This fall and winter we will be spotlighting the work of the 23rd Class Emerson National Hunger Fellows and our partners around the country. Our first blog series features the work of Eduardo Hernandez and Alysha Alani who are both working with United Way of King County in Seattle, Washington.
United Way of King County
I remember when I first stumbled on the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship—it seemed like such a far-fetched idea to even be accepted into the program, and now that I am here, I am so excited to learn and grow as a leader as I work through the process of understanding my role in the fight to eradicate poverty and hunger in the United States.
My field placement is in Seattle, Washington with the United Way of King County. This city is beautiful and I find myself constantly in awe of the evergreens, the mountain views in the distance, and most importantly, the fusion of avant-garde and creativity into Seattle’s culture and style. Being from the South, specifically rural North Carolina, it is rare to see a pride flag or even a recycling bin! Here, the flags are everywhere and throwing things away seems more like an equation when you are composting. It is also heart-warming knowing that Seattle is purposeful in making people feel included and makes taking care of the environment a priority. The hustle and bustle of the city makes me feel alive and I really enjoy my commutes on public transit. Whether I am just clearing my head, reading, or gazing out the window and taking in the city, I feel very privileged to have this opportunity. I have always romanticized this idea of living in Seattle and still cannot fathom that it has become my reality.
If I have learned anything about my field site organization, it is this: The United Way of King County gets things done. Specifically, I am working with the Financial Stability Team that helps shape childhood hunger and economic stability strategies for parents and low-income families. I am working under Lauren McGowan and Yuri Kim, who both take multi-tasking to a whole new level. I am most impressed with their consistent check-ins and open door policy. They are constantly pushing our team to the next level, asking us almost daily, “How can we make this better?” I value this notion of always being self-critical of the work that we are doing after any task is completed. This lens gives us something to aim for, and when we reach our goal, we are continuously working on improving previous success.
Under the Financial Stability Team is the Fuel Your Future Campaign, which I am working alongside, that places AmeriCorps members in schools to leverage the connections between federal nutrition programs and community based resources to make sure no kid is hungry. In my role, I have been looking at School Breakfast participation data from the 2015-2016 school year for all of the school districts in King County. I am working on making school-specific and district-wide fact sheets to share with school officials as we attempt to get them on board with alternative breakfast models. In addition, I will be working with the AmeriCorps members to make sure that the school nutrition hubs are maximizing community resources and can become one-stop-all resources for income supplements, like SNAP and WIC. My other project is developing a communications and implementation plan for the 2017 King County Breakfast Challenge. This is its second year, and after evaluating last year’s work, I will be focusing on improving how we engage with schools from the time they sign up all the way throughout the challenge.
I have less than five months in my field placement and I feel very hopeful about everything that I am going to learn. I have been thinking a lot about what it means to come to a new place to work, especially when the city is rapidly gentrifying. During our pre-Field placement training in D.C., one of our speakers shared with us this quote from Lila Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” As I am diving into the trenches of my work and further exploring this new community, I want to remember that my success here will not be measured in “how many people I help” but on how much I am willing to learn from the people in this community.
United Way of King County
It’s a privilege to work at one of the largest United Way chapters in the country, the United Way of King County in Seattle, Washington. The staff has been incredibly welcoming and approachable. My supervisor, Lauren McGowan, the Director of Financial Stability, is a powerhouse – she is sincerely dedicated to eradicating poverty and homelessness and is so knowledgeable and involved in the community, inside and outside of work. I’m grateful to have a mentor who is so accomplished and well-respected, and I hope to pick up a few of her traits before I leave ;)
These first few weeks have been fast-paced and exciting as I am acclimating to the United Way’s internal culture and relationship to the community. There have been quite a few “all hands on deck” events that have made this transition easy. During my second week, my colleagues and I bonded during United Way’s annual Day of Caring. 13,000 people from King County spent the day volunteering at a number of different community agencies. Our volunteer hours were matched by sponsors at $23/hour. My team was at the Labateyah Youth Home, an affiliate of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. We painted a hallway and spruced up the garden of the home which houses youth of all backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 23.
