From Corporate America to AmeriCorps VISTA

November 6th, 2015 by

By Janice Johannsen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor 23 years, I was a slave to my job. I say this not to equate my status to African Americans who were enslaved in this country but because, at my worst moments, that is how I felt.

Before moving to Savannah, I worked for a major entertainment company in Hollywood, California, a Fortune 500 company that was owned by an even bigger multimedia corporation. I didn’t care much for my job but I went to work every day because the money was too good to pass up and the benefits were unbeatable. Those on the outside looking in thought it was exciting. I’d see George Clooney or Ashton Kutcher on my way to the commissary, work out next to George Lopez at the company gym and have access to free merchandise that beat the local Toys R’ Us.  At first, it was exciting; after all, a bright, shiny object is attractive but over time, like most everything else, it started losing its luster. When it was all said and done, I was nothing more than a cog in a wheel whose purpose was to protect the company’s assets so that it could continue to be a money-making machine.

Of course I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t acknowledge that I enjoyed the money. To live life comfortably is something most of us desire. But at what price?

Over 10 years ago, I got deeply involved with a small nonprofit organization that sends poor kids in the Philippines to school. It10941040_869838259726702_6142924340733328274_n was through this work that I realized I had the passion to do nonprofit work and that I could do it well. When we moved to Savannah because of my husband’s job, I knew I couldn’t go back to working in corporate America. After searching long and hard, I grabbed the opportunity to work for Step Up as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

I have to admit that initially I was afraid to take on the challenge. After all, it is easier to ignore poverty than to address it. I’ve always lead a fairly comfortable life and frankly, I was afraid that the work would be depressing. I am glad to say I was wrong.

11741022_954779277899266_1215838927150003950_o (1)My year as an AmeriCorps VISTA has been one of the best things I have done. I have met wonderful and inspiring people that I never would have met had I stayed in my own little world. I have spent time in poor neighborhoods and as a result I have a better understanding of people’s lives. Not having children of my own, I have learned that being with kids gives me so much joy. Perhaps most importantly, I have a renewed sense of hope that, when faced with adversity, a community can work together to make change. I found that when you are working to make a difference, the rewards are numerous and life-changing. I once read that the best kind of work is one that affects people. Whoever wrote that was right.

As I end my service as a VISTA, I leave with more experience, skills, and a clear idea about what I want to do next. Working for a cause such as reducing poverty shifts your focus in life. I may no longer get that generous paycheck but, for the past year, I have been coming home with a smile on my face instead.

Learn more about AmeriCorps VISTA 

Poverty: There’s no silver bullet

June 24th, 2015 by
Op-Ed by Suzanne Donovan in Savannah Morning News on June 20

 

How refreshing – and valuable – to see a lively dialogue in the editorial pages about poverty, our city’s defining issue.

That we tolerate a 26 percent poverty rate in Savannah – and impossibly higher in several census tracts, up to 60 percent – is not just unconscionable but counter to our own economic and social interests.

Where I take some exception to the smart ideas that have been published recently is the “either/or” positions. Truth is, neither the lack of education nor our low wages – both issues that plague the Southeast – by themselves cause poverty.

We still struggle with racial and income segregation in housing, for instance, which may be the single greatest contributor to specific neighborhoods having higher concentrations of poverty. And unbelievable as it sounds, there are still people who won’t support public transit – a proven game-changer in terms of access to higher-paying work as well as other kinds of economic opportunity – because they believe buses transport “criminals” (code for people who don’t look like me).

Make no mistake, an under educated and uncompensated population are core issues. But they are not unique to Savannah.

Political and business leaders throughout the U.S. are having the same conversation about skilled workforce and wages. But even if we were able to somehow immediately alter the uneven and inequitable distribution of resources among our public schools today and ensure that every child was able to get a high-quality pre-K start, we still wouldn’t see a radical decrease in our poverty rate.

In the same way, even if a majority of new jobs created paid a family-sustaining wage, that step alone wouldn’t change the high concentration of families living in poverty in too many of our neighborhoods.

As painful as it is to hear, both issues and more have to be addressed. And they have to be dealt with at the same time. We can’t just select one piece of the problem to tackle. We can, and should, prioritize – and intelligently chose our target audiences who can affect change – but we can’t just act on one of these and hope to for real transformation.

We can demand more discriminating decisions about what industries to attract. We can seek out companies and encourage local startups that share a vision of community that promotes a strong local economy and that promise a living wage for families.

We can ask area businesses to take a stand and voluntarily pay family-sustaining wages and benefits, and as consumers we can support these businesses and services. (More employers could take a page from restaurants like Chipotles, now offering paid sick and vacation leave and tuition reimbursement for all their employees.)

We can demand that Chatham County’s schools that are serving children from high-poverty neighborhoods devote greater resources to these schools because we know these children, our children, need and deserve more. It’s not only the equitable thing to do, such investment would vastly improve our economy over the long haul.

Our only hope in cutting the high poverty rate is in a multi-pronged approach where every sector of our community commits to making a difference however they can, from individual choices to systemic changes.

I deeply appreciate the public debate about poverty. I agree, too, that while crime (particularly violent crime) is a legitimate public concern, poverty is at its core. Deep, generational poverty far overshadows crime as a relentless threat to individual potential.

We didn’t get here overnight. We built systems and made decisions over time that created and ultimately, albeit quietly, tolerated such high concentrations of poverty. Real change doesn’t happen based on either-or propositions.

