I applied to the Seattle DukeEngage program in hopes of working with an environmentally focused organization. I was accepted into the program with the knowledge that only one of the partner organizations focused their efforts explicitly on the environment.
And, though I was not placed with this particular organization, I came to Seattle with intentions to embrace the opportunity I was given to work for Solid Ground, an anti-poverty human services organization with an ambitious mission and a wide range of programs. I am now in Seattle* with the realization that this opportunity has provided me with so much more than I could have anticipated.
Solid Ground has been an established force in Seattle since the 1970s, a witness to the growing homelessness and housing crisis over the years, and a leader in developing and implementing strategies to alleviate the reality for individuals living it. I knew homelessness was a reality, but I would never have had to confront it without the opportunity to work for Solid Ground. I knew injustice was a product of racial inequity, but I wouldn’t have had to explore my inherent privilege and position in that narrative without the opportunity to work for Solid Ground. I knew that social services existed, but I would have never been pushed to listen and learn from those working within that system without the opportunity to work for Solid Ground. All was new, and all was a challenge, pushing me to learn and recognize the value of that understanding with regards to any of my future endeavors.
As a communications intern, my goal is to gather and tell stories.
In order for this to happen, I first had to learn to listen. Listen to the stories of others, stories new to me. I had the opportunity to speak with people intensely invested in the social work and also with the people impacted by the social work:
- I learned of the frustrations – and joys – of direct service from JiaJia and Atnafu, two staff members who connect individuals experiencing homelessness with housing resources.
- I gained insight into the inequities faced by tenants and the difficulties faced by tenant counselors, like Arturo, in their efforts to assist their clients in understanding their rights.
- I learned of the challenges facing food banks and was inspired through the stories shared by community food activists working here in Seattle.
- I was humbled by the ability of a group of residents at Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus to revitalize a garden and was touched by a genuine invitation to one of their fresh, homegrown dinners. I thought I was only there to gather a story and take some pictures, but I left with more than stories and pictures.
When I began the work of piecing together the stories, I was faced with challenges. Primarily, the challenge of crafting “success stories” in the midst of the overwhelming frustration of a broken system in need of reform; I was beginning to understand the uphill battle of social service work.
Then, I was faced with the challenge of representation. The stories I was telling were not my own, so I had to be sensitive with how I chose to frame the narrative and who that decision would affect, and how. Working with Solid Ground meant working with an editor; several, actually. I am continuously learning from the critique of others and becoming more confident in my writing.
Most significantly, I am witnessing the power of community and coalition building in confronting the challenges in social service work.
To face adversity, to work and live within a system whose need for reform seems insurmountable, we must work together. Solid Ground is one of many, many organizations that has taken on the extremely difficult task of both social service work and advocacy – work that requires a hope-fueled endurance.
I have taken the opportunity to reflect on the interwoven nature of sustainability challenges. Initially disheartened because I would not be working with an organization bearing an environmental sustainability mission, Solid Ground has allowed me to make connections from an angle new to me. Food insecurity and lack of access to education, resources and opportunity are all adversities that call for economic, social and environmental lenses and solutions.
Lastly, I am grateful for Solid Ground’s adherence to anti-racism in their work.
Through the Solid Ground community, the individuals I have talked to and my Duke peers here with me, I have been challenged to explore my white privilege, and my ability to comfortably back into this white privilege. I have been compelled to understand why I was so keen on prioritizing environmental sustainability in the first place – because my inherited circumstances had allowed me to experience a reality in which my needs were met and where inequity was foreign to me. In fact, only recently had I been exposed to the notion of equity.
I didn’t know what to expect, and in hindsight, I had only a vague understanding of the reality of Solid Ground’s mission and work. Since coming to Seattle, I have grown in ways unanticipated, and this is largely attributed to my time at Solid Ground.