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In Building a Platform, Working Families Find Common Ground

New America Media, News report, Ketaki Gokhale Posted: Jul 01, 2008

Editor's Note: Working families from all around America gathered in Chicago this month, showing not only their diversity, but also their ability to rally around key issues as part of the National Equal Voice for America's Families campaign. New America Media's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Ketaki Gokhale covers health and environment issues for NAM. Photo credits: Ketaki Gokhale.

CHICAGO -- An elderly woman living in a trailer in rural Florida. A single mom from California who has worked for eight years, but has no more today than when she began. A Cambodian refugee facing down gang violence. Americas families -- different backgrounds, different concerns -- gathered here recently to find common ground. Turns out, despite a tremendous diversity of experience, there was plenty to be had.

Retha Franklin, 64, traveled nearly a thousand miles from Quincy, Fla. to participate in the Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice for America's Families campaign.

As part of a campaign organized by the Marguerite Casey Foundation with the aim, according to CEO Luz Vega-Marquis, of amplifying the voice of American families, more than 40 family delegates from around the country convened to identify solutions to issues they face daily. They amended and ratified a platform drawn from more than 60 town halls held over the past six months in cities and towns across the nation. Both the platform and the town halls were intended by the foundation as vehicles to build a constituency of families able to advocate on their own behalf, and to spark a movement that could bring about long-term change around the issues those families identified as most crucial to their own well-being.

Delegates responded enthusiastically to the platform that greeted them in Chicago, which included a call for a federal universal health care plan; the addition of 3.9 million children to the State Childrens Health Insurance Program (SCHIP); hikes in federal and state minimum wages; more federal financial aid and adult education programs; an increase in federally-mandated affordable housing and housing vouchers; more federal funding for affordable child care; and immigration reform.

Virtually all agreed that the platform also should emphasize improving services for youth and seniors. Changes will be incorporated into a final document to be released on Sept. 6 at simultaneous conventions in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Birmingham.

"Nothing's changed from 40 years ago"

Sixty-four-year-old Retha Fields came nearly a thousand miles from Quincy, Fla. to make her voice known, though, according to her, its often hard to get people to listen. Ive learned to act crazy to get heard. In the Chicago Hyatts lobby, she sits in a second-hand lavender suit and jewelry on loan from a friend. People say theres a recession, she says. But they need to know: I cant tell. Its always been like this for me.

Fields lives in a trailer, passed on from her mother, with a floor that is almost worn through and a door that leaks when it rains. Shes borderline diabetic and finds eating difficult because of aching teeth that need extracting, but shes without sufficient funds so she cant find a willing dentist. Shes used to teetering on the brink of disaster; its a way of life, she says. Nothings changed from 40 years ago; people are still talking about the same issues: child care, health care, and the economy. The problems are the same and there havent been any solutions.

The hardest part of being poor, Fields says, is being old and poor. I recently realized that as I get older I should be moving into an apartment, where things get taken care of. Instead, Ive moved into a trailer, and I have to take care of more and more.

"We take care of each other"

I do what I have to do to survive, and I do it because I can, says Charmain Parker, a single mom from Fresno, Calif., who has battled homelessness and thyroid problems. I dont complain because Im a lot better off than most people.

I do what I have to do to survive, and I do it because I can, says Charmain Parker, a single mom from Fresno, Ca.--one of the 40 family delegates who reviewed the platform.

When Parker left an abusive relationship many years ago with her then-infant son Derrick in tow, she found herself homeless. She visited a two-bedroom in-law unit whose $300 rent she couldnt afford. The landlord let Parker stay rent-free until her welfare checks started coming in.

Today, Parkers work at a legal copy service agency barely brings in enough money to cover expenses. Anxiety about paying bills keeps her up late and she says she has to cut corners to make ends meet. The blue sweater shes wearing, which has won her many compliments, cost a dollar at a thrift store, where she does most of her clothes shopping. She tries to save, but sees no results. Her hourly wage has risen by $3.44 since she started working eight years agonot enough to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

Parker worries about the impact of poverty on her sons health. Unable to afford fresh fruit and vegetables, she and Derrick often eat inexpensive food loaded with carbohydrates and low on nutrients.

Last semester, Parker noticed that Derricks grades were slipping and that he had become unusually forgetful. He told her he felt as though he were the fattest and poorest kid in school.

That made me very mad, Parker recalls. They talk about children being overweight and unhealthy, and I got worried. I know we dont eat the best of foods. It's because we dont have a lot of money.

At 12, Derrick has high cholesterol (state health insurance covered his blood tests). Mother and son have now made a commitment to eat better andno matter the price of groceriesto take care of each other.

"We wanted to give our son everything"

Raksan Kasem-Houy, 37, arrived in the United States with her parents in the 1970s as a refugee from Cambodia and, like many others, settled in California's Central Valley. Today, her neighborhood in Stockton is plagued by gang violence. Kasem-Houys brother died at age 22 as a result of a gang-related incident.

This issue keeps me up at night, Kasem-Houy says. Theyre not bad kids, they are just lost souls. Im always trying to think of ways to help them. What program would make a difference? How do we get these kids off the street and into a community center?

While his peers flirt with the street life, Kasem-Huoy's own 16-year-old son, Joseph, is absorbed by school, badminton, basketball and band practice. While her friends think its nothing short of a miracle, Kasem-Huoy says its simply a matter of making smart decisions, and a few sacrifices. Her husband worked several jobs to put Kasem-Huoy through college, but she gave up her dream of law school when she became a mother. The couple has no regrets.

It was worth it, she says. Im a really important person in somebodys life now. And we wanted to give our son everything.

No theme emerged more powerfully than this from the day's proceedings.

Families from diverse backgrounds worked in small, issue-focused committees, then as a larger group, voting almost unanimously to expand the platforms youth section.

Families from backgrounds as varied as Fields, Parkers and Kasem-Huoys worked in small, issue-focused committees, then as a larger group, voting almost unanimously to expand the platforms youth section.

We have to have support for our youth, said Callie Greer, a delegate from Montgomery, Alabama. I have three or four young people Im going to be passing the torch to when I retire. Whats being done to prepare them?"

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