A couple of years ago I was asked to represent the Department of Health on the Governor’s Poverty Reduction Workgroup (PRWG). The PRWG was tasked with creating a 10-year strategic plan to reduce poverty in Washington State. The first meeting was in a very large room with over 70 people from community organizations, tribal nations, state agencies, businesses, etc. I remember wondering exactly how were we going to do this… and I admit to having some complacency about our ability to make a change.
Today I can say that it was the most humbling, exhilarating, uncomfortable, and hopeful experience of my 15-year career in state government. Here’s why:
- We agreed that in order to make real change, we had to change how we were doing the work. The systems we have aren’t broken, they are working how they are supposed to and that is to keep the status quo going. The status quo has resulted in inequities for people of color and other groups and a cycle of intergenerational poverty and trauma. If we keep doing work the same way, we will get the same results.
I admit, it is painful and exhausting to say that something I know and contribute to isn’t working. It is a lesson in raw humility, especially after working in state government for a long time. The things I thought were “best” were not. And yet, it is even more painful for those we serve; I imagine it is like trying to hold water in a cup that I’m telling someone is whole, but really it is just a handful of pieces.
- We put people with lived experience in a leadership position. The Governor asked the PRWG to ensure that we were advised by people experiencing poverty. In one of the first meetings, someone asked why the people experiencing poverty weren’t leading the work since they were the experts in what needed to change. That question led to the convening of a 22-member Steering Committee of people in poverty who met every month for a full day and dove deep into each of the systems impacting their lives. You can watch a video of select Steering committee members talking about their experiences here (scroll down the page about half way). The two Steering Committee co-chairs – Drayton Jackson and Juanita Maestas – were also members of the PRWG. Every month Drayton and Juanita brought forward recommendations from those intense daylong meetings to the PRWG.
The Steering Committee members are some of the bravest people I have ever worked with. It takes a tremendous amount of strength and selflessness to share your trauma and pain and then use that experience to make change for the greater good. This is even more awe inspiring knowing that they were not paid for their time and effort (because it would ironically impact their benefits) and some were also parenting their children during meetings. And then at the end of each meeting (as Drayton and Juanita reminded us), they were still going home poor.
- We centered race. The experience of poverty is not shared equally. Not everyone in the group had the same understanding about this and the role structural racism, implicit bias, and historical trauma plays in the issue of poverty today. So we brought in a racial equity consultant who led us in training and deep learning. It was imperative for us, as a group of people representing agencies and organizations across the state, to understand our own racism and how it played out in our systems and in the Poverty Reduction Workgroup. We could not make sincere recommendations or be leaders in the work without that perspective.
One training strategy was to convene into two ‘affinity groups’ — a caucus of color and a white caucus — at various times to talk about our experiences and about the plan we were creating. I was a member of the white caucus. I admit that it took us a long time to understand why we were together as white people, or to see our caucus gathering as different from any other meeting we were in. This was likely because we were used to meeting with other white people to do work. And so, in the beginning, we just continued the conversation as if we were in the larger group. In order to change our approach we had to be intentional. We had to say “we need to talk about why we are meeting as white people.”
This process was uncomfortable, which is interesting (and part of the issue). We also had to go back to the caucus of color and report about that experience. When we did that it was clear how painful it was for the caucus of color to hear us grappling. Yet, with historical courage and grace that runs much deeper than mine, they responded honestly when we asked them what they needed, what this was like for them, and how we could move forward. I am forever grateful for my colleagues in the caucus of color. You truly changed people with your vulnerability and you didn’t have to. We let you down and you raised us up.
- We showed up, listened and made mistakes. I don’t know of any other way to build trust except to do the work of being present, authentic and messy. This whole process was ripe for distrust. We had power differences because of race, because of relationships between tribal nations and state agencies, because of differences in positions, because we had people in the room getting benefits from the state and people in the room overseeing those benefits. I had not experienced this type of meeting before, where we were eventually honest about these differences.
I think there were many times that we disappointed each other. We said things imperfectly or didn’t say anything when we should have. But I think we learned about our interconnectedness in making change. As a white caucus, we were accountable to the caucus of color. As a Poverty Reduction Workgroup we were accountable to the Steering Committee. The PRWG met for a full day every month for almost two years. It didn’t take us that long to change each other, but I think it took us that long to believe that we could trust that change.
I am proud to share one outcome of this work: Reducing Poverty & Inequality in Washington state: 10-Year Plan for the Future. Many people are searching for their action point right now. We are all individually responsible — especially other white people and white leaders — for examining our biases, for listening and learning, and for admitting to our own complicity in racism. We are also accountable to look closely at our programs, our practices and our policies in public health and state government and to hear people’s experiences with us. I believe this plan provides a foundation to do all of this.
I wanted to write about this because to me, another equally important outcome is what happened while we created this plan; it is the process, the growth, the relationships and the change that each of us, in our own way, will carry forward. I know I will.