Empowering Others to Tell Their Own Stories

Rebecca Van Maren, Emerson National Hunger Fellow
April 28, 2011

I believe that empowering others to tell their own stories is an important component of advocacy.  Anti-poverty advocates who have not experienced poverty should recognize their privilege when using their voice and power. The reality that folks living in poverty have to experience daily can be really hard to comprehend, and is easily forgotten. When trying to incorporate the voices of low income people it is important to realize there is a difference between speaking on behalf of, or finding the “token poor spokesperson” and empowering and mobilizing people living in poverty to share their story, be their own advocate, and help to create change. RESULTS works with our partners, and helps them along their journey of finding their political voice, while creating the political will to end poverty. By working alongside those who have experienced the impacts of Head Start, we will not only find that personal connection, but we are also igniting a spark by empowering parents and providers who seek change.

I was placed at RESULTS Ed Fund through a fellowship with the Congressional Hunger Center. During my time here at RESULTS I had the opportunity to journey to Kansas City, Missouri to attend the National Head Start Association Conference. While there I was able to provide a platform for Head Start parents, staff, and alumni to share their story. I was doing this as part of the Half in Ten Campaign’s Road to Shared Prosperity project. Their goal is to collect stories from across the country on programs like Head Start to use in education and advocacy efforts while trying to cut the nation’s poverty in half within ten years.

Over the past few months, I have been in a position where I’ve been able to use my resources, and my privilege, to provide a platform for Head Start parents and providers to share their experiences and highlight the positive impact Head Start has had on their lives, and the lives of the children they know. It was an incredibly humbling experience, and one that challenged me in finding the best way to approach the work.

We know as advocates that finding the personal story, and developing the relationship and the connection can play an important role in the work that we do. Whether our conversations are with family, friends, co-workers or even Elected Officials, putting names and faces to the numbers and policies really makes a difference.

While thinking about the process of collecting Head Start stories, I realized that I wasn’t just meeting these amazing parents and staff and taking their stories for my own benefit, but I was encouraging them to tell their own stories and providing a forum for their voices to be heard. It was important to me that the stories came from them as they are the experts. By helping them realize their own political power and expertise, and the influence they can personally have, we are strengthening the process, and the impact. Finding a way to break down a barrier that prevents them from participating in advocacy, while still being able to capture the passion, excitement, frustration, and gratitude, resulted in filming the stories and contributing to the Half in Ten story collecting campaign. By working with the families and parents to be able to share their story, even when they are unable to attend the meeting or presentation in person, they are still able to participate in the process, and to be their own advocate.

While people who are living in poverty can become trapped within their realities, struggling to meet their basic needs, it’s important for us as advocates to accommodate them in whatever way we are able. By being flexible, and meeting the parents where they were at, some barriers were able to be broken down. For other parents, they preferred to write their story, and share it in that way. It’s important for them to feel empowered, and realize the positive impacts that just one story can have in the process. We strive to create the political will to end poverty, but unless we are able to engage and empower the billions of people living in poverty, drastic change won’t happen.  While including people in poverty in advocacy work can be a challenge, it’s our responsibility to remember that we are not only advocating on behalf of them, but encouraging them to join us in the fight.

Watch Melissa Rhine of Warrenton, MO share her story about how Head Start has empowered her to become more self sufficient, to gain self esteem, and to become the parent that she wants to be. This was one of the many powerful stories that were shared at the Head Start Conference.