My course to advocacy

I just started my community leadership course with NYC's Citizens' Committee for Children, which primarily advocates on behalf of children and families.  My first class was a simulation in poverty.  It was maddening.  In a matter of minutes, I was a 30-year-old woman whose husband had just deserted her with two kids, ages 9 and 11, one of whom had suddenly become ill.  I hadn't worked since I'd had my eldest daughter, and my husband left me with a bank loan of $120/month in addition to monthly living expenses of $1600.  An out-of-town family member inconveniently decided to live with us in our home in Brooklyn, which I was unable to hang onto given that I had no income.  I was forced to navigate the city's array of social services for public assistance, temporary housing and any job that I could get.  My welfare check wasn't coming in for another two weeks, and I hadn't gotten around to cashing in my food stamps quite yet so that I could feed my family.  My daughter was failing math, and I had no extra cash for a tutor.  I pawned what I thought was $400 worth of furnishings and jewelry and only received $100.  As much as I tried to hold them off, the police, landlord and utilities collector were constantly on my back -- literally.  And every time I had to travel to another resource in another borough because no one told me I needed this or that referral, it cost me a transit ticket.  Insanely maddening.   

I failed.

I thought, I can't do this.  What choice do I have?  I have to give up my kids, so that someone better can take care of them.  I am such a failure.  

That is, by the end of the two-hour exercise, I hadn't secured shelter, food or safety for my kids.  This was just a taste of what millions of New Yorkers in poverty experience on a daily basis.

Even more disturbing was that as an adoptive mama-to-be, in the simulation I, a single mom in NYC, could so easily choose what I thought would be a better life for my kids.  What kind of woman/mother am I?  Though I suspect, choosing adoption for a child in the Philippines may be a little different than choosing foster care or adoption for a child in New York City.  The possibilities and results surely vary.

While I work at ESS and every so often meet clients who have experienced tremendous trauma or hear a story or two about how they may or may not have broken through some hardship of abuse, my first class at CCC drove home that I really have nothing about which to complain.  So when family or friends -- who have jobs and live in their lovely homes with their hardwood floors, french doors and fabulous scenic views with household incomes above $18,000 (myself included, of course) -- tell me, "Oh, we're poor . . ." and go on to say, "We can't afford that . . ." 

Well, not so much.  Really.  You're (we're) not poor.  We're not a family of four living on $18,300 a month.  That would be the poverty line.  Others, like Oprah, have argued that poverty abroad is much more serious than in the States where Americans have access and the means to pick themselves up and navigate successfully through social services and public assistance.  Not so for our fellow global citizens abroad where cultural boundaries and government infrastructures are so restraining that upward financial mobility and the creation of a sustainable living come with incredible challenges.

Still, that doesn't negate the experience of NYC's two million children, many of whom live in poverty among terrible emotional and physical damage and need caring individuals to advocate on their behalf.  And so begins my course to more educated advocacy.