20 Jan Reflection on 2020, from an EHN Empowerment Advocate
For all of us, our day to day has changed dramatically over the past year. I don’t need to list all the ways our reality has shifted. We can all feel it in every part of our lives. As an EHN advocate, my work also has profoundly and dramatically shifted in so many ways. While I previously enjoyed meeting members in coffee shops after work, or at a bookstore around the corner from their school, to check-in or discuss the next steps in their Empowerment Plans, we are now using phones and Zoom calls to stay in touch. Just as we have all adjusted to a more virtual and remote world, our work with members has evolved as well.
In addition to how our work mechanics have changed, the content and context in which we work have altered profoundly. As an advocate in New York, all of my members have been deeply affected by the pandemic, especially during the peak in the pandemic’s early months. For the members who work in hospitals, going to work each day was scary and risky. For the members who were laid off from service and restaurant jobs, they experienced intense financial stress and uncertainty. For the members who are parents, they suddenly scrambled to find technology, internet, and childcare for kids who were abruptly at home in cramped NYC apartments. And, for almost all of my members, they were living in the epicenter of the epicenter- some of the hardest-hit zip codes in the country. Many of them contracted COVID-19 themselves (though all have recovered, thankfully!) and were afraid for their wellbeing, and that of their family members, as they lacked access to needed resources or services.
Having the ability to support these members through EHN by providing emergency funding, assistance with accessing unemployment insurance and other benefits, along with providing emotional support and encouragement, was one of the best parts of my year. In a year where there was so much hurt, so much fear, so much violence, and illness- our members' strength and resiliency was a true light.
While, in some ways, it feels as though we have settled into this remote, pandemic-era way of working, conversations with members often remind me we still do not have what we need. Many members are still unemployed. And while each is deeply committed and determined to find work – safe and stable employment options, especially for survivors who have limited traditional work experience or limited English fluency, are even more scarce than before. Because of such drastic changes to income in the past year, many members are juggling to afford rent, food, and daily living expenses with unemployment benefits that are rarely sufficient to meet the cost of living in New York. There is still a sense, after so many months, of instability. The feeling that they are just barely making it work this month, but not so sure they’ll make it again next month.
However, because our members are the most resilient, innovative, and smartest people I know, they always find a way. As I have watched them do this month-to-month, I am both deeply inspired and saddened that it continues to be so difficult for them without an end in sight to this pandemic. For women who deserve the world and have earned every right to comfort, happiness, and safety they continue to be left to fend for themselves by the institutions and systems that are supposed to protect them.
Despite the challenges, I have been pleasantly surprised by our members’ creativity around shifting their Empowerment Plans in response to the pandemic. For example, members who were previously focusing on employment-related goals ended up pivoting to focus on GED or ESL classes, deciding to use their time at home to take online courses until the job market picked up again. Members who lost work applied for Contact Tracing jobs, taking advantage of the new positions available in response to the pandemic. Members who were unsure whether to return to school or not used the extra time at home to research programs and apply to colleges.
As we embark on 2021, still in the depths of this pandemic, I think about how I can continue to learn from, and with, our members while supporting them in the best way possible.
With all the cards stacked against them, they continue to work with what they are dealt and make moves. As always, but especially this year, it is an honor and a privilege to be a part of EHN and to be able to share even a little piece of each member’s journey.