Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
At this unprecedented time of injustice in the United States, what does “power” mean for low-income families? How can a national movement of low-income families effect change to create a more equitable and just society?
This past year, Americans have witnessed the wealth gap deepen into a chasm, while bias, discrimination, and injustice continue to undermine opportunities for families. Yet it is also a time of great potential for building power to face these issues from the ground up.
Building the power of poor and low-income families to end poverty has been the guiding principle of Marguerite Casey Foundation’s work since 2001. We envision a society where all families have the opportunity to realize their dreams, and we are dedicated to nurturing a national movement of low-income families advocating on their own behalf—one powerful enough to create solutions to poverty and injustice.
Across the country, the nonprofits and networks we support are winning hard-fought victories across the dividing lines of policy issues, geography, race, gender, resource scarcity, and economics. What have we learned about power through these wins? What can we do better or differently?
Families, communities, and organizations are generating the answers every day. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from our grantee partners.
The power of networks: agency
Families do not experience poverty one issue at a time; they may face racial discrimination, unemployment, lack of education opportunities, and hunger simultaneously. To span these multiple issues, we need strategies and networks that unify families, organizations, and communities around collective actions.
The power of networks is especially important as various organizations fighting on behalf of low-income families have overlapping policy priorities, and compete for the same resources and attention in a saturated landscape. The fate of the movement for economic and racial justice depends on our ability to connect across issues and work together.
For example, the tremendous achievement of passing a state-level, living-wage law in California—the most populated and wealthiest state—paradoxically had negative implications for families who rely on childcare subsidies to survive. The law that nudges up the ceiling on California’s minimum wage came in direct conflict with the floor on the state’s salary eligibility guidelines for childcare subsidy.
Mary Ignatius, an organizer with Parent Voices, a parent-led organization fighting to make quality childcare accessible and affordable in California, explains:
I think for some folks, there was the assumption that if you make better wages, you can have better childcare. But this was only if you didn’t take into account that a parent getting a $0.50 per hour raise meant she could lose $1,500 to $2,000 worth of childcare subsidies monthly; it doesn’t add up. We already knew from our members that many had turned down raises or cut their hours due to the faulty income guidelines for access to the benefit of childcare.
This is where the power and necessity of having a multi-racial, multi-issue network driven by low-income families came into play. Ignatius describes how members of the Bay Area Equal Voice Coalition (BAEVC) worked together to break through the impasse of competing policy objectives:
[The process] wasn’t ever an either-or, but a way for us to educate one another. The childcare policy conversation had been led for decades by middle- and upper-class white women who didn’t have a racial and economic justice lens, so we had to stress the importance of fighting for a living wage in a way that didn’t hurt parents or childcare workers. Then we had to help the folks working for a higher minimum wage understand the implications on the entire family budget and [what] families [needed] to survive. [Making progress] doesn’t mean we have to oppose one another. It just means we have to be doing both at the same time.
Collaborative actions like BAEVC’s help organizations prepare for challenges ahead, build on local victories, spread strength, and support everyone’s work.
Families at the core: unity
Our foundation believes that the families closest to poverty are also closest to the solutions. When we first announced our approach more than 17 years ago, and gathered tens of thousands of low-income families across the country to talk about solutions to their own problems, people constantly asked me: “Why families? Why are you going to organize families, rather than organize one person or one organization at a time?” They assumed that living in poverty meant living in a state of powerlessness, and so why take on this approach?
Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, a grassroots organization working to transform systems that put children at risk of prison, explains:
There’s this theory that people in poverty are not credible. When our families testify at the state legislature, it changes the argument. When we correct elected officials, because we’ve done our homework and know the facts about the systems harming our children, they stop seeing us as ‘bad’ parents who must be ignorant if their children are incarcerated. My greatest desire is to give our family members the training and confidence they need to stop giving up their power.
In under-resourced communities, there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between fear-mongering and racial divisiveness, but efforts that embrace the idea of “leading with families” can surmount both.
Immigrant rights advocate Josh Hoyt, executive director of the multiethnic, multiracial, immigrant and refugee rights coalition National Partnership for New Americans, attended one of our foundation’s first family convenings in 2007 and sat at a table with a group of multi-racial, intergenerational leaders from across the country. He recalls:
I was kind of dumbstruck at the power of the “family” approach to the conversation … It demolished the differences between the participants. It showed how the mass incarceration and criminalization approach to both criminal justice and immigration had touched everyone in the group. It united us across race. I left there, and [my organization] changed our organizing framework from “immigrants are workers, not criminals” to “protect families.”
Families leading change
The ability to effect real change at the local level, then build on these victories to create broader policy change, is uniquely promising at this moment. When we confront how dismal the prospects for federal-level policy changes might seem—important policies for low-income families of color who are living in poverty; threatened by deportation; going hungry and without healthcare and jobs; and suffering from police violence, mass incarceration, and attacks on immigrants—we can be heartened to know that we are in a period of awakening from the ground up.
Today I don’t get as many stares as I once did when I talk about how families are the unit of change and the source of leadership our country needs. No one can tell me that families who experience poverty don’t have the wisdom and the agency to solve their own problems. I’ve just shared a few of many examples here. Here are a few recommendations for funders that want to try this approach:
- Lead with a promise to families to: Ask. Listen. Act.
- Provide cornerstone organizations with long-term, multi-year, general-support grants that demonstrate a lasting commitment to strengthening communities.
- Invest in regional networks that span the multiple issues low-income and working families face every day. Networks are powerful forces for unifying families, community groups, and advocates around collective actions.
- Amplify the voices of families closest to the problems, as they share how they use their power to make progress in uplifting their communities.
- Think creatively about how to align program-related investments with your larger grantmaking strategy so that you can tackle challenges from multiple directions.