Tianna Gaines-Turner is a mother and Northeast Philly resident. She has been homeless twice and has been living in poverty for years. She also has been published in The Nation, was invited to President Obama’s inauguration by Sen. Bob Casey, spoke to the Republican House budget committee and appeared on MSNBC for her work with Witnesses to Hunger.
Witnesses to Hunger is a program of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, a research and advocacy center in Drexel University’s School of Public Health. Since 2008, the program has provided resources to people experiencing hunger and poverty to speak out and share their stories with the goal of affecting public policy.
It was originally a photo project with 40 people living in poverty documenting their everyday lives and experiences. The photos have since been exhibited at the African American Museum in Philadelphia and launched an ongoing dialogue.
Gaines-Turner joined in 2008 after she received a flyer from the program.
“I was at a point in my life where I tried it my way and wasn’t getting anywhere so I gave the number a call,” she said. “It’s not easy to let people in on the most vulnerable parts of your life and share your story … and not know how people will look at you.”
Michelle Taylor, Witnesses to Hunger’s program manager since June, said stories like Gaines-Turner’s are vital to changing policy. Witnesses testify at local community forums, panels, summits and city council meetings, to name a few.
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Witnesses to Hunger is “educating people about the realities and getting people to be more empathetic to their plight. It puts a human face on poverty,” Taylor said. “It’s raw sometimes and it’s gut-wrenching sometimes, but it’s important because it’s true. You cannot deny the truth of the expert testimony.”
On top of being an advocate, Gaines-Turner is also a mother of three children with medical disabilities and two stepchildren, a wife of 16 years, and a part-time worker.
She said she’s received her fair share of criticism since becoming vocal about hunger and poverty.
“One lady said I should be spayed and neutered like a cat,” she said. “Another person said, ‘How can she be food insecure if she’s a 200-pound fatty?’”
However, Gaines-Turner said much of this criticism comes from a lack of understanding.
“We live in a society right now where people like to judge and point fingers at people instead of trying to work together,” she said. “You don’t realize that hunger and poverty could be your next-door neighbor or your coworker. People say negative things because they’re afraid to understand.”
Witnesses to Hunger’s work in meeting and speaking with politicians from across the spectrum helps them understand what their constituents are going through.
“These aren’t just numbers and lines on pretty paper, these are our lives that you’re chipping away at,” Gaines-Turner said. “We voted you into office and we want to make sure you get it right.”
Taylor said she had reached a point in her 15-year career in working to eradicate homelessness and poverty where she thought she was burned out with social work and activism, but working with Witnesses to Hunger has rekindled that passion.
“Being around their energy and spirit, I am so completely inspired by their commitment and willingness to work,” Taylor said. “I know that when I walk into work, we’re all going to be supportive of each other.”
Gaines-Turner said she also knows this is the work she is meant to be doing.
“I’ve learned that my voice has strength,” she said. “I see my voice being echoed around the world.”