As a community organizer, every day I encounter individuals facing life’s realities — both positive and negative. It is my job to help these people address the systemic issues that deny or hinder their access to life’s most basic needs, fresh food, affordable housing and safe neighborhoods. Many days throughout this journey, I am asked to step into someone’s shoes and not just sympathize but to go a step further and help them organize with others who are experiencing the same burdens.
Often the narrative is that if someone does not have something it is because they have not worked hard enough. Most of the time, I’ve learned this is not the case — and it’s rarely that simple.
Take, for instance, a client who recently came into our Sister Visitor Center looking for food and utility assistance. While speaking with clients in the front waiting area, this woman struck up a conversation with me about her current dilemma. She wanted me to know she is not inclined to take handouts, and she isn’t lazy.
The 50-year-old widow of a hardworking husband referred to herself as a retired housewife due to the fact that she lost her house after losing her husband, who was the sole breadwinner. She is not old enough to receive her husband’s Social Security benefits, as the guidelines state she must be at least 60 years of age.
Unfortunately, this reality is not uncommon, as I often hear from clients dealing with benefit cuts or lack of access to benefits. Most of these individuals worked for years and have paid taxes, so they assumed they would have those benefits as a resource if ever they fell on hard times.
Another example is a gentleman who has struggled to re-enter society since a 1979 conviction. After serving his time in a state prison where he completed not only his high school equivalency test but also received two degrees before his release in the early 1990s, he is still without the job that he is trained to do. It is not for lack of trying, as he says, “I have worked every year since my release but only in jobs that I am over-qualified for.”
As a convicted felon, a label he received for a crime committed 40 years ago, he is sometimes able to skip “The Box” that asks if he is a convicted felon, but he cannot skip the question that asks where he received his degrees. This question has brought on not only denial of job opportunities but also harsh words from employers who do not recognize what they refer to as “jailhouse degrees.”
This man is no longer an inmate, but he still lives as a prisoner to societal rules that deny him access to fundamental rights such as voting and bearing arms (his crime was not one that involved violence or weapons), and he is not fully eligible to receive federal Pell grants to further his education.
The thing that all the stories I encounter as a community organizer have in common is that most concerns and issues are systemic in nature and rooted in a lack of access to vital resources. But when one suffers, we all feel that discomfort and injustice in many different forms: some directly in tax increases, some indirectly when watching the despair on the local news drives you to donate to local shelters and community ministries.
We all share the journey with one another. As a community organizer, I share the journey by helping to shed light on issues, by bringing individuals together in front of legislators, and by fighting on a systemic level to effect change.
Tialisha Lumpkin is an advocacy community organizer at Catholic Charities of Louisville. She advocates for social justice in social structures by engaging clients to participate in action that changes the community systemically.