Renee K. Jones is a busy woman. She’s a single mom of two preschool-age girls. She’s in college full time, working toward a BA in Social Work at the University of Washington, having graduated with honors from Highline Community College. She also works 20 hours a week and volunteers at a domestic violence agency one day a week. On top of it all, she frequently speaks publically: to her legislators in Olympia, WA, to groups learning about the impacts of domestic violence – even delivering Highline’s 2012 commencement speech.
But in the fall of 2011, Renee didn’t yet know the power of her voice. At the time, domestic violence had left her and her daughters homeless, living in transitional housing, and struggling to make ends meet. Then, through the Statewide Poverty Action Network’s advocacy training, Renee found that not only does her story matter, she has access to all the tools she needs to express it.
As Renee puts it, “I had escaped my violent situation, and through the housing program, Poverty Action came and spoke about advocacy training – how to be your own advocate and speak out on behalf of issues. I am a TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] recipient, and I rely on Working Connections Childcare and a lot of things that the state was looking to cut.”
At the advocacy training, Renee found out about the annual Poverty Action at the Capitol event in Olympia, bringing together people struggling to get by on low incomes along with their allies to learn about issues impacting people living in poverty, then guiding them to frame their stories and share them with their legislators, face to face.
Renee says, “I was very excited for the first time to be able to participate in that, because I knew that the potential budget cuts would really impact my life. In Olympia, I raised my hand and shared a little bit of my story. And the staff from Poverty Action pulled me to the side and asked if I could go and speak to some of the legislative representatives. And that’s what I did, the first time! I just jumped right on board.”
Since her initial experience in Olympia, Renee has been an advocate on fire. In March 2012, she published her story in an Op-Ed in the Tacoma News Tribune and also testified at a Washington State legislative hearing. Thanks to her actions and those of other activists, no new cuts were made to TANF, and some funds were restored to Working Connections Childcare.
“The first time I went down – to be very, very honest – I was sitting here thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this millions of dollars that they’re looking to cut from low-income families, there’s no way that my voice will make a difference.’” But, she says, “To have the support and direction of the Poverty Action staff – to take my story and not alter it, but empower it to explain it to others, and for that to be the pivotal reason why things were not cut – is an amazing feeling. Beyond amazing; I can’t even explain it. It made me feel like I have a voice.”
Here’s an excerpt from Renee’s testimony:
… As I worked 40-hours per week in a minimum wage position, I struggled to afford paying for basic necessities including rent, utilities, food, childcare, diapers and basic hygiene items. When my meager checks would arrive, I was forced to decide what we had to be without that month. Sometimes that meant no diapers, sometimes that meant no toilet paper or shampoo, sometimes it meant I wouldn’t be able to do laundry that month. Every cent was spent monthly, and I still wasn’t able to afford what it took to survive.
“… It has taken me four years, but I am finally at a point where I have begun to reach stability. Living off of $348 per month, I have had to be very creative with finances. We certainly still struggle, but through accessing state assistance, I have been able to attend school and will be graduating with honors this spring – an education that is critical to getting a better paying job, gaining full self-sufficiency and keeping my family from reverting back to dependence on the system. … TANF isn’t about luxuries, it’s about necessities.”
Renee says speaking to her legislators is “nerve-wracking, but phenomenal. It’s so wonderful to be on this journey and be able to advocate, not just for myself, but for 60,000 other people in Washington State who really rely on this. There’s a lot of stigma behind welfare recipients and a lot of the things that happen within the system. So I wanted to explain how this program does help. Cutting this would not help anybody, it would just create a bigger problem.
“This is how my experience has shaped this – and I know that other people are going through it – and I want to help other people come through this as well. And to know that my voice does make a difference is an incredible feeling.”