You could say the blues have followed me wherever I’ve gone.
My mom came from a family of 18, picking cotton and peanuts in Georgia. My dad, who played the blues, couldn’t read. He learned numbers selling produce.
I was born in Massachusetts, where my mom worked in the factories and raised me alone after my parents separated. She was always telling me, “Keep praying we’ll get by.”
The prayers helped, but thankfully they were supplemented by government cheese and cash assistance. Our country’s social safety net has always been flawed, under-funded, and over-complicated.
But it’s also essential — and we need to protect it from political attacks.
I graduated from high school with straight As, but poverty had left me unprepared for what came next. I made it into college, but I struggled to keep up with more privileged classmates. Feeling crushed and struggling to eat, I dropped out.
Later I got pregnant, trapped in an abusive relationship. I ended up homeless.
My prayers were answered again, with food stamps and enough cash assistance to rent a motel room. But as my ex-partner’s abuse got more dangerous, I fled several times — first to Chicago, where my mom’s Section 8 housing sheltered me, and later to Tallahassee, Florida.
In Florida, I worked three jobs — not enough to make ends meet, but enough to disqualify me from food stamps and cash assistance. Politicians who cut our safety net say these strict rules encourage work, but for me it was the opposite.
Still, we did everything we could.
Today my baby is grown. With the help of a mentor, he graduated from the Job Corps program and is now married and working. My own life changed once I began uniting with poor people like myself.
After many years I came across a group called Front Porch Florida. They gave me volunteering opportunities working with struggling women and families like mine.
I worked a dead-end minimum wage job knowing no one wanted to hire a civil rights activist. I’ve gone without health care and dental care for 20 years. I’ve been gentrified out of a home, facing the never-ending obstacles of racism and poverty.
Eventually, my volunteer work turned into an administrative and mentoring job with a stipend — although still not enough to survive. Even now I’m renting from a slumlord — I’ve got no working fridge and I cook on a hot plate.
But along the way, I stumbled upon the Poor People’s Campaign and joined to take the struggles of poor people straight to lawmakers to demand change.
It’s a big job.
Pick up any newspaper and see how Florida and other conservative-run states are trying their best to kick down anyone who’s dared to stand up. Federal lawmakers are doing the same, with the GOP forcing cuts to social programs and new “work requirements” that make it harder for poor people to qualify for help.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I believe that in our hearts, we all want what is fair and right. Most of us believe there should be equal opportunity and help when we need it. We all want quality education, quality health care, and good jobs with living wages. A fair chance.
We need ways to unite behind these ideals. When enough of us from all walks of life work together, we’ll be unstoppable. Please join me. For your family and mine.
Trish Brown is a theo-musicologist, a coordinating committee member of the Florida Poor People’s Campaign, and the founder and executive director of Power Up People. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.