We need to be all in.

Suzanne Donovan is executive director of Step Up Savannah. Contact her at sdonovan@stepupsavannah.org or 912-232-6747.

State of emergency for America’s young black males

April 29th, 2015 by

Ever since I read the news article, “Leaders seeking ways to save Savannah’s black young males” (12/27/14, Savannah Morning News, by Jan Skutch) I’ve been pondering some troubling questions about violence in our communities. What can I do to reduce the numbers of black male homicides, and the high rates of black male incarceration? And do these killings signal much deeper problems about a lack of empathy among the shooters and their victims; do they actually value life less?

As a Rochester native, I am all too familiar with homicide headlines and newscasts regularly featuring black men and boys killed on a daily basis. Rochester had 36 homicides in 2014 — that’s three per month on average. Nearly all of the homicides occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods. As a new resident of Savannah, I’m seeing the same stories–and media treatment– describing the violence and these are mirrored in numerous other cities throughout the country. Savannah is not alone in facing what feels like out-of-control violence among young black men.

Fortunately, Rochester and Savannah have some programs (preventive and rehabilitative) that seek to address some of the unique challenges faced by black boys and men. Here, we have the Chatham Apprentice Program, Young Men of Honor and Savannah Impact Program. Rochester has programs such as the Judicial Process Commission, the Safer Monroe Area Reentry Team and Vertus Charter School. These programs address post incarceration, limited and/or inadequate education, unemployment and behavioral change.

Clearly, our communities are trying but the crime numbers don’t seem to reflect our efforts. Unfortunately, there is a
disconnect between our efforts and effective solutions– or we’re not getting to enough young men in the most meaningful ways. Of course, we must remember statistics contain biases but still the numbers can be discouraging, to say the least. I am glad to know that communities are supporting programs and efforts to address the issue. I am anxious to help but still feel lost as to how I can be effective. In Rochester, I volunteered at a family shelter, helped host the Black History Month Celebration at the local museum, visited a youth shelter and cooked Christmas dinner at women’s shelter. I am always humbled to volunteer my time but I wonder if that really has an impact. I feel as if I am not doing enough. Perhaps it’s a question of quality vs. quantity. Is it more important to reach many or to have a deeper impact on fewer people? I am eager to find a niche to help address violent crime in the black community.

I repeatedly go back to the question, does violent crime reflect a lack of value for life? I cannot imagine killing someone other than as self-defense or in defense of loved one. However, my world view is vastly different than those of the young men who are perpetrators of violent crimes, particularly homicide. The ease with which it appears some are able to pull the trigger of a gun may speak to a lack of value placed on their own lives, or certainly on the lives of their victims. Is this a root cause of the gun violence we’re seeing of late? I don’t know but I believe violence is a learned behavior, and it can be reversed. The “live by the gun, die by the gun” mentality seems to have engulfed some youth in our cities. But still, as Mayor Pro-tem Van R. Johnson, said, “Black lives matter regardless of who takes their lives.”

Resources
http://rocdocs.democratandchronicle.com/map/rochester-homicides
http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/36/3663000.html

Poverty Perspectives

September 23rd, 2014 by

Poverty is perceived and understood in many ways in the U.S. and more often than not those views are shaped by personal values, beliefs and of course experiences. Even so, in general ideas about poverty in our country can be divided into two broad categories: as an individual problem or the result of structural and institutional barriers.

To those who see poverty as an individual problem, poverty is blamed on the behavior, attitudes, and values of individuals. People that blame the individual for living in poverty tend to not recognize or acknowledge external factors and some go further, believing that those living in poverty don’t share in the cultural ‘norms’ of society. Historically, many national policies have been shaped by the idea that poverty is the result of individual circumstances and look at ways that society can strengthen the human capital of poor people, such as mentoring programs.  The idea is that by addressing individual needs or even deficiencies we have a chance of bringing them out of poverty. It is true that an individual who lacks motivation and drive to seek better opportunities for themselves will always fall short.

Another broad perspective is based on the idea that institutional barriers and systems perpetuate poverty. The most common cited are racism, economic inequality and patriarchal society. Massey and Denton argued in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Under-class that racism is a critical foundational cause of severe poverty, especially in the black community. Patriarchal society has been the foundation of our nation and may help to explain the disproportionately high rate of poverty among women. Women across racial lines experience a higher rate of poverty than men and many families headed by single mothers are living under the poverty line. Rising economic inequality has “produced a geographic concentration of affluence and poverty” as Philip Young Hong, professor of social work at Loyola University of Chicago, wrote about in his paper Glocalizing Structural Poverty: Reclaiming Hope for Children and Families. This is one explanation for the highly concentrated poverty rates in Savannah. This institutional perspective views poverty as the result of policy and business or market decisions and choices about how to allocate goods and resources.

These two schools of thought seem to exist mutually exclusively. However, Step Up seeks to combine these approaches when addressing poverty. Poverty is not simply the fault of the individual or the structure. Poor people do not exist outside what is ‘normal’ behavior as we saw during our nation’s economic recession. Many hard-working people’s lives were changed dramatically. Nonetheless, each person does play a significant role in helping themselves and working towards a life of self-sufficiency. Even when individuals are helping themselves out of poverty the structural causes of poverty still need to be addressed. Identifying institutions that sustain poverty while simultaneously motivating poverty-stricken individuals is the most holistic way to address this issue buy it’s also more complex and requires a greater commitment of time.