Juanita Maestas is a longtime advocate for the impoverished. She’s part of the Solid Ground Advisory Council and the Statewide Poverty Action Network Board and the head of her own Human Dignity Support Project, which made her a natural fit for the Poverty Reduction Work Group’s Steering Committee.
And, despite a healthy bit of skepticism early on, she’s become the heart of the PWRG Steering Committee, on which she serves as co-chair with Drayton Jackson. She’s become what she calls a “package deal” with co-chair Drayton; he’s the head, she’s the heart.
“He has the knowledge, the strength, the know-how-to-get-at-you,” she said. “I have the heart, the backup — I also have the strength, but there’s a lot of things you can’t do without the other.”
Juanita said her experience with PRWG was amazing.
“You brought two different communities together to join as one. We lost people on both sides, but we still made it,” she said, referencing people dropping off the committee for one reason or another. “Everybody that was involved in all of this is amazing. Everybody got to put their input in. We worked hard, we put all our differences aside, and pushed and pushed and pushed.”
She’s also aware that even though the PRWG and the Steering Committee were bound to hit a few speedbumps working together, she’s happy with the outcome.
“We did something that a lot of people would think was impossible,” she said. “And there wouldn’t be anything that I would change, because we did it. And I mean we — the whole family.”
She was invited to work with the PRWG on the 10-Year Plan to Reduce Poverty and Inequality in Washington State early on in the process, but the prospect of working with DSHS — which handles some of the administration of the Poverty Reduction Work Group — gave her pause.
“It’s like fire and ice with me and DSHS, so I was really unsure of everything,” she said. “The first meeting, I was so scared I felt like such an underdog. Because I am a person, a minority, I’m low income, and here’s all these people (state employees) — it’s like they’re not going to listen to me.”
It was a pleasant surprise, then, when she found out just how much her voice mattered. Juanita’s suggestion to bring in members of the community led to the formation of the Steering Committee and her own nomination to help chair the committee.
“I love the fact that the bigger workgroup gave the Steering Committee the power to be the final say-so on the 10-year plan,” she said. “At least for me, that’s like a dream come true, 20 years later.”
She also appreciated PRWG’s comprehensive approach to addressing poverty and inequality.
“One change is not going to fix everybody’s issue. You’re going to have to take each individual issue and have a solution just for that one,” she said. “Money is not always going to take care of everybody’s problems. It’s going to help them, and give them something to look forward to, but it’s not going to give them the self-confidence that they need to be able to succeed (and get to) where their mind and their heart are going.”
One of the contributions Juanita is most proud of is the simplification of language in the 10-Year Plan. She told Tim Probst — Grants Director for Employment Security Department and co-chair of the PRWG — how much weight a readable document carried.
“I’d always told them, when you write something up, you have to put it in a language where people understand it,” she said. “So on the email, he actually said, ‘Oh, I cannot forget to put this in a language you understand.’ My mouth dropped. I would not think that he would remember.”
Her grandson, Anthony, has also been a part of the process. Juanita, who nannies Anthony and his brother, has been taking him around to Statewide Poverty Action meetings and other advocacy events since he was 3 years old. Now 11, Anthony has befriended members of the PRWG and the Legislature, and in April received Gov. Jay Inslee’s Youth Volunteer Service Award for his efforts — as well as the t-shirt and pin that go with the recognition.
Juanita, like most of the Steering Committee members, has her own story of living in poverty. She was a client of public assistance programs when she had her son and daughter, trying to find a job and support her kids.
“It was hard. We became homeless, trying to find a job that met my essentials I need to be able to take care of my kids, which is just hard,” she said. “We were homeless like twice. I couldn’t find the job I wanted; I was either too much experience for one job or not enough. I couldn’t go to school; what am I going to do with my kids? It really tears someone down being a single parent and trying to raise two kids.”
She’s proud of the lives her son and daughter have carved out for themselves. Her daughter, 29, is now the supervisor at a glass company, while her son, 27, is a commercial fisherman in Alaska most of the year.
“I am so blessed to have these two,” she said. “They looked at the way their life was, and made that change. But I’m lucky because they don’t forget about me.”
While raising her kids, she found herself at the DSHS offices more than once, frustrated after being denied for a paperwork mix-up or an incorrect digit on a form. That led her to create the Human Dignity Support Project.
“I love resources, and love doing the research, so I helped like 10 people,” she said. “I was able to get people their benefits that were entitled to them. It was amazing that that was so different when you had somebody with you, and at that time I didn’t have, like, an ad with my name on it that said I’m an advocate.”
She’s also been with Solid Ground, an anti-poverty and social services organization, since 2000, which has built her standing as an advocate.
“I just believe that I am an awesome advocate. I can do just about anything,” she said, “And I’m proud of where I’m at now.”
She’s now sharing the same connection with her fellow Steering Committee members that she’s shared with everyone she’s come into contact with through advocacy over the years.
“The Steering Committee is my family. They’re growing up, they’re learning from their life experiences, and sharing it with people so they can make their lives a little better,” she said. “They may not end poverty, but they can make their lives a little better.”