Fieldwork II: Equal Voices for America’s Families #2

Thu. September 27, 2007
Categories: Research

The discussions reflected a process that people are calling deliberative democracy in contrast to dialogue. Similar to a public conversation, effective “deliberative meetings do not just happen. They are designed, planned, organized, facilitated, and followed-up, and they are embedded seamlessly in a larger process of public decision-making and participation” (Wilson, 2009).

In contrast to dialogue, the people were polled for their responses to the platform. It had the guise of a conversation in that people discussed their opinions and at my table several women came prepared with answers, in the same fashion that AmericaSpeaks had prepared the questions.

Elsa said “this is what the government needs to do” and there was no dialogue since the other women around the table just sat quietly and nodded their agreement. I realize that not all table discussions at the various conferences that AmericaSpeaks host have happened this way, and I was facing a cultural difference that, quite honestly, left me baffled as to how to get all of the women involved and to shift into dialogue mode.

I repeated the emcee’s question and tried to re-phrase it as I understood the question, which was along the lines of ‘what can you do in your community to make a difference’ [one of Luz A. Vega-Marquis’ passions is shifting responsibility to the citizen] and Elsa became angry and argued in Spanish with another woman at the table and then she and the woman left together, never to return to our table. It took a long time of reflection to understand why she had gotten so angry. The point that she was so upset about, and that she was trying to explain to me, was that I was taking the question literally as if “you” meant the first person singular.

Elsa had argued that there was no individual in her community and it was incomprehensible for her to think that way. She was her community, she lived and breathed for it, and she never separated thoughts of herself from her community. She was not an individual, in other words, she was them and they were her. She had opinions, of course, but they were only for what needed to be done to help her people. She already gave all of herself to help them, so it was audacious to ask her the question of what specific actions she could take towards “self-empowerment” since the idea of a separate self was foreign to her. She was frustrated and felt her voice was not going to be heard, although every response would be recorded as it was spoken, but maybe she thought I could not be trusted. That was where I made my mistake in regards to Elsa, as I should have just agreed with everything she said and recorded it as a faithful facilitator. It seemed to annoy her that I tried to elicit comments from the other women at the table who had less experience (all of them knew each other and said Elsa was their leader). But I was glad after Elsa left the table because that meant more voices could be heard and the other women then got more involved. Still, I regretted that Elsa and her sister left.  The conference was not about dialogue, at least how I had been trained by PCP. Rather, it was a fascinating way of doing real-time research and collecting statistics.

So what opinions came forward as a result of the discussions?

First, the idea that ex-offenders could be reconnected to society more effectively and should be allowed to vote, get jobs, receive an education and raise families as a part of their second chance. I began to believe that this meant our government should be responsible to rehabilitate them and make their transition to public life possible.

Second, that getting an illness, having an accident or getting pregnant does not mean losing everything, in other words I believe this means universal health care as well as childcare.

Third, that it is the government’s responsibility to provide alternatives to youth who are joining gangs.

Fourth, that it is the government’s responsibility to improve the quality and affordability of education and that it should create jobs so that people can have stronger communities.

Fifth, that having this platform will make their voices heard to the government and increase the capacity for changes.

When pressed for the actions they will take in their communities, which is where I was trying to go with Elsa perhaps a little too early in the conversation, participants said they would “use the media to broadcast our messages by writing letters to the editor” or “submit Public Service Announcements and publish our own newsletters”. Participants would go back into their communities and “offer training and resources to support young people to take action on their issues” and “create local youth programs with a safe and nurturing environment like sports teams, mentoring, in-school and after-school activities”.

Another idea offered was to host career days to help people in their community find jobs and develop skills. I was glad to hear it was not about a government handout and that they were responsive to the idea of self-empowerment. Plans for community actions included a) registering people to vote for candidates that support their platform; b) organizing visits, phone calls, and letters to local, state and federal government representatives about the issues that concern them; c) participants will pool their resources and collaborate on fundraising; d) they will collaborate among various organizations, schools, and churches to educate others about this platform by holding rallies, block parties, and town meetings.

Finally, their goal is to develop powerful leaders through funded training programs.

