Citizenship acts that challenge poverty don’t all look the same

September 21, 2018

Citizenship acts that challenge poverty don’t all look the same

Ritika Jain (UW senior, biochemistry w/Honors) appealing to her ASUW colleagues to influence campus culture and public policy

Ritika Jain (senior/biochemistry) and Emma Spickard (senior/public health) have done a lot of the same things while studying at the University of Washington. Both matriculated as Honors scholars in 2015. Both have volunteered as peer mentors in Honors and are regular fixtures on the Dean’s List. Both are set to earn bachelors degrees next spring with an impressive portfolio of accomplishments to look back upon. And they have both applied lessons from a recent Honors experience to the “real world” and are challenging misperceptions about poverty in our community.

Emma Spickard smiling in front of trees
Emma Spickard (UW senior, public health w/Honors) is working at Real Change to ground advocacy work in lived narratives

Both of them are still working passionately on the problem of homelessness in our culture, but how they’re each approaching the work is different. It’s specific to their abilities, opportunities and passions. It’s aimed at the areas where they know they can make an impact. Isn’t that what engaged citizenship is all about?

“Unlearning” poverty in the field

Last February, Emma and Ritika could be found walking door to door in Magnolia, handing out fliers and initiating uncomfortable conversations with strangers. It started as a class assignment in Honors 231: “Citizenship acts to challenge poverty.” In the interdisciplinary, experiential course, students partnered with grassroots organizations whose work “disrupts” comfortable narratives about poverty and the people who are living in Seattle without housing. Organizations like Facing Homelessness, UW’s Relational Poverty Network and Real Change.

Emma and Ritika both elected to help the advocacy arm of Real Change in efforts to organize and promote a community panel bringing together the Seattle City Office of Housing, un-housed vendors, Magnolia residents/business owners, and Catholic Community Services. The purpose was to hold a productive civic debate on the stalled housing development at the former site of Fort Lawton at Discovery Park in Magnolia.

Image of yellow house in a large field.
Ft. Lawton in Magnolia is city-owned land that’s stood empty for a decade but could be home to nearly 1,000 Seattle citizens who are currently without housing. 

“The proposed plan would ultimately produce approximately 250 units of affordable housing,” Ritika explained, clearly disappointed by pushback (in the form of a lawsuit) that has kept the land unused since its 2008 donation to the City of Seattle under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

“Emma and I familiarized ourselves with the concerns of residents who opposed the redevelopment plan to formulate evidence-based counterarguments that dispel common misperceptions and demonization of people experiencing homelessness.” Then they went out into the community and worked to bring people into dialogue about the project. 

flier used by Ritika, Emily and other advocates to encourage panel attendance

The panel was considered a success by organizers and by community opponents and supporters of the development, including Real Change vendors who took part in the event. More than one attendee remarked that it felt like “a real conversation” where the range of experiences reflected on the panel underscored the importance and feasibility of the proposed redevelopment.

It will take many more of these small successes to shift attitudes about poverty in our culture and as of today the housing proposal remains locked in legal red tape. After drafting a poignant Op Ed which has yet to be published, Ritika decided to bring the problem closer to her own sphere of influence: to UW’s student body. Ritika submitted a proposal in the ASUW senate last April that wasn’t read by the end of spring, but she’s not giving up on the proposal, especially now that she is the newly-elected ASUW president. ” I’m hoping one of the senators this year will resubmit it for consideration at the beginning of the year, likely with some modifications with respect to the proposed Redevelopment Plan for Fort Lawton that should be drafted by the end of the summer.”

Listening and connecting

Emma Spickard with Zackary Tutwiler, August, 2018.

Emma stayed active in the nonprofit after the class was ended and worked this summer with her mentor, Tiffani, to promote big change at the local level. During her internship, Emma’s primary project has been to interview vendors about their experiences being unstably housed and about their expectations of Real Change.

Emma explained why this matters: “Real Change vendors are self-employed low-income and/or unhomed individuals who sell the Real Change paper around Seattle. The information we are learning from this advocacy survey will help us to better focus our efforts on what impacts vendors the most. Working in this capacity has given me insight into what advocacy and equity work should look like: people know what they need, and therefore you should ask them instead of presuming. By doing this, Real Change will continue to amplify vendor voices while pressuring the city of Seattle to come up with solutions to the urgent need for affordable housing.”

Emma says she hopes to continue her work with Real Change once classes resume and she will keep working to influence the rest of her community to have the kind of “humanizing conversations” that can make the biggest impact on this issue.

“This experience has been a continuation of all that I learned from Chris [Pearson] and Vicky [Lawson]’s course and I am so stunned and grateful that what started out as a transformative class has turned into a transformative experience in the Seattle community.”

Emma now makes a point of initiating conversations with people she used to hurry past. Noticing the effect this was having on friends last winter, she partnered with “Citizenship Acts” classmate Chloe Sanclemente Thompson (also an Honors public health major) to create the short film “Rehumanizing Our Neighbors.” The 4-minute animated story invites students to move through the U District with greater awareness and compassion.

When we paint the picture in numbers, we start to see that homelessness isn’t a personal problem. It’s a societal problem.

“Rehumanizing our Neighbors,” 2018

Emma plans to continue working with Real Change throughout the year, and hopes to see the UW community open up to the true stories of unhoused individuals in Seattle. It starts with people like you.

“Anyone reading this should stop the next time they see an individual selling Real Change in order to buy a paper and chat with the vendor,” Emma told us. “It is an incredible news source for what is really happening in Seattle.”