This new role is a big step for Bread for the City. While we’ve had a manager of advocacy and community engagement in the past, this position has never before been at the director level. This means that we have elevated advocacy to be a core piece of our holistic service model—like our food program, medical clinic, or legal and social services programs.
After so many years of listing “justice” as one of our fundamental values, why are we doing this now? It’s simple: the District has lost over half of its affordable housing in the past 10 years. Bread for the City’s clients are being priced out of the city they call home – away from resources like jobs, social services, public transportation, and the leisure and cultural activities that make DC such an amazing place to live. We believe that this is unacceptable; we believe that this is based, in part, in racist housing and economic policies; and most importantly, we believe we can do something about it.
Enter Aja Taylor! Aja is an award-winning community organizer previously based in our Legal Clinic. She will be leading a team of community organizers and client leaders at Bread for the City and beyond, as we work to staunch the bleed of affordable housing, and ensure that all DC residents can afford to live and work in the city they call home. In coalition with cross-sector partners, other tenant organizers and others, Aja’s charge is to work toward building the power needed to create the political will to preserve and create 22,000 units of affordable housing.
Yesterday was the final day of the social justice protest known to anti-hunger advocates as the Food Stamp Challenge, and I have to admit that I am relieved.
As the CEO of Bread for the City, a DC nonprofit that has been fighting hunger since 1976, I felt obligated to join my fellow advocates who agreed to a week-long diet, consisting of foods purchased with a total of $30. You see, $30 is the average weekly allotment food stamp recipients receive through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); a program, for which the Federal government is threatening to cut between $4 million and $16 million from its budget. This all in the face of the fact that the food stamp program infuses over $2 million per year into the DC economy, not to mention its economic impact for the remaining 50 states. So I and advocates from across the country have spent the last seven days challenging ourselves to walk in the shoes of those for whom we advocate to bring attention to the fact that SNAP is foolishly on the chopping block.
And as I stated in my initial sentence, I’m relieved that the challenge has come to an end. After only 7days, I am not only hungry; I’m quite humbled by the difficulty I had this week stretching my $30 worth of groceries.
I actually purchased $29.92 worth of groceries. This got me 3 cans of tuna, 1 small bag of frozen corn, 1 small bag of frozen broccoli, 3 cans of tuna, 1 bag of white bread, 1 small bag of navy beans, 1 large can of baked beans,1 16 oz. jar of peanut butter, 1 bottle of apple juice, 1 bag of green apples, 1 box of grits, 1 box of oatmeal, 1 dozen eggs, 1 small plastic bottle of mustard, 1 raw baking potato, 1 raw sweet potato and 4 bananas. When I arrived at the grocery store checkout line, my cashier told me I had to put something back if all I had was $30 to spend. I put 4 items back: crackers, beef chunk, milk and cereal.
Now let me confess, I am a very hearty eater. So it’s in that context that I report that after only 3 and half days, I had eaten two of my three cans of tuna, all of my apples, 6 of my eggs, all four bananas and nearly all of the baked beans. I had also eaten one serving of grits and one of oatmeal. By Monday, October 15th, with three meals left to negotiate, I found myself left with a jar of peanut butter, dry grits and oatmeal, frozen corn and the remains of a pot of navy beans I cooked for Sunday dinner. Somehow, all of my white bread – which I don’t normally even eat – is gone. And I have no meats. In fact, I have no food source at all that might be considered a main course.
Hind sight is 20-20 so I’m sure if I started the experiment over, I would purchase different items, and definitely ration them differently. But it’s plain to see that for a person living on a $30 food allowance per week, there is little margin for error.
At the beginning of my week, I was bothered by the fact that I couldn’t afford any of my favorite foods. And I’m not talking steak or even chicken. I was unable able to buy any cereal, milk, raisin bread, and certainly not any desserts. And by the week’s end I was perpetually anxious simply about the general lack of food I had.
