An impressive gathering of area residents and faithful advocates came together September 27 at United Christian Parish for the first in a series of discussions on poverty and social action. It wasn’t a surprising topic for a community with a deep commitment to volunteerism as captured in the Reston tagline “Live, work, play and serve.” What was interesting, however, was the provocative message from UCP’s Justice Mobilization Task Force that good works are not enough—that it’s time to move beyond charity to build justice.
That message could be uncomfortable for nonprofit organizations whose programs are dependent on charitable gifts, or for those who equate social action with partisan politics. But for the panel of experts who joined UCP to respond to this challenge, it’s a call to action justified by the bad news in national poverty reports and opportunity indices, and the despair we see in our neighbors’ faces.
The invited respondent panel included Reston Interfaith and its partners and community leaders Marco Grimaldo of the Virginia Interfaith Center; Kathleen O’Toole of VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement; John Horejsi of SALT (Social Action Linking Together), and Amanda Andere of FACETS and Nonprofit NoVA. These knowledgeable leaders built a compelling case for the need to act, and offered keen insights on organizing for justice and power.
Choices: Our neighbors face multiple and complex challenges. While Virginia and the metropolitan DC area are fortunate to have a poverty rate lower than the national average, the reality is still troubling for those children and adults living in poverty in our cities and suburbs in affluent Northern Virginia. Barriers such as education, unemployment, literacy, language, culture, age, health, physical or mental disabilities, and addiction are isolating factors and contribute to a silencing of the voices that need to be heard. The current recession has compounded the problem, putting individuals and families into situations they never imagined they would face and without any immediate relief. Retirement savings, housing equity, credit score, security-all gone.
It’s hard enough for a two-income family living in Fairfax County to easily budget and manage all their household needs, while saving for retirement, college and desired extras. Imagine raising a family of four on $22,000 a year—when rent ($1500/month) and utilities ($150/month) eat up all but about $2,000 per year that you’ve got to stretch to cover food, transportation, clothing, healthcare, school supplies, and “extras” for the entire year. Public benefits? Food stamps and school lunches will help but are limited. Housing vouchers? Maybe, but the wait will be long. Double that income and you no longer qualify for any public benefits and come up short in every household budget category. Feel the stress? Imagine the choices.
Solutions: Poverty and injustice have always been with us – it’s how we organize for action and adapt to the changing needs that make a difference. We talked about “preventative justice”—the need for big solutions versus temporary fixes. For too long we have ignored the fact that building an adequate supply of affordable housing near job centers not only spurs economic growth and contributes to vibrant, diverse communities, it will mitigate traffic congestion, improve the environment, reduce commuter and family stress, improve employee performance and production—not to mention making home possible for thousands of low and middle income working families, college graduates and retired persons.
If we are seriously interested in economic recovery and growth and securing the future for our children, then why not invest in adult and youth education and training to prepare a diverse workforce for the jobs that need to be done today and in the future? A developmental childcare or preschool environment ensures children are healthy and enter school ready to learn and succeed, while hard working parents aren’t forced to choose between food on the table or childcare while they work.
Action: The panelist organizations (please check them out!) have different approaches to advocacy and organizing, but all have led movements that have immeasurably improved the lives of our community members. All stressed the importance of taking power seriously, including our power as citizens. We grappled with the need to reach beyond our comfort zones to connect with diverse communities (ethnic, generational, economic, etc.) to strengthen our advocacy, broaden the debat e, and ensure all perspectives are heard.
While there are many needs, the panel’s simple message—you don't have to know all the facts on every issues, just get started. Visit with residents at the Embry Rucker Community Shelter or patients at the Jeannie Schmidt Free Clinic, or talk with your neighbors, your children’s teachers, the teller at the bank and connect your passion to the needs they share. Charity is important. Our care for others is justified. However, if we are to make a difference for the long term we need to engage and promote justice.
I join others in attendance in expressing my appreciation to United Christian Parish for convening these community discussions and look forward to our collective community action together.
Next: Join UCP on October 25, 7-9pm, for a community forum on “Moral Issues in Public Budgeting,” with guest speaker Sister Marge Clark, one of the Nuns on the Bus and coauthor of The Faithful. Louisa Davis, Kitty Kelley and Ken Plum are facilitating this intiative. For information contact Louisaldavis@verizon.net.