I remember the day; I remember it. Something I witnessed became a turning point in my life; something that dawned on me that day became a part of my soul and motivation and carried with it my determination to create communities that fostered hope and quality of life for all their residents. Since that day I have continually realized that producing such communities of trust isn’t easy and requires compassion, collaboration, commitment, and clarity of purpose.
On that day of my epiphany in the early 70′s, I lived in Richmond, California, in a new subsidized housing complex, a 24- year old single mother of two. I had a job as a file clerk in a San Francisco brokerage firm that didn’t pay much money and my high school education and experience didn’t qualify me for much more than that. Certainly I did not make a living wage to support my family and qualified for welfare support (Medicaid, food stamps, and subsidized daycare). I took public transit because I couldn’t afford parking in downtown San Francisco. At that time subsidized housing was allocated on a quota system to ensure racial, ethnic, and income balance. There were long wait lists for families of color for these units but no wait lists for white families. I did not know that at the time and in retrospect I think that policy set up a dynamic within the complex to divide the residents rather than join them. It became a struggle to live there because a single white woman with children wasn’t a particularly welcome addition in the complex in the face of the rental policy, and yet it was home for that time.
One winter I became sick with bronchitis and knew I had to get to the local clinic and get something to help me fight it. Of course taking time off work meant that I would not be paid since I did not have a sick time benefit. With Medicaid card in-hand, I sent the kids to daycare and dropped-in at the clinic. I took a seat and I waited- for SIX hours to be seen. I hadn’t the energy to be upset about this as I spent the day waiting rather than in bed at home. I was used to receiving much different healthcare growing up. While I sat there, making the best of my one opportunity to get some medication, I watched people come and go, for six hours. The other people waiting didn’t protest either and when I looked in their eyes I saw resignation and hopelessness. They shuffled back and forth waiting to be “seen”, waiting to be acknowledged for their need. This endless waiting and lack of service seemed to be way of life for them. They tolerated and were resigned to this situation. It occurred to me that it was possible these people had lived and been treated with disrespect all their lives – as possibly their parents before them.
It was that day I realized that although I didn’t have enough money to fully support my family and ate cottage cheese at the end of the month so my children had enough food, – that this was a temporary situation for me, whereas with most of these people, this was their life. I realized that my parents had instilled me a sense of self worth. I was privileged to have a loving family, I was white, I had a solid basic education (I had intended to go to college but had children instead) and I knew that somehow my current situation was short-term. The others did not have that inner knowledge and hope. And that day I was able to see the life-altering social differences and it shifted my view and frame I put on poverty. People don’t live in poverty because they’ve been bad or lazy or unkind; many are born into it and have little chance at opportunities others take for granted.
This early epiphany, and of course this experience, has inspired my passion to work with and promote organizations whose mission, programs, and values demonstrate and result in a sense of hope and well-being for the people and communities they serve.