Ironically, one revelation I had during my week of the challenge was that virtually every day, there was at least one free meal that I turned down to remain true to the Food Stamp Challenge: breakfast and lunch at the DCPCA Annual meeting, lunch with a donor, and dinner and lunch at two events sponsored by my own agency. These were meals that I would ordinarily have been afforded simply during the course of my week as one of the nutritional “haves” in our society.
This week we wrote about our team of nerds attending the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. And now the Advocacy & Community Engagement department is excited to announce we have some new people power. We’re the happy recipients of staff from two prestigious training fellowship programs over the next six months.
Here’s what Terri had to say about her interest in working with Bread for the City:
I found out about Bread through a cousin over 30 years ago. At the time I didn’t have any children and we were going to the previous location — on 9th street — for clothing. I wanted to do this internship to enable me to help others in the ways that Bread for the City has helped me in all the years that I’ve been coming. I want to be a spokesperson for people that don’t have a voice, or don’t feel like they have a voice. I want to be able to teach people things they don’t know that might be used against them, such as housing rights for tenants being forced out of public housing complexes. They do a lot of things to them because they just don’t know. We have to empower people with the knowledge of their rights.
Sophia Kortchmar is joining us as a Emerson National Hunger Fellow through the Congressional Hunger Center. Here’s what they have to say, “The Emerson National Hunger Fellows Program is a social justice program that trains, inspires, and sustains leaders. Fellows gain field experience fighting hunger and poverty through placements in community based organizations across the country, and policy experience through placements in Washington, D.C. The program bridges community-based efforts and national public policy, and fellows develop as effective leaders in the movement to end hunger and poverty. The Emerson Program supports a diversity of local and national approaches to eliminate hunger, poverty and social inequality, particularly racism.”
Here’s what Sophia said about her interest in working with Bread for the City:
In most of my work, I tend to think a lot about the balance between two ways we care for each other: by providing nourishment for the body and heart and by striving for more just systems, policies, and institutions. I really appreciate that Bread for the City also seems deeply committed to that balance, and I’m excited to learn much more as I get to work this fall with Community Engagement and Advocacy. As a young person and as a newcomer both to D.C. and to food justice work, I’m also especially looking forward to meeting staff and community members, to learning more about what has brought you this work, and to soaking up as much as I can about this new city.”
Everyone’s a nerd about something, right? Well here at Bread we have our fair share of nerds, both clients and staff. For the staff in our Advocacy and Community Engagement Department, one of our positive obsessions is building power.
Advocacy’s a new department started out of the realization that though our services are stellar, they could never alone end poverty. To really accomplish our anti-poverty goals we had to find ways to directly address the justice issues at the root of poverty. To do this we need to build power among the people affected most by the problem. Our formula for building power among clients and their communities is relationships + skills building. Our relationship building is the foundation on which we connect clients to the skills and resources they need to be engaged members of the justice seeking community. Though doing relationship building work alongside organizing for social change may make the work go slower, there are real measurable payoffs. We believe our clients living in poverty are the experts on the problem and should be involved in developing the solution.
BFC Advocates Off to Allied Media Conference
To that end, we are constantly looking for skills-building experiences with a clear social justice mission. That’s why, for the second year in a row, Bread for the City staff and community members hit the road to the 14th Annual Allied Media Conference in Detroit, Michigan.
The AMC: Media Skills for Social Justice Nerds
“An empowering, amazing, and unforgettable time.” Rosa Burbridge
There couldn’t be a more fitting experience for a group of folks with varied interests at the heart of social justice than the Allied Media Conference (AMC). The AMC is a large and diverse gathering, offering hands-on trainings in a wide range of media practices, from breakdancing to video-blogging to building radio transmitters to wireless mesh networks. The AMC’s objective is to equip people with the media and communications tools they need to make change happen.
The AMC helps us expose clients and staff to new uses for media and technology that might help us run a campaign, analyze research that is being done in or about our communities, take an informed stance on a policy, or come up with some phenomenal solution to a complex community issue.
This is already happening at Bread. Leaders within our client community are conducting research on our services and client engagement strategy with the objective of making recommendations that will make it work better. Participatory action research, or PAR, is a grassroots media and research tool Joni Podschun, Advocacy Coordinator, learned about at AMC 2011.
