Statewide Poverty Action Network (Poverty Action) understands that the root causes of issues such as homelessness are policies that only benefit a small and elite group of people that have put them in place. According to Adriana Lasso-Harrier, the communications manager of the organization, the goal of Poverty Action is to make policy changes that reflect and address the needs of the majority of the population: “Poverty Action would like to center people’s experiences that are most impacted by poverty to work alongside them to influence changes within the current system.”
According to Lasso-Harrier, data indicates that racism is a direct cause of poverty and in the state of Washington, the percentage of Native Americans, African Americans, and Latinx that are in poverty is larger than white people. Current policies continue to marginalize them. This is why the organization strives to develop leaders from communities of color.
Poverty Action hosts listening sessions every two years in order to narrow down which policies it wants to focus on, said Omar Cuevas Vega, a community organizer for the organization. The sessions are attended by people who live in towns and cities that have high rates of poverty. The municipalities are also selected based on other factors such as the level of civic engagement and population demographics.
Locations are selected with an eye towards ensuring that they are within communities of color. According to Vega, “The listening sessions are integral to our organization’s work as they drive what policies we put on our agenda. The number of attendees usually ranges from five to twenty people with an age range of 18 to 70 years. The sessions last three to four hours and are led by Statewide Poverty Action Network’s advisory board.”
Poverty Action started in 1996 by 10 activists of color. The organization’s initial work was centered around welfare reform in the state of Washington. Over time the organization has evolved. Lasso-Harrier said that while the organization now has four main areas of focus, poverty must remain a primary focus. Lasso-Harrier added that the current areas of focus are organized as campaigns for basic needs, tax revenue and reform, criminal justice, and consumer protection.
According to Marcy Bowers, director of Statewide Poverty Action Network, one of the organization’s biggest challenges is raising funds. “There is a bias and prejudice against homelessness and poverty in general, therefore it makes fundraising for this kind of work even harder.” So far, Poverty Action is supported through grants and personal donations from the community.
Furthermore, Bowers said that a couple of years ago the Governor’s Poverty Reduction Workgroup was created by legislation that Poverty Action helped to pass. The goal was to address poverty at the community level. In that workgroup, they formed a steering committee comprised of people directly affected by poverty. Through that collaboration, they created recommendations on how to address poverty for the Governor.
Dante Pollard, who is currently on that steering committee, came to the organization as a single parent who was directly affected by poverty. Pollard got involved with the organization in 2018 because he was personally interested in justice reform advocacy, having had direct experience with the criminal justice system. Pollard was encouraged by his work in the organization to become more involved, and he now volunteers as a community advocate.
According to Bowers, the long-term goal of the organization is to undo punitive state laws and pass laws that create economic opportunity for people in poverty. “People who experience poverty know what they need but the current system prevents them from accessing the resources. In my role, I have to write about these issues in order to apply for grants and the more I write, the more I realize our work is incomplete.”