Here is the official platform that resulted from the Equal Voices for America’s Families convention and the previously-held town hall meetings across the United States that led up to the convention:

Bring manufacturing jobs back to this country.

Pass living wage laws.

Enforce labor laws.

Protect retirement incomes.

Provide training that will help people access jobs with living wages so that parents will need to work only one job and will be able to spend more time with their families.

Education: Promote accountability in education and early education. Reform the way children are taught so that their skills fit society’s needs. Offer bilingual education and culturally relevant curricula for students. Provide more recreation, sports, tutoring, literacy and cultural history resources for high school students. Bridge the gap in technology access and readiness between low-wealth families and wealthier families. Involve parents in school decisions and in their children’s education.

Healthcare: Provide healthcare for all. Provide better health and dental care. Provide medical help for elders. Enact price controls on healthcare and medicines. Provide healthcare education. Promote healthy living and good nutrition. Ensure mental health services are available to all and the needs of people with disabilities are met. Improve public programs, such as Medicaid, by making them simpler to apply to, easier to access and delay-free.

Housing: Build quality and safe affordable housing. Bring prices down so that poor families can afford rent or can purchase a first home. Help people feel secure in their housing. Prevent families from being displaced by development and gentrification.

Child Care: Increase the supply of quality child care that is affordable for families of all economic backgrounds. Invest more money in child care subsidies and early childhood education.

Immigration Reform: Educate immigrants about their civil rights. Pass immigration reform, and provide more opportunities for immigrant families to become citizens so that their contributions can be recognized. Create a support system for children whose parents have been deported. Separate the responsibilities of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the police. Provide education for immigrant children. Allow immigrants to carry a state driver’s license.

Criminal Justice Reform and Opportunities for Ex-offenders to Rebuild: Make it easier and less expensive to get criminal records expunged. Help ex-offenders rebuild. Support children of incarcerated parents. Auotmatically reinstate voting rights for ex-offenders upon their parole. Safe and Thriving Communities: Make all communities safe and vibrant with strategies to address violence, drugs and decay. Invest in infrastructure and resources to help all people thrive.

When I think about my table’s discussion by young, politically active women born of immigrant workers it helps me to reflect upon what Demetrios G. Papdemetrious (from the Migration Policy Institute) said, that is “since the implementation of the 1996 welfare law, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), [even] many legal immigrants who are not citizens and have been in the United States for less than five years are excluded from access to major federal public benefit programs, such as cash welfare and food stamps, which are important sources of support during period of job loss, underemployment, or other economic hardship. Some states, including California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey have restored state-based coverage to these recent legal immigrants although collapsing tax revenues have spread the economic pain throughout the country and state governments are scrambling to cover ever-widening deficits” (Papdemetriou, 2009).

I first heard it from Helene Shulman-Lorenz who taught us to listen to marginalized voices… and here they were…joining the fight for public services for their families. I cannot help but feel these voices are universal, that they speak for all of us who are arguing for democracy, for civil rights, for equality in society.

And I think of my grandmother, whose picture is before me now, holding her baby whose skinny little arms poke through her clothes which appear too large because she is so undernourished. My great aunt’s husband put my mother in an incubator when she arrived in Los Angeles from Nogales, Sonora. Even though both my parents came from low-income families, I did not struggle with limited resources while growing up in spite of the fact my family of seven never had health insurance nor used food stamps or public services. My parents both worked hard because they believed in limited government and self-sufficiency.

In contrast, at EVAF I had the impression Latinos believe the U.S. government plays the role of a parent. The convention Emcees emphasized to the participants that they needed to take personal responsibility as much as possible. At the same time, when I think of hearing all of these voices from Latin America, I feel they are also speaking for the people in the South, for example, in the Ninth Ward. Every issue in the platform above is what unites all low-income people around the world. “The social trend is away from patriarchal domination and toward greater equality and a higher regard for differences.” (Davis, 2003, p. 169)

What is the cost of providing immigrants the public support they need? I think it could be a lot but from a depth perspective cost is not a consideration when determining what is meaningful in our lives for our individuation process, however there is always a price extracted. I have the idea that consciousness arises from our acts of disobedience to oppressive systems. A dream follows:

