Drayton Jackson has a lot to talk about.
He’s a husband and father. He’s a member the Central Kitsap School District’s Board of Directors, a Club Level Manager at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, and co-chair of the Poverty Reduction Work Group’s Steering Committee.
He’s also been homeless on both ends of the country, has struggled with depression, and still lives in poverty. Through it all he’s realized his story isn’t unique, which led to volunteering with a handful of advocacy groups and, ultimately, directed him to the Poverty Reduction Work Group’s Steering Committee and providing his valuable input and leadership during the development of the PRWG’s 10-Year Plan to Reduce Poverty and Inequality in Washington.
“The process, and where we’re at now — it’s just beautiful to see it come full-circle,” he said.
Drayton was involved in the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP Parent Ambassadors (WSA), a leadership and advocacy program for low-income parents. When the Poverty Reduction Work Group was coming together and looking for members of its steering committee, his advocacy work and connection to WSA landed him on the email list looking for applicants.
He had been invited to similar retreats in the past, though, and was a little skeptical going in.
“I made it very known that if we’re just going to play, then I don’t need to be here,” he said. “Everybody felt that same sentiment.”
The early returns for the steering committee, though, were less than ideal.
“When Marcy [Bower] and Omar [Vega], who guided us at every meeting, brought us the early draft of the 10-year plan proposal, the steering committee was disappointed,” Drayton said.
The committee felt the draft wasn’t making the most out of its gathered input.
“Some of the suggestions, they made no sense. We were like, where’s the evidence for this?” Drayton said. “Do they know why this happens? Do they know that when we go into that office, this is what happens to us?”
The pushback wound up being just what the draft needed.
“When we said, ‘This is nonsense. This cannot be what you did for the last year,’ it gave Lori Pfingst (DSHS Senior Director and coordinator of PRWG ) more of the ability to go back to them and say, ‘We need to listen to what they have to say,’” he said. “With a lot of credit to the steering committee, we took our job very seriously.”
They also decided that rather than provide problems, the committee would weigh in with solutions, and presented a letter to the Work Group outlining their concerns that the 10-year plan would remain just a plan.
“What winds up happening to us all the time, is they think, ‘We’ll give them a food voucher, let them speak, and we’ll go on with business as usual,’” Drayton said.
By the second draft, they were more impressed with the plan, which was finalized in the summer of 2020 before being presented to Gov. Jay Inslee.
“We were just in awe of everything we put down,” he said. “Every suggestion we had made it into the report. What we asked for, we got. All credit to the work group; everybody dived in.”
“They were like, ‘Finally, we see a report that’s reflective of true voices,’” he said. “For the first time, a report doesn’t have a political energy on it.”
He brings that same perspective to his role on Central Kitsap School District’s Board of Directors, and in that role, too, he hasn’t shied away from sharing his own experiences: the years of homelessness, both in New York and after relocating to Bremerton. The continuing struggles in the cycle of poverty. After he was elected to the school board last November, someone he knew asked why he would run for the position if he was living in poverty, and he answered that people in his situation need representation, too.
“A lot of that came from working with poverty reduction. It made me understand that us sitting, and us being in that room, and our voices being heard, is what made me kind of look at the school board as a situation that I need to be there,” he said. “There was nobody black or brown on the school board. There was no equality, and barriers are put up, but nobody knows how to fix that, because nobody is on the other side.”
The “other side” is the side of a life lived in poverty. Drayton grew up in the projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn, with his mother on food stamps and welfare. He was married at 19 and had the first of six daughters with his ex-wife at 20. When they split up, losing nearly half of his paycheck to child support left him in dire financial straits.
“All the money and things I had in my life were taken away from me, and that led me down the road of living homeless. Never forget, couch surfing is homelessness,” he said. “The reality is embarrassing for me, so I never told anybody, and knowing it now, I was actually going through depression and did not know it. You start to go down this road of ‘How did I get there?’”
Compounding his financial troubles was the limitations that came with falling behind on child support — his driver’s license, food handler’s permit, and license to serve alcohol were all revoked, making work even more difficult.
He was homeless in New York for almost 10 years, crashing at friends’ houses for weeks at a time. Finally, when a friend told Drayton he’d have to leave because the friend had company coming, the reality of his situation dawned on him and he checked into a men’s shelter.
Eventually, he started a relationship with a long-term friend who’s now his wife of 20 years. When they had a son together, while living in the projects, Drayton saw the cycle repeating itself.
“I asked her to move. I wanted to move someplace so far that I knew we wouldn’t move back,” he said.
They arrived in the Seattle area, where he had a lead on a job at what was then Safeco Field. The contact, however, was fired, and the job prospect seemingly dissolved. The new family had enough money to stay in a hotel, but only temporarily; they eventually found themselves in a homeless shelter until a friend in Bremerton took them in.
Broken down and seeing himself as an inconvenience, Drayton attempted suicide. He was evaluated by two doctors afterwards; the first wanted him committed to a mental health facility. The second, though, listened to his story and empathized.
“He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. You just need help,’” Drayton recalled.
The doctor made a call that helped Drayton and his family get into Sally’s Camp, a homeless encampment in Bremerton.
“That’s when everything started to pick back up,” he said. A week and a half later, he got a call about the same job he’d originally been hoping for when he moved to Washington, and he was hired to work at the Seattle Mariners’ home field. The family moved into temporary housing, which led Drayton to go back to college, where he’s just a few courses shy of completing his Associate of Arts degree.
He’s still working with Aramark, now managing club-level suites at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, and commuting from his home in Bremerton to Seattle each day to work.
Through his work with Head Start, the Early Childhood Assistance and Education Program, and other advocacy groups, he’s realized that his experience isn’t a unique story.
“The majority of the people who live in poverty, the working poor, they’re working two or three jobs to try to keep it up,” he said. “To try to keep the roof over their heads.”
That’s why the Steering Committee’s input, and how it was eventually received, has given the Poverty Reduction Work Group’s project a level of authenticity.
“The key thing that we make sure of is that whatever the committee felt, it was our job to make sure that was known,” he said. “We did not scapegoat anything. What was said in the poverty reduction meeting was what was said in our committee meeting.
“That’s what made our position be respected,” he added. “They knew what we were saying.”
He’s also well aware that the PRWG’s work isn’t finished.
“I think what they’re doing now is what’s needed to lay the groundwork,” he said. “The committee made a commitment to them, as they go out and start to talk to other departments, and get the Legislature to really move forward, I think the end part is now coming back in and telling our stories, and letting people know our recommendations are coming to light.”
Giving the people with the most relevant life experience a spot at the decision-making table is just one of the unique components to the PRWG. Strategy 2 of the 10-year Plan calls for the clients using services to have equal space in the decision-making process.
To learn more the Steering Committee’s critical role in the development of the 10-year Plan, watch this video.