The first session of Episcopal Community Services’ Forum on Justice & Opportunity, which took place on October 26, was Paths to Equity and Prosperity — an impactful conversation that examined how human services in Philadelphia address the root causes of poverty and access to opportunity.
Vai Sikahema, former morning news anchor of NBC10 served as moderator, and the panelists spanned the social impact sector: Jamila Harris-Morrison, executive director of ACHIEVEability; John L. Jackson, Jr., dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania; Omar Woodard, executive director of GreenLight Fund Philadelphia; and Victoria R. Bennett, chief inclusion and advocacy officer of Episcopal Community Services.
Woodard noted that GreenLight Fund Philadelphia was not founded to address the root causes of poverty. It was created 15 years ago in Boston, and then seven years ago in Philadelphia to ensure that communities would identify their own needs and have the ability to draw in the best solutions to the problem.
Under Woodard’s leadership over the last four and a half years, it has been more focused on understanding the scale of the problem that exists.
“Who are the other individuals, institutions and sectors that need to come around to ensure the long-term sustainability of the solution that roots itself and its success over the long-term?” he asked.
For GreenLight, two things have to be true. One, the decisions have to be anchored by those who are proximate to the problems they’re solving. And the second thing GreenLight does is look at the scale of the problem.
“So there are 400,000 people experiencing poverty, but let’s look at interventions and solutions that can address the scale issue,” Woodard said, and then begin to whittle down from there based on the issues.”
Harris-Morrison said ACHIEVEability takes more of a community-based approach. “What we try to do is provide resources and opportunities for people living in West Philadelphia, families living in West Philadelphia, by addressing the root cause,” she said.
“So we use affordable housing as one layer of that. We also use coaching,” she said. “And then we look to have parents credentialed so they can get living wage job opportunities. It’s really trying to take a long-term investment in families to help them overcome the barriers that they are facing around poverty, and then ensuring that we change that trajectory for their children as well.”
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Jackson noted that how we respond to crises is often a function of what we’re taught, and that if we’ve been taught to stigmatize being poor, we have to unlearn that.
“We’ve been taught that there’s a category of poor people that deserve help and a category that doesn’t deserve help. We used to call them the undeserving poor,” he said. “Tools are important. Skill building is important, but not at the expense of really understanding. The skills you have won’t matter unless there are structural supports in place you can take advantage of.”
Bennett said that ECS understands that some of the root causes of poverty are systemic racism and economic injustices. ECS is committed to looking at transformational work. Her department has been looking at different policies and processes, and one is the minimum wage.
“People [are] rallying around that, trying to get to at least $15 an hour for minimum wage,” Bennett said. “But we also understand that that’s not a living wage. We know that a living wage it’s really what people need to be self-sufficient.”
Woodard mentioned there are asset limits for individuals in poverty, receiving aid from programs that limit their ability to build wealth.
Bennett said one of the ways that we can really begin to measure if we are being successful around poverty is how it is changing generationally. “Am I making more than what my mother was making when she was my age?” she said. “I should be also striving for my daughter to be [making more than me] and then my grandchildren as well ,in order to have some real long-term transformation.”
Sikahema asked for each panelist’s call to action.
Bennett said the racial reckoning that we are experiencing is as a result of the murder of George Floyd. She said she thinks it would be helpful to collaborate and come together and “really begin to coordinate, figure out where we are, what we have and how we can coordinate a system so people can really benefit from it, because we all bring different expertise to the table.”
Jackson said that making sure everyone votes is key. Second, he encouraged people to take their call to action to their senators. “And also,” he said, “to begin to think if you have a supplier diversity program in your department or your institution, because what that will do is at least have minority Black-owned and disabled businesses in line to be vendors.”
Woodard’s call to action is that poverty is not about income, it’s about assets. He added that we should be thinking about asset poverty, not income poverty, and we should help individuals experiencing poverty to build wealth out of poverty, not just boost earnings. That would include helping reduce debt and improving credit, among other strategies. To do this, Woodard said, it is important to think holistically, and that’s what is needed to understand the structural implications.
Harris-Morrison agreed with Woodard about looking at poverty through the lens of assets. “If you look at the issue of the number of Americans who can afford to go without a job for three months, with enough emergency savings to get them through — 67% of Americans cannot do that,” she said.
“[That number] would be higher in a city like Philadelphia, given how our demographics are structured, our poverty rates. And so this is an existential crisis for hundreds of thousands of families in our city.”-30-
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