“Very healing!” – Farasha “I felt like part of the family.” – Valencia Rutledge
All of the clients who went are doing significant work to help our community thrive. They’ve volunteered lots of time in the past and have committed to bringing some of what they learned back. There are already brilliant ideas a-bubbling.
Going to Detroit also connected us to justice minded media makers back home who are down to collaborate on projects that amplify our mission here at Bread.
“I met more people from DC working on stuff I’m interested in in Detroit that I could never have met right here.” – Judith Hawkins
Funny how that happens but, through the Allied Media Conference, we’ve been able to meet more folks from DC interested in contributing to Bread’s work. Take, for example, the many staff of the Open Technology Institute. Last year, some Bread staff and clients met OTI folks at the AMC and, since then, they’ve been able to collaborate on a few Discovering Technology Fairs where hundreds of people have been able to learn tech skills and understand the digital divide in DC and what they can do about it.
“DiscoTech was a phenomena! Greg, Andrew, Adrianne, Jessie, and the other presenters were excellent in conveying valuable concepts which will help promote our mission in being a media platform for our communities in a way that will cause social change.” Donald Monroe
This year, because they kept in touch with the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, those same folks presented their work so far at the AMC as a fully formed workshop and practice session to teach other folks how to stage discotechs in their community. Our staff and clients are even featured prominently in the How-to Guide on Disotechs just released by the DDJC.Neato!
“I wish the AMC would come to DC. It was a great learning experience.” – Judy Hawkins
Connect * Create * Transform
That was this year’s theme. We hope to transform our relationship to information sharing in DC. There’s no reason to keep all this goodness to ourselves. We’d like to bring a little of the AMC to you as we reflect on our journey in multiple ways. Consider this part of a multi-media reportback on the conference, what we learned and where we’re making connections.
As a teaser, our resident video editing nerds Judy Hawkins and Valencia Rutledge put together this little video. Check it out and stay tuned for more updates about what inspired us.
During the conference, Bread staff and clients were tweeting. Follow hashtag #amc2012 and staff feeds @zorganizrcurtis and @joni_pod. As we plan for next year, we’ll update you on a hashtag created just for folks interested in Bread — #breadamc.
If you’re interested in learning more about the AMC or in helping more clients get the skills they need to organize for social change, email us at email@example.com. All nerds are welcome, you’ll be among friends.
On Tuesday, June 19, 2012, Bread for the City Legal Director Vytas V. Vergeer was elected to the DC Bar’s 20 member Board of Governors to serve for a three year term. The Board of Governors serves the DC Bar to ensure that the ethical standards and rules of professional conduct are upheld in the legal community.
Fueled by a superhuman dedication to social justice, as well as lots of Mountain Dew, Vergeer is eager to serve on the DC Bar Board of Governors.
“I hope to be able to help the bar become the most effective agency for its attorneys,” shared Vytas after winning the election.
Vergeer joined Bread for the City as a staff attorney in 1994 and became legal director in 1999. Under his tenure, the legal clinic has grown to 14 full-time staff attorneys who opened 720 cases for full representation in matters of housing, family, and disability law last fiscal year. Most notably in recent years, Vergeer and his staff worked collaboratively with the Legal Aid Society of DC to launch two new projects with the DC Superior Court (paid for by public funds awarded by the DC Bar Foundation): the Court-Based Legal Services Project and the Child Support Court-Based Legal Services Project, which provide same-day representation in matters of housing and family law, respectively.
Vytas with his staff attorneys
Vytas Vergeer was awarded the Jerrold Scoutt Prize in 2010 by the DC Bar Foundation for his efforts to reform pro bono tenant representation in the Superior Court Landlord and Tenant Branch. The Jerrold Scoutt Prize is awarded annually to an attorney who has worked for a significant portion of his or her career at a non-profit organization providing direct hands-on legal services to the needy in the District of Columbia; has demonstrated compassionate concern for his or her clients; and has exhibited a high degree of skill on their behalf. You can read Vergeer’s acceptance speech here (it’s quite funny!).
