If you want brutal honesty about what it’s like to be poor in America, just ask Kim McGillivray. How does it feel to have to constantly prove your poverty in order to receive the public benefits you rely on to survive? Kim is quick with an answer: “One continuous public proctology exam.” Why don’t social services offices have better customer service? Kim is happy to tell you. “Because we’re not the customer,” she says. “We’re seen as leeches, for lack of a better word, and we are to be picked off and discarded.”
Truths like these may be difficult to hear, but they’re exactly the kind of unvarnished appraisals Solid Ground seeks as we work to hold ourselves accountable to the communities we serve.
“There’s no way for us to know what support people really need – and whether we’re doing our job in providing it – unless we ask them.” ~Shalimar Gonzales, Solid Ground CEO
We know that people like Kim – people who’ve experienced poverty and homelessness in their own lives – are the ones who best understand what kind of services and support they need. It’s why we constantly work to listen, ask questions, and empower people experiencing poverty to play a meaningful role in the decisions that affect their lives.
It’s also why Kim is such a valuable member of our Community Accountability Council (CAC), a group of 11 people who draw on life experiences to advise us, help make key decisions, and push us to do better.
“There’s no way for us to know what support people really need – and whether we’re doing our job in providing it – unless we ask them,” says Shalimar Gonzales, Solid Ground’s CEO. “It’s why people like Kim, and the wisdom they draw from their experiences, are so vital to what we do at Solid Ground.”
‘Never one to opt out of a fight’
In more than one way, Kim was born to tell uncomfortable truths. A former journalist and lawyer who spent years writing scripts for newscasts in Washington, D.C. and here in Seattle, Kim has also experienced poverty as a single mother trying to make ends meet with a minimum wage job after escaping a violent and abusive marriage. For years, she and her kids moved from apartment to apartment to evade her ex-husband’s stalking, while also fighting off his attempts to control her through the courts.
It was after one of those moves that Kim asked her landlord to fix something in the apartment and was threatened with eviction instead. She knew what the landlord was doing wasn’t legal, so she reached out to Solid Ground and was connected with a lawyer who advised her of her options. In the end, she decided to buy enough time to find a new apartment rather than fight her landlord and risk getting an eviction on her record.
“I just had to make sure my family and I had a safe place to live next before I could opt out of the fight, and I was never one to opt out of a fight,” she says. “That was a big deal at the time. It brought the peace into my life that I had wanted and hadn’t been able to lay my hands on. It brought me away from the frontline.”
More than just a seat at the table
Even as she deals with her own challenges as someone getting by on a low income, Kim seeks out opportunities to use her darkest experiences to help others find the light.
So when Kim heard that Solid Ground – the agency that helped her out all those years ago – was creating a Community Accountability Council, she was quick to volunteer. In the nearly four years since, the CAC has been integrated into decision-making processes at Solid Ground, giving people who’ve experienced poverty a direct say in what we do and how we do it.
But we’re still growing and learning. Just recently, after years of advocacy from Kim and other CAC members, Solid Ground started paying an an honorarium to people with direct experience with poverty who serve on our Board of Directors.
These payments are meant to reflect the value of lived experience as well as remove potential barriers – like transportation or childcare costs – that might keep someone from serving on the board and sharing their wisdom.
“I believe that paying people for their experience adds value to that experience, but that experience also adds value to Solid Ground’s programs, so it’s mutually beneficial,” she says.
Charting Solid Ground’s future together
Most recently, the CAC helped refine Solid Ground’s “Tell us what you think!” Customer Satisfaction Survey, which we’ll launch in the coming months. “As usual, they didn’t pull any punches,” says Javier Flores, Solid Ground’s Strategic Information Systems Manager.
Javier describes the survey as “one of three parts of the puzzle of how we affect change at Solid Ground.” First, we conduct a Community Needs Assessment every three years to find out what support people with lived experience with poverty want and need. Then we collect data from our programs to assess how well our work is aligned with those needs. And finally, the annual Customer Satisfaction Surveys give us regular feedback on how we’re doing.
Solid Ground is now in the process of synthesizing all that information – all those stories, all those data points – and using it all to inform our strategic plan for the next five years. We’re grateful to people like Kim and other CAC and community members who’ll hold us to it.
Want to hear more of Kim’s wisdom? Check out what she had to say at our last Social Justice Salon, “Untangling the Safety Net.”
You can also read more about this event in our blog post, What we learned at the Salon: Untangling our safety net requires listening to the people it serves.