The Poverty Reduction Work Group Steering Committee is a group of individuals from across Washington with lived experience with poverty who have come together for the past 6 years to influence the crafting and implementation of the 10-Year Plan to Dismantle Poverty, drive anti-poverty legislative efforts, and more. Since its inception in 2018, Poverty Action has played a role to convene and facilitate the Steering Committee. 

A group of students at the University of Washington, Evans School of Public Policy & Governance researched the Poverty Reduction Work Group Steering Committee for their Capstone Project. Over the past 6 months, Johanna Lundahl, Oli Van Hoeve, Sophia Keskey, and Tara Woodruff researched genuine partnership between state agencies and people with lived experience, using the Steering Committee as a case study. They received the Justice and Diversity Capstone Award at graduation for this research. 

Johanna Lundahl, Oli Van Hoeve, Sophia Keskey, and Tara Woodruff holding their Diversity and Justice Awards at their graduation

Through their research, they analyzed the features of the Steering Committee’s design that made partnership between community members with lived experience and state agencies successful, how Steering Committee members felt about their participation in the group, and what organizational and capacity considerations state agencies must make to partner authentically with community members with lived experience.  

They found several factors were key to the Steering Committee’s successful convening, building, and facilitation. Primarily, relationship building was central to the work of the Steering Committee. Understanding that government institutions have a history of causing harm to those living in poverty, building trust and authentic connection between agency staff and community members was a vital first step to partnership.  

Relationship building work involved intentionally making space to have difficult conversations, for members to show up authentically and emotionally. To create a safe space for these discussions, the Steering Committee subverted norms of professionalism that agency staff may have been used to, established community agreements that worked for them, and held each other accountable to those shared norms with patience and understanding. This process took time, humility, vulnerability, and accountability from everyone involved, but was well worth the effort.  

“Actually being heard … having somebody at the State level, Lori and her team, really listening to us and knowing she values what we say, that’s been very instrumental. Usually at that level, we’re not heard … we’re tokenized. But Lori really cares about us. She really listens to us, she’s part of our family and part of our team.”

Steering Committee Member

The Steering Committee prioritized flipping traditional power structures, centering the expertise of those with lived experience with programs and systems. The Steering Committee created a horizontal power structure, where Steering Committee members shared their stories and frustrations, and agency staff translated those experiences into policy solutions. At all stages, Steering Committee members were in the decision-making driver’s seat, and agency staff reinforced trust by following through with policy recommendations and implementation. 

“Seeing the change was really different. There’s a lot of groups that I’m in where we want change. We want certain things to be in place. But they’re not actually happening. We were listened to, the people that came, listened to our groups and talked to our groups and actually took to heart what we were saying. And we’ve actually been able to see some of the impact and that is huge to keep a fight going, when you start seeing things move.”

Steering Committee Member

There was a lot of behind-the-scenes work that made this possible. Throughout the convening, building, and facilitating of the Steering Committee, Poverty Action has worked to set meeting agendas, remove logistical barriers to attendance for Steering Committee members, and compensated Steering Committee members for their time, expertise, and emotional labor. Removing these logistical barriers was vital to convening the group – arranging food, travel, childcare, and lodging made it possible for Steering Committee members to meet in person.  

“I felt we were working with people that actually understood that we couldn’t just drop $500 on a plane ticket … I’ve really struggled to get someplaces to understand this. I’ve never had that issue with Poverty Action. I explained it one time. And they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we can see the difficulties now. Okay, let’s make sure we always have this in place’…But they have been so amazing about it. They’ve really, they’ve treated us with respect.”

Steering Committee Member

Similarly, compensation is a vital piece of the work that makes convening the Steering Committee possible. The Steering Committee members’ lived experience and decision-making authority drove the work at all stages, and it would be unacceptable to not compensate them for their time, expertise, and emotional labor. In terms of building trust and truly valuing the expertise of Steering Committee members, consistent, clear, and timely compensation was a huge component. 

“When you’re telling your story, you are reliving a lot of your traumas. This can be really hard psychologically and emotionally, especially when you’re having to tell your story over and over again. And the fact that we were actually compensated for this mental labor was extremely important – if they didn’t compensate us, there was no way I would have been able to participate because my funds were extremely tight and my tolerance for reliving trauma was at capacity.”

Steering Committee Member

Zooming back out, the work that went into building and facilitating the Steering Committee has really paid off. In addition to publishing the 10 Year Plan to Dismantle Poverty, the Steering Committee has played a role in implementing the “Economic Security for All System,” which is a nationwide best practice for moving individuals from poverty to self-sufficiency, and passing the Nothing About Us Without Us Act, which will ensure compensation for other individuals sharing their lived experiences to influence policy change. As the Steering Committee and the broader Poverty Reduction Work Group switch gears towards implementing the 10 Year Plan, it has been so meaningful to look back at the journey this group has taken and appreciate all the hard work and triumphs the Steering Committee has had along the way. 

We are so grateful to Johanna Lundahl, Oli Van Hoeve, Sophia Keskey, and Tara Woodruff for their diligent research, thoughtful analysis, and engaged participation with this project. We are also so proud of them for receiving the Justice and Diversity Capstone Award at graduation for their work!