Equal Voice News, a storytelling platform, highlights the work of families who are driving social change. Journalist Amy Rolph speaks with some of the writers of Equal Voice stories about what they learned in 2018 – by listening to families in America.
Behind every family there’s a story. Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice News tells the stories of families who are driving change. Stories of families who know how to make life in America more equitable for everyone.
Brad Wong and Paul Nyhan have the opportunity to tell those stories, along with a team of contributing journalists. Together, they produce and edit Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice News, which features stories about families challenging how people address poverty in America.
“Our role at the Foundation is to amplify the voices and the stories of families who are creating change in their communities,” said Nyhan, the Foundation’s senior writer.
Wong, who is content editor, said that as a storyteller, he’d seek out the kinds of stories Equal Voice News tells even if he wasn’t working at the Foundation.
“They’re important, and they have deep meaning,” he said. “And anything that has deep meaning is worth pursuing.”
Now, as 2018 comes to a close, we look back at four Equal Voice News stories from this year that exemplify how families are creating healthier and more equitable communities around the nation.
A Fight for Food Stamps in Missouri
It’s too rare that families have opportunities to shape the policies that impact their lives. When Paul Nyhan heard how two parents led a fight to strike down a ban on people with felony drug convictions receiving food stamps in Missouri, he boarded a plane to Kansas City.
In Kansas City, he listened as Johnny Waller and Christine McDonald told of their journeys to leadership and advocacy – about persevering after they were written off many times over. At one point, McDonald told him how a counselor at a rehabilitation center told her she was “unrehabilitatable.”
“Johnny and Christine are two of the most powerful leaders I’ve met in more than two decades in journalism,” Nyhan said. “But the myths, bias, systems and misperceptions that define poverty in America threw so many barriers in their way. Yet, they found a way to be heard and break through those barriers.”
Nyhan sees himself as a translator of sorts – someone who listens to a person’s story and then helps them tell that story in a powerful and accessible way.
“We all need to hear their stories,” Nyhan said. “All I am is an intermediary.”
Poor People’s Campaign: Continuing History
Freelance journalist Wendi C. Thomas heard echoes of the past when she covered the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement that brought more than 10,000 people to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in June. People who attended called on America to eliminate poverty in all its forms, drawing parallels with the last campaign of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“There are so many echoes to movements that happened 50 years ago,” Thomas said. “As a journalist, you’re always aware that you are writing the first draft of history.”
Thomas sought out those on the front lines, including Callie Greer, an advocate from Selma, Alabama, who was arrested during the early stages of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Greer works with a Selma community center, where she hands out barbecue chicken, cornbread and kind words to those who are struggling to make ends meet. She told Thomas her message is this: “You don’t have to be embarrassed by poverty…Poverty has been intentionally caused.”
Causation is a cornerstone of how Thomas approaches stories about poverty, racism and inequality in America. At the heart of her work are two questions: Who’s benefiting from broken systems? And how can those people be held accountable?
“These things persist because they’re good for somebody, even though they might not be good for the majority of people,” Thomas said.
Restore Oakland: Experiments With Restorative Justice
Rose Aguilar’s story about Restore Oakland highlighted alternatives to prisons and solutions to cycles of poverty. The advocacy and training center focuses on restorative justice and economic opportunity for youth in Oakland, where poverty exists in stark contrast to the wealth of Silicon Valley.
“In Oakland and the wider Bay Area, there’s so much money and so many opportunities for a certain segment of the population,” said Aguilar, a San Francisco-based journalist.
“And then for the youth that will go to Restore Oakland and will benefit from Restore Oakland, they feel completely left behind. It seems like the powers that be have just forgotten these kids, ignored these kids.”
She pointed out that restorative justice – when someone makes amends and helps repair damage caused by their crime – is starting to gain more attention as an alternative to incarceration. And that those calling for lawbreakers to be locked up should think critically and empathetically about what drives impoverished people to commit crimes.
“I think it’s just important to put a face on policy,” Aguilar said. “It’s important to highlight people who are really doing good work and people who are struggling. I think it’s important to put that out there. That’s how you can create change.”
Amendment 4: Winning Back Voting Rights in Florida
The Equal Voice story in October about Florida’s Amendment 4 opens with a vivid image: a woman with a felony conviction going door-to-door, telling her story and asking her neighbors to support the ballot measure that would restore her right to vote.
Brad Wong, who wrote the article, said he believes it was that kind of campaigning by people with convictions that led Amendment 4 to victory on election night. Because of the victory, 1.4 million Floridians regained their right to vote.
“They stood up and told the truth,” Wong said. “They were honest, they took that risk…and people actually showed understanding, empathy and sympathy. It turned out that honesty and stories can change people’s hearts and minds.”
Wong’s story showed how Florida’s restrictive laws meant someone who was convicted of releasing 10 helium balloons into the air or intentionally disturbing a commercial shrimp trap would lose their right to vote. Watching how people rallied to reform those laws caused him to think about how stories can be a catalyst for change.
“It turned out to be one of the most memorable stories I’ve done in years,” Wong said. “I realized honesty and storytelling can actually make a positive policy difference, especially with something that is so fundamental to democracy.”
Amy Rolph is a journalist based in Seattle. In August, she wrote the Equal Voice article, “Labor Day 2018: Caregivers Are Needed. They Need Good Pay.” She has worked as a writer and editor for national and regional news sites and publications as well as public radio. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
2018 © Marguerite Casey Foundation