If there’s one thing you can’t argue, it’s that multiple superheroes are better than one. I’m a comic book novice and even I know that. It seems to work best when a group of heroes use their skills complementary and they share the work of fighting evil.
In real life, we can take a page from the books of famous superhero collectives to figure out how to create more justice in times of economic uncertainty and instability.
BFC Volunteer and Superhero Mary Christie
Making DC a Place for DC Residents: Kelsey Gardens Case
Looking at our city, our modern Gotham, it appears that almost every day an old apartment building gets torn down and new development pops up to replace it. What looks like an urban facelift for some has meant skyrocketing rents, discrimination and displacement for the less fortunate. In a few cases, legal professionals, activists and residents have stepped in as a united group to make sure developers are held accountable to treating low-income residents fairly under the law. Take Kelsey Gardens, for example.
Kelsey Gardens was a low-rent housing development right across the street from Bread for the City’s Northwest Center. Today, what was Kelsey Gardens is a hole in the ground 8 years in the making. Last weekend, when the city tore down the dilapidated buildings, leaving nothing but rubble and a cloud of dust on Georgia Avenue, 19 families, former residents who had fought against their displacement, rejoiced. After years of vigilantly waiting to return to their neighborhood, the City had finally begun tearing the empty buildings down.
“Everyone was relieved to see it go. They’ve been waiting for so long for the city to finally tear it down and begin rebuilding these people’s homes, ” shared Rebecca Lindhurst, Housing Practice Supervisor with Bread for the City’s legal clinic.
It was a bittersweet celebration but a necessary one–though they’re not back yet, the residents fought for and won their right to return to the neighborhood once the mixed-income housing slated for the site is complete. By their side throughout the process was a team made up of organizers from ONE-DC, formerly MANNA CDC, lawyers from Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovell) donating their services, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, and a few of Bread for the City’s best lawyers. Together, they provided the legal counsel, organizing know-how, access to resources, and education that helped the organized Kelsey Gardens residents understand their situation, participate in legal strategizing and run a 2-year-long campaign against unfair treatment in housing.
“This is the direction we’ve got to go in–lawyers and organizers should work together more often. If it wasn’t for Bread for the City’s Lawyers stepping in at the beginning to help, getting organized would have been much more difficult. I think this kind of partnership is the future or organizing.” — Dominic Moulden, One DC
BFC Superheros Zachari Curtis and Louise Thundercloud
Not just fighting crime…building power
Lawyers and Organizers can team up with community members to do more than just combat a single issue or fight a villain. They can help people come up with creative solutions to complex issues or situations that don’t have a clear antagonist. Where there have been successful community efforts to open community clinics, build affordable housing, start after-school programs or implement any number of innovative solutions, there are usually lawyers and organizers there to help. Like our favorite superhero crews, the group determines what approach is best; which has everything to do with the skills and expertise within the community. Professionals support the team in articulating and reaching their goals, but don’t impose a solution. Their role may involve lending legal expertise, fundraising, educating people about their rights or just pulling some of the political strings more privileged communities have access to.
It is possible for lawyers and organizers to work with communities when there’s no emergency… but this approach takes preparation. Building trust is essential. Lawyers, organizers, and other professionals from outside the community must be extra careful to use their skills and expertise to support community leaders rather than take over. They may have to work at this for a long time before an opportunity to collaborate shows itself. The goal is to build leadership and power from within that lasts long after the lawyer and the organizer are gone.
Just how this is done varies by community but the term for the supportive role that legal professionals play is called “community lawyering.” Recently, Bread for the City sent four staff — two attorneys and two organizers — to Chicago to learn from experts on community lawyering at the Sargent Shriver National Center for Poverty Law. The Shriver Center’s training focuses on teaching lawyers how to work with organizers and community leaders as equal partners.
