For the first time, a former resident of Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus has joined our Board of Directors, bringing lived experience to the very heart of the organization. We’re pleased to introduce you to Mary Ruffin and tell you why this is so important!
Mary lived at our housing campus in Magnuson Park with her mom and younger brother for seven years, during which she graduated from the University of Washington and UW School of Law. The Sand Point campus is a haven for families and individuals who move from living unhoused to join a true community of supportive neighbors.
“People with the least are always willing to give the most. We’ve been through a lot here as a community. There’s an inherent tie between all of us that I haven’t felt elsewhere.” ~Mary Ruffin, Solid Ground Board of Directors
“It really helped shape me as an adult,” she says. “People with the least are always willing to give the most. We’ve been through a lot here as a community. There’s an inherent tie between all of us that I haven’t felt elsewhere.”
Mary’s path to Board membership started with serving as a founding member of Solid Ground’s Community Accountability Council (CAC). Convened in February 2019, the CAC is a group of current and former Solid Ground program participants and residents who bring their wisdom and lived experiences to inform Solid Ground’s policies and programs.
For an organization that takes an anti-racist approach to solving poverty, it’s critical to hear from program participants and residents. Even more important is sharing power, and that means people have seats on the Board.
Filling in the missing piece
During her CAC service, Mary says, “I went to a couple of Board meetings, and there was nobody who lived in Solid Ground Housing there. 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.”
Back when the CAC was forming, Solid Ground’s Board was looking at how other organizations involve participants in decision-making – so they asked for CAC input into how the Board should find and approve new members.
Today, the CAC has clearly defined roles for how Board members are selected. The current CAC nominated Mary and interviewed all final candidates prior to their appointments. This new process gives program participants and residents a direct vote in who runs the organization.
Amplifying community voices
Tiffany Lamoreaux, who works alongside the CAC as Solid Ground’s Anti-Racism Initiative Manager, says, “We always had a goal of giving this group actual power by giving them a say in who serves on the Board. This is a huge win. It’s institutionalized now – they’re part of the process. This shows that Solid Ground and its Board recognize the value of lived experience.”
“I’m excited to be able to share my experience in a really authentic way. … My job there is to advocate but always make sure these communities are being empowered.” ~Mary Ruffin, Solid Ground Board of Directors
Mary loved serving on the CAC – so much so that she almost hesitated to accept her Board nomination. “A big reason why I’m here is because of the support of the community. I think you feel every bit as much a part of Solid Ground as a Board member. I would love more neighbors to join the CAC, because there’s a lot of power there, and it’s such a safe space.
When she explains how the CAC works to her now former neighbors, she describes it as “a broader community meeting – but you get all this information about programs that could potentially impact you, and you get to run the show in a way that maybe folks didn’t think was possible. The CAC is collaborative. You actually have impact. That creates a level of transparency that was totally lacking before.” She’s told people, “‘If you don’t like something, you can express it here. You can even potentially make a plan with other members of the CAC and propose that to the Board.’”
Mary is one of five talented and dedicated people who joined the Solid Ground Board this summer, greatly expanding our ability to chart how we work to solve poverty. But Mary’s appointment represents an important step in Solid Ground’s ongoing commitment to center the communities we serve in the decisions that affect them most.
Building real accountability
As a Community Action Agency, Solid Ground has always been charged to have a tripartite Board of Directors, with one-third of members representing the communities we serve. Decades ago, that meant food bank customers and other program participants served on our Board. But in recent times, our Board membership has been more weighted with professionals who work for agencies serving people living on low incomes – and fewer people with actual lived experience with poverty.
Board Chair D’Adre Cunningham explains, “We are always trying to understand how we hold ourselves accountable – how we live our values and make sure our organization is inclusive.” For this reason, she emphasizes, Mary’s path from CAC to the Board “is an important step, but we are still very much at the beginning of our work.”
Down the road, Mary says, “I would love more residents to join the Board.” But for now, “I’m excited to be able to share my experience in a really authentic way – and impact programming – and give folks a view into how a lot of these decisions impact community. My job there is to advocate but always make sure these communities are being empowered.”