United Way’s mission is to reconnect youth to school and work, ensure that everyone has safe and affordable housing, and increase individual and community financial stability. In its 2016 Strategic Plan, United Way set out to help 50,000 people escape poverty by 2020.
As part of this initiative, the Financial Stability Team is working towards connecting King County residents with income support, job training, and employment programs as well as free tax preparation services.
United Way’s Free Tax Preparation program is one of many volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) programs nationwide. With the help of 900 IRS-certified volunteers at 24 tax sites around the county, 21,750 tax returns were filed in 2016 which resulted in $29.1 million in tax refunds – $9.4 million of which came from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)! Jenny Walden, Financial Stability Program Manager who leads the tax campaign has a small but mighty team, and it is amazing to hear about how much the program has grown and expanded in both capacity and reach. Aside from providing free tax prep and promoting the EITC, these sites provide prime opportunities to connect people with other public benefits (OrcaLIFT for public transportation, SNAP, Utilities Discount Program, etc.) that they may qualify for, as well as promote savings and asset building.
I am currently researching savings products and strategies that will decrease barriers to saving faced by low and middle income households and community college students. This is an important effort in the context of ever-widening income and wealth inequality and considering that 33% of Washington households live in liquid asset poverty which makes them especially vulnerable to financial shocks. Emergency savings funds can help people weather these short-term emergencies like medical bills, vehicle repair, or loss of employment and work towards building assets for long-term financial stability.
These savings products and strategies will be piloted through a new program called “Housing Ready and Crisis Resilient” which will expand benefits referrals and tax prep services to designated areas in the community called “regional access points” and community college campuses.
At a Financial Stability Impact Council meeting led by Yuri Kim (Community Impact Manager), I got to see first-hand how United Way incorporates community expertise into their program evaluation and grant-making decisions, as well as big-picture accountability to its organizational goals. I appreciated the critical eye that the volunteers on the impact council offered; particularly their attention to balancing short-term and necessary services with working towards long-term systemic change. One of the upcoming initiatives from this council is a community listening tour. The goal of this initiative is to help United Way more efficiently direct funding and adjust programming to the ever-changing needs of community partners and stakeholders.
Another project that I am working on is evaluating the impact of the recently eliminated SNAP time limit waiver for able-bodied adults (ages 18-49) without dependents (ABAWDs). Without this state-wide waiver, ABAWDs must demonstrate participation in employment, training, or workfare (ie: volunteering) in order to qualify for food assistance for longer than 3 months in a 36-month cycle. While it may sound simple, there are many barriers standing in the way to activities that qualify as “participation” which has resulted in the termination of benefits for many people – 6,157 people in King County in March and April alone.
Last week, I had the opportunity to accompany Colleen Laing, Associate Director of Planning and Public Policy to a Department of Social and Health Services meeting in the state capital, Olympia. It was eye-opening to observe how community advocates engaged with representatives from the Economic Services Administration to share updates and concerns regarding the impact of policies at the grassroots level, including the need to support ABAWDs. I look forward to being a part of the effort to design targeted outreach and increase accessibility of employment and training services.
When I’m not working directly on my projects, I have seized the opportunity to sit in on interesting meetings and presentations. So far, that’s included a Public Policy Impact Council, a full-day cultural competence workshop, a volunteer orientation, racial equity strategy meetings, and even a site-visit to one of United Way’s grantees: a coffee shop that doubles as a college-credit bearing training program in hospitality and food service.
Being in the fourth consecutive class of Hunger Fellows at this field site means I have big shoes to fill, and I am optimistic that I can contribute to United Way’s ongoing initiatives in a meaningful way. Through my projects, I hope to improve my quantitative research and data analysis skills and learn how to adapt those methods to different types of audiences and purposes. I’m eager to learn how a large and well-established organization is able to strategically leverage its power and relationships in the community to influence systemic and grassroots change.
My last goal for my time here in Seattle: learn to love the rain.
 CFED Assets & Opportunity Scorecard: WA State January 2016.
 WA State Department of Social and Human Services