I want to live without fear, anxiety, and without making extreme tradeoffs. I want to be treated with dignity, and to have a strong community network. I want the opportunity to make my situation better.
Those were the common themes we heard when we spoke to Californians who are working yet struggling with poverty.
Last fall, The James Irvine Foundation partnered with community organizations to hold 14 Community Listening Sessions in six regions across California. We spoke to more than 400 Californians (in 10 languages) to better understand their hopes, fears, challenges, and dreams.
We also spoke more in-depth to some participants in their homes and used a mobile research app to hear from an additional 58 young Californians, 18-36 years old. You can read more about the stories we heard and the insights we gained at irvine.org/CAvoices.
We held the listening sessions to inform Irvine’s new focus on economic and political opportunity. We know that our ability to have an impact is directly connected to how well we listen to the organizations working to expand opportunity for Californians – and to those Californians themselves.
We listened and learned that people are working harder than ever for less income and opportunity. And, they often feel their voices are not heard by those in power. We connected with these perspectives personally.
Kelley’s experience: At one session, I was especially intrigued by two women unable to vote in the recent Presidential election. They spoke passionately about elevating the voice of their community by knocking on doors, participating in rallies, and engaging in other activities – their way of voting. When they discovered two college students at their table weren’t registered to vote, they spoke to the students about their responsibility as citizens, and about the freedoms they were giving away by not voting. The women made the students promise to register to vote, and at the end of the session, the hosts helped them to do so.
This experience served as a reminder of the humble beginnings of my own parents and their parents – how hard they worked to create a life of hope and aspirations for me and my siblings, and how they taught us at an early age about our responsibility to vote. My mom and dad grew up with parents who worked hard yet still struggled to make ends meet – grandpa as a rubber plant worker making tires, and grandma as a janitor. My other grandmother was “the help,” working in the homes of wealthy white folks to support her daughter (my mom) through nursing school and to care for her sons.
Kim’s experience: I sat at a long table of high schoolers at one session. They excitedly told me about their plans to attend college and how they would be the first in their families to do so. They also spoke about the stresses of taking tests, writing applications, and wondering whether they would even be able to pay for college. The weight of the responsibility to pave the way for their younger siblings and contribute to their families’ finances worried them. For some families, tough choices lay ahead about which sibling would get to go to college and which ones would stay back to work.
Afterwards, I reflected on my daughter, who is the same age. Her life is very different due to the path my father and his parents were able to pave. My grandparents, immigrants who came to this country as young adults, never completed elementary school. My grandfather worked 12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week as a baker, and my grandma took care of children of the wealthy. My grandparents were one job loss or injury away from poverty. Some chastised my father for his dreams of becoming a doctor – his father was “just a baker.” But his access to education directly led to a meaningful career that resulted in economic sustainability and the opportunity to pursue his passion of helping others. His life reflects the American Dream, but for too many this path seems out of reach.
The Community Listening Sessions changed us. They increased our empathy for the day-to-day experiences of Californians who are working but struggling to make ends meet, and gave us a chance to hear directly the voices that most often aren’t heard. We will keep these stories front and center as we move forward with our work at the Foundation.
We invite you to learn more by hearing from the people we spoke with at irvine.org/CAvoices, and by downloading a summary of what we heard. We encourage you to listen deeply enough to be changed by what you hear. We were.