I was wrongly accused and placed in a correctional institute for mental patients. Knowing my innocence, I questioned everything as I was led through the system. I had to sneak away in order to see what was going on, and it was bloody. The authorities (nurses, interns, doctors) tried to convince me to get back in line. People were taken into rooms with very strange contraptions and never came out.  I realized they were experimenting on people! I found ways to evade going into the rooms that the women patients, who were gathered in a ward talking together, were compliantly going to be led into. Seeing my determination, a nurse whispered as he briskly walked past me “Just go out the door” and I was dumbfounded that the only thing that kept us there was our ignorance that we could leave.  Walking through the doors took courage but as I stood on the steps and looked out on the city, I realized that no one was coming after me. It was a feeling of incredible freedom as I descended the stone steps into the public arena.  Every act of disobedience was a step closer to my freedom, it was a part of my individuation process.

We are taught to fear the consequences of disobedience, of questioning authority or systems of  power. But this is exactly how we grow in consciousness, it is as if the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was put into the Garden of Eden for just that purpose.

And so, the EVAF conference was a time when people invested themselves with great care, taking time from their busy lives to wonder about their history and where they are going. Images were captured and projected onto the large screens, fantasies of what life could be like if we worked hard to make our dreams come true. Emotional stories of struggle united us.

Soul, for Hillman, is a perspective, not a substance or thing; it is a reflective process that mediates between events in the world and our perception of them, fictionalizing and transforming them into experiences” (Davis, 2003, p. 173). In this regard, the conference was ensouling its participants, leading them along paths of individuation. And the fiction that was imagined that day will live on in the consciousness of those participants and will transform the day-to-day when all else seems overwhelming.

Conclusion: Equal Voices unveiled the “Family Platform” in Washington, D.C. on February 11, 2009 to Congress members. There was some concern over the legislators’ responses to this platform. A survey had been conducted for a similar AmericaSpeaks conference on health care reform which revealed some legislative respondents were unsure how the event impacted the political process. That is because many politicians had already formed their opinions or proposals prior to the America Speaks event. One legislative respondent believed that the key themes were already included in the proposed bills and thought that the recommendations were too general to further refine the legislation. He explained, “Saying ‘increased access’ is really general, so what does that mean? Everybody can say that’s what they’re for.” Similarly, one administrative official thought it was helpful to the administration but was not sure about its relevance to legislative colleagues. As the official replied, “I just don’t know how much it was on their radar. We can point to the participation of 4000 people with pride, but if no one ends up talking about it, then it doesn’t necessarily make much difference.”

As for me, when I listen, read, and watch the news media I am grateful for the Public Conversations Project, and Gadamer’s Truth and Method, because the one thing I have confidence in is my desire to ask the better question.


Abdullah, K. 2009. Equal Voice’ Unveils Family Platform in Washington. New America Media, News Report retrieved on 17-Feb-09 from

Antonovich, M. 2008. August Welfare Costs For LA County Released. Retrieved 26-Sept-08 from

CaliforniaSpeaks. 2008. Evaluation Report. Retrieved on 24-Feb-09 from

Casey, A. 2009. Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved on 2-Feb-09 from Casey, M. 2009. Marguerite Casey Foundation. Retrieved on 2-Feb-09 from

Casey, J. 2002. U.S. Department of Labor Hall of Fame Honoree. Retrieved on 2-Feb-09 from

Davis, R. 2003. Jung, Freud, and Hillman. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Equal Voice for America’s Families Convention (EVAF). 2008. Caseygrants. Retrieved on15-Feb-2009 from

Gadamer, H. 2006. Truth and Method. London: Continuum Books. Harder & Co. 2008.

An Assessment of the Impact of California Speaks on Health Care Reform in Calfornia retrieved on 24-Feb-09

Marguerite Casey Foundation & Grantees Convening in Atlanta. Retrieved on 25-Feb-09 from–UBfs

Papdemetriou, D.G., Terrazas, A. 2009. Immigrants and the Current Economic Crisis: Research Evidence, Policy Challenges, and Implications. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Vega-Marquis, L. 2009. Marguerite Casey Foundation. President and CEO. Retrieved on 20-Feb-2009 from

Comments are closed.