Though we can’t say we’ve figured it all out yet, there’s a commitment to building our skills and identifying resources that will help us do this type of lawyering better. The Kelsey Garden’s story represents a glimmer of hope for what might be possible when we work together with a community–superhero to superhero. We believe it’s worth it. In the end, having an array of specialized superpowers at our disposal, a community of justice-minded allies means better odds the next time evil lurks.
The DC Primary Care Association’s ambitious plan was to use the DC RHIO to coordinate the provision of health care services across the regional network of hospitals and specialists and community health clinics like Bread for the City. The goal was to achieve — through established channels of shared information — better patient-centered medical care with fewer errors, greater cost-savings, and protection for the most vulnerable people in our community.
It is a beautiful and exciting vision. In our unfortunate current reality, there are many separate data systems across the city, even within a single organization (like a hospital for example), that all track different pieces of care, without the ability to talk to one another. That makes for seeing a whole health picture very difficult. Think of it this way: in the 21st century, we can access all the world’s information from gadgets in our palm, but when we go to a neurologist or the ER, our doctors don’t have access to our primary doctor’s most recent labs and notes. James Turner of the HealthIT Now Coalition draws a parallel, “It’s as if we live in a time when someone with a Verizon phone can’t talk to someone with AT&T service. But this is healthcare!”
Consider the following scenario that our Dr. Randi lays out: “Say a patient of ours had a heart attack or a stroke. They have just been released from the ER, and they are confused and distressed. They might have no idea what doctors they saw, what tests were performed, or even the outcome of the visit. With a Health Information Exchange, we [providers] can look that patient up in the system, see lab results, medications prescribed, pathology reports, discharge summaries, and we can begin to piece the picture together for the patient. When we can help in that way, the patient is relieved and more informed and we can give them better care with less redundancy and run-around.”
And perhaps the best reassurance that we were doing the right thing with the RHIO: patients were behind it. When we would tell Bread for the City patients that we would be sharing their information with other providers in the RHIO, the response was often “Aren’t you doing that already?!” After all, that’s what quality healthcare and meaningful use of technology is all about, right?
While small at first – six early-adopter clinics and a few hospitals – the big vision for the RHIO entailed the interconnection of every point of contact in the whole system of care in the Washington DC for all the city’s patients.
So why then, if the project was underway, did the District halt the development of its Health Information Exchange? I don’t really know for sure, but I think it’s safe to say that it involves politics and money.
If the RHIO is not saved, a considerable amount of investment will go to waste — and the potential value will be lost. The District has announced the pursuit of a bare bones Direct Project model, instead of a more robust HIE – but this feels a little like salt in the wounds. This Direct Project is essentially just a protected email service — while it serves a function that could be integrated into a bigger HIE system, it falls far short of the comprehensive data sharing necessary to improve care.
Now what? Rather than lose years of progress and millions of dollars which put DC at the cutting edge of health information technology, we think DC should reconsider this new direction. The DC RHIO is an investment worth protecting. Let’s ensure the effective implementation of the health information technology initiatives that we need to modernize our healthcare system. The State Health Information Exchange is really a valuable public utility — so the Mayor and City Council should be committed to identifying budgetary solutions for next year and beyond. We need $3,086,000 to be funded to DCPCA through the Office of the Chief Technology Officer to save DC RHIO. Please contact the Mayor and your Councilmember today and ask them to invest in our city’s health.
Here at Bread for the City, we use media to share what’s happening under (and on) our roof. We also work with our clients to bear witness to some of the most important issues facing our city. As I’ve spent time at Bread working on food issues, I’ve become increasingly excited about the possibilities of story-telling, information-sharing, and communication generally, in building a community of advocates for a healthier food system in D.C.
For me, the Allied Media Conference offers an exciting opportunity to explore why and how to do this kind of work better. The conference is an skill-sharing extravaganza that emphasizes the role of creative and collaborative communications in building a more just world.
Are you heading to Detroit as well? Have thoughts on what information we should glean? Want to see these conversations and opportunities for sharing skills to happen in DC? Let us know in the comments.
This afternoon, the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development has a stellar budget hearing line-up: Housing Finance Agency, Department of Housing and Community Development, and DC Housing Authority. As we’ve talked about before, the proposed DC budget for 2012 includes major cuts to crucial affordable housing programs. The Local Rent Supplement Program, Housing First, and Housing Production Trust Fund are being slashed, on top of devastating cuts to homeless services. These cuts will make it even harder for families already struggling to find or maintain affordable housing in DC.
But the City Council can still restore the funding. We need to tell our elected officials that affordable housing is a priority for DC residents, and we won’t accept these cuts! Make your voice heard with the Continuum of Housing Campaign and housing allies from around the city this evening at 6pm at the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave NW.
Last week, I talked to Blache McLeod about the housing cuts. She did finance work as a DC government employee before she got injured and couldn’t work. She’s now on SSI because of her disability. She gets a home health aide for five hours a day, to help with her daily activities and keep her out of a nursing home, and she lives in subsidized housing. Here’s a little bit of what she had to say about the budget cuts:
They are dismissing us because of our economic status. If my rent was not subsidized, I would have to pay $1800 a month. I get $674 from SSI! That’s all I’ve got to work with. It makes me angry that they don’t think about the consequences.
We’re going down individually to beg them, “Save my program?” Instead, we need to go together, and this time we’re not begging. They understand the cameras. They understand the media. We have to let them know, “I don’t like what you’re doing.”
I am here. There’s not a day I’m not in pain, but I am not riding away into the sunset. I’ll be down there every day, in my pajamas, with my overnight bag. As long as we have the Wilson Building, I won’t be homeless. I may be the only one down there, but I won’t stop.
It may not be a lot of us, but once people start to see and hear, they’ll come out. A lot of people don’t watch the news, so they don’t know. You’ve got to get on the internet and hear what’s going on, and then starting talking. You have to come out.
Each of us has a little piece of the puzzle. Our voices need to be heard. We have to fight.
Join Ms. McLeod and Bread for the City staff and clients at the Wilson Building this evening from 6:00 – 7:00 pm. If you can, bring your blankets and a pillow to remind the City Council that if some of our residents don’t have a safe place to sleep tonight. It’s at 1350 Pennsylavnia Ave NW, close to the Federal Triangle and Metro Center stations, and on the 30 bus lines.
The more we learn about the Mayor’s proposed budget, the less we like. We here at Bread for the City believe it’s the responsibility of the DC government to fund the safety net programs that keep families healthy and make our city strong. Instead of this vision, our Mayor proposed a budget with alarming and disproportionate divestment. Two dollars out of every $3 cut in the budget comes from human services, even though these programs make up only one fourth of the total budget. We need more money – not less – for homeless services, affordable child care, adult literacy, mental health services, affordable housing, and support for disabled residents.
Here’s more information on the specific issues our clients and staff are working on right now:
TANF The Mayor wants to cut cash assistance for about 7,000 families with children. The benefit for a mother and two children would be reduced to $257 per month, a reduction that’s on top of cuts enacted last December. Also, household where parents don’t attend the required work or work-readiness activities would lose all TANF benefits, whereas in the past children remained in the case load even if their parents weren’t fulfilling the requirements. This policy change that harms children rather than supporting TANF recipients meet their goals.
Housing The Mayor proposes major cuts to housing programs.
– Elimination of the Local Rent Supplement Program by not issuing any new rental vouchers, which creates a savings of $4 million in FY2012.
– Cut of $18 million from the Housing Production Trust Fund, which is used for construction of affordable housing and loans for tenants to buy their buildings.
Interim Disability Assistance Program This program provides temporary cash assistance as DC residents with a disability wait for approval or denial for SSI. The budget eliminates this vital program.
If you’d like to join us in our fight to save safety net funding, come to a Bread for the City Budget Lunch. They happen every Wednesday in our Southeast Center and every Friday in our Northwest Center. We eat at 11:30 am, then start sharing information and working on projects from 12:00 to 1:00 pm. It’s a great way to meet our clients and staff, and spend an hour each week getting things done. If you’d like to learn more, contact me at jpodschun(at)breadforthecity.org or 202-553-7248.