms of residents there. There were a lot of people speaking for us.” (Read more about Mary’s leadership in Leading via lived experience.)
The CAC also had a representative on the Executive Search Committee that selected Solid Ground’s CEO, Shalimar Gonzalez, in 2020.
“I felt it was really important that I was in that room,” says search committee representative and CAC member Kim McGillivray, “because when you’re trying to find someone who is going to be the chief and champion of poverty programs, you need someone who has an idea of what they’re talking about.”
More work to do
CAC members say the work of truly centering lived experiences in how Solid Ground decisions are made is far from over. Kim, for example, would like to see the agency begin offering stipends to Board of Directors members who live on low incomes. Solid Ground does have an accommodation policy that seeks to lower barriers for Board service, but Kim says it would still be difficult for most CAC members to afford to serve.
“I just like being with folks who want this world, want this city, to be better for folks.” ~Denise F., CAC Member
“If we move to the Board of Directors, we lose our honorariums,” says Kim, who first learned about Solid Ground more than 15 years ago when she needed help with a difficult landlord. “When you’re on food stamps and Medicaid, losing $75 is not an ‘oh well,’ kind of situation.”
Despite the work that remains, CAC members say they’re proud of all they’ve accomplished in the last three years and grateful to be a part of the council. They say the CAC is also a community in itself – a place where people can trade ideas and resources and offer one another support. Over the last three years, its members have built strong bonds around their shared commitment to find solutions to poverty.
“I just like being with folks who want this world, want this city, to be better for folks,” says Denise F., a CAC member who first learned about Solid Ground when she signed up for a financial literacy class years ago. “I like being part of a group that wants to end poverty.”
For more information on Solid Ground’s CAC, please contact Anti-Racism Initiative (ARI) Manager Tiffany Lamoreaux at email@example.com.
Featured image at top by Undraw.co.