Kitchen Table Democracy

By Liesl Wendt
Issue 108, September/October 2001

Family at a rallyMy children voted. No butterfly ballots, no number-two pencils, but they voted nonetheless. They were interested in the presidential outcome, exhibiting more patience in learning the result than just about any adult I know. They seemed satisfied with my answer that history was in the making and we simply didn’t know the answer yet. This was unusual; in the past, whenever I’ve put one of their pleading questions on hold, it required United Nations-like diplomacy skills to quiet the ensuing riot.

I may have swayed their voting habits a bit. My son really wanted to vote for Ralph Nader. I explained the whys and why-nots of that decision. He didn’t seem affected by any of my very practical rationales. “But why?” His final decision had much more to do with how I was voting. (He’s six and still thinks his parents are cool.) Sean’s leaning toward Nader began with the Green Party rally he attended one night last summer. Our babysitter fell through, and the kids were treated to the Green Party stomp and cheer for causes such as the environment, child care, health care, saving the salmon. When we left a bit early (Ralph can talk!), we passed heaps of bikes. On the way home we waited for their questions and replied with short, simple answers, trying not to lose the complexity along the way: “Why didn’t we ride our bikes?” “Why don’t the other guys want to help save trees?” “How come no girls want to be President this year?” (That from the four year old–a girl.) A few weekends later our family drove to a Harvest Parade in a small town outside Salem, Oregon’s state capital, to ride bikes in support of the re-election bid of congressional representative Darlene Hooley. My daughter was delighted to actually meet Darlene and asked quickly before she shook her hand, “Is she the president?” No–but what a delight that my daughter sees that as a possibility.

Lying in bed one evening in November, watching the news, I heard the most disappointing comment of the entire election. The story was about how the lame-duck Congress would try to set a different tone for its next session. In order to do this, there were plans for the House speaker and the House minority leader to sit down and have a face-to-face conversation! Luckily for my family, I had laryngitis and couldn’t rant as much as the situation deserved. I have a deep respect for our system of government; but I am dismayed that there are places in our country where children go to bed hungry, where people sleep on the streets in freezing weather, where the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us continues to grow–all against a backdrop of a Congress caught in a power shuffle that essentially checkmates itself from accomplishing major legislation. With the election over, the decided winner in the White House, and state legislatures all over the country getting back to the work of their states and checking their voting systems, I am struck not by the complacency but by the complexities that remain at the table. A year ago I heard a talk by Marian Wright Edelman, the head of the Children’s Defense Fund, and something she said struck me to the bone: “We cannot wait for another Martin, another Caesar Chavez” She went on to say that we each have to pick up the baton of justice and carry it on in our own way. We each have to wave it for the right for all of our children to health care; safe, affordable, quality child care; fair and safe housing; equal pay for equal work; and the eradication of hunger.

And she is right. I may not speak with the passion of a Marian Wright Edelman; I may not hold elected office like Hillary Clinton. But I sit in front of two children who ask questions every day, and I am responsible for the answers. Yes, people go hungry. Yes, people live in cars. Yes, they look like us. Yes, they are good people. I can begin there and take the complexity on one day at a time, when they are ready for the answers, when I have the answers. I will seek out more adequate answers when I don’t convince myself. And I will take up the baton of justice and give it a voice in every forum in which I am able. According to the most recent biannual “Hunger Factors Assessment” released by the Oregon Food Bank, one in seven Oregonians receives food from an emergency food box. For children, the number is one in five. One in five children in a rich agriculture state with a booming economy received food from an emergency food box agency in the past year. And why? As one respondent said, “Even ‘middle class’ is stricken by poverty. Between poor wages, long hours, and poor benefits medically, families can’t get by.”

A recent University of Oregon study followed families who had left or were diverted from public-assistance rolls during the first quarter of 1998 for nearly two years, using phone and in-person interviews. Although 70 percent were employed, their wages were still around the poverty level. As a result, 80 percent paid their bills late, and 47 percent had to turn to a food kitchen or a food box for a meal.

Poor people were regarded as deviant within society well before the 20th century. From the poor law system, which relegated them to “houses of industry,” to the New Deal of the 1930s, to the 1960s, when the poor needed to be managed, to the “welfare queens” of the Reagan era, to the 1990s version of poverty as a result of the disintegration of family values, those in poverty have most often been labeled the “other.” As E. Aninat, the Chilean Finance Minster and chair of the 1996 annual meeting of the World Bank and IMF, said, “The poor, the worse-off, the vulnerable groups in our societies have a deeply rooted hunger for voice and for finding an effective way of participating fully in the economic and civic lives of the community. Will the engine of progress become an instrument of vast integration and social enhancement, or merely a vehicle to benefit the few? The characteristics of exclusion, of marginalization, of deprivation, should be left behind as shortcomings of the past.”

Once, when I was lamenting to a friend about social inequities and what one person can do to make an impact, she drew two circles. “The large circle is the circle of influence, the second represents the sphere of control,” she said. “Focus on the sphere, on what you have control over, and you can make a difference.” Her wise message is one I often pass on to my children: focus. Some days that focus is as small a world as my home. Yesterday, my children handed me toys from their rooms for children who don’t have homes. Tomorrow, I’ll deliver those toys. Today, I’ll nurture my children and plant the seeds of understanding that the child who has no home is as worthy and special as they are.

I won’t wait for a movement. I’ll begin to talk about poverty and hunger. I’ll share with my children the reality of poverty and encourage them to reach out to kids who may be different, shy, dirty, sick, or sad. I want them to live in a world that does not label. I want them to know adults and children who don’t wait to make a difference. I want them to live with gusto, in a place that honors all its creatures. I will remember the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I will sit down to a tea party with my children, ready to tackle questions, both big and little, with respect and pleasure.

Liesl Wendt is a policy advocate at Oregon Food Bank and co-teaches an experiential learning college course on women and poverty. She lives in Portland with her partner, Rob Justus, and their children, Sean (6 1/2) and Bria (5).