This guest blog was co-authored by three staff members at JONAH – Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope – a Wisconsin-based partner in the Center’s Building Community Capacity to Shift Health Care Investment funded by the Kresge Foundation
This statement is a motto within grassroots organizing. Slowly but surely, the public narrative around who needs to be part of the solution for social change is shifting. Public input is often taken by human service agencies, but the value of voices of those directly impacted still falls upon deaf ears. Those who are struggling have demonstrated their capacity to advocate for themselves and offer valuable dialogue to implement change. However, institutional changes often are too difficult to penetrate with existing structural and discriminatory barriers.
JONAH – Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope – is an organization based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin that addresses social justice issues. Our belief is all persons have value and can contribute to address the root cause of injustice issues. Through the power of each person’s story, we learn from those who have been directly impacted. We encourage people to advocate for themselves and support their work to make policy changes to experience a deserved quality of life.
Eau Claire has a population of approximately 68,000 residents and serves as a hub to surrounding neighboring communities, as well as, expansive rural areas. Eau Claire is beginning to experience big city problems of homelessness, racism and gentrification, but lacks the resources and professional knowledge to address those effectively.
The stories of those who get involved in JONAH demonstrate the value individuals bring to the table. For example, three JONAH members collaborated on this blog post to lend their voices to the work JONAH is doing in several of its programs. Gloria Godchaux embraced civic engagement opportunities at a young age and was a proactive demonstrator in Berkeley, California during the 60s. Now retired, she is attending Metro State University working to get her Masters of Advocacy and Political Leadership. She believes every citizen returning from incarceration has a right to live in a safe supportive community where he or she can thrive. Kyle Brown is a single father whose conviction history continues to be a barrier to providing the life he wants for his children. He is pleased to be working in JONAH and EXPO to be a strong advocate for others similarly struggling. Lynn Buske, project lead for JONAH’s LIFT project (described below), thankfully had her faith as an anchor to cope with her childhood trauma experiences. Now she is a Community Organizer for JONAH working to let the voice of various trauma experiences be heard in order to better address justice issues.
LIFT: Reducing Barriers to Housing for People with Conviction History
JONAH’s beliefs and approaches are reflected throughout the LIFT project that aims to reduce barriers to housing for people with conviction history. Homelessness is on the rise, and JONAH members asked, “with 15 housing programs in the area, how could there still be hundreds of people experiencing homelessness?” Members of EXPO – Ex-Incarcerated Persons Organizing, an ongoing project of JONAH – alerted us to the fact that many of these people had conviction histories. So, JONAH and EXPO partnered to create LIFT.
Through their personal stories, returning citizens helped the community understand the complex and diverse of the lack of affordable housing and how limited community resources are failing to support them. LIFT exposed why homelessness for those with conviction histories is on the rise. This project, made possible by the generosity and flexibility of the Kresge Foundation through Community Catalyst, revealed the importance of how groups can work together to address issues that negatively impact them.
It was personal stories like the one shared by Chris in this short video, that revealed and affirmed that this population was severely being left behind. Part of the problem is a lack of awareness of services by people advocating for returning citizens, and part of it is that the programs were reactive rather than proactive: