To understand how 350 people—including more than 100 people from across the country who are experiencing poverty and hunger firsthand—arrived in Philadelphia last week for a conference that culminated in a call to action, you have to go back to 2008.
Dr. Mariana Chilton of Drexel University was doing cutting-edge research on the relationship between poverty and child nutrition—and the trauma of living in poverty—and testifying about her findings at the national, state and local levels.
But the hearings never included any witnesses whose very lives were the topics of discussion. Chilton also didn’t feel like her words sufficiently described the hardships that families in poverty were enduring and revealing to her in interviews.
So she gave forty-four women cameras and told them to document their experiences as “Witnesses to Hunger.” They began taking pictures—a child with an outstretched hand asking a caseworker for food; puddles of blood on the sidewalk at a bus stop; a child treated for asthma being cared for by his father who was missing work; drug paraphernalia next to a slide on the playground….
Thousands of photographs documented the experiences of families with food and health, banking and finance, work and opportunity, education, housing and energy, and access to technology. The photos were turned into an exhibit, and the women also learned to advocate for themselves at the local and state levels, and then at the federal level, too, when Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey Jr. invited them to Capitol Hill to testify and speak with members of Congress. The women testified on issues like housing, WIC, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, child nutrition and more.
The Witnesses also began to form their own informal groups in their neighborhoods to support and counsel one another—talking together about issues ranging from food and nutrition to confronting domestic violence and past trauma; from fighting back against the stigma of being poor to navigating a welfare system that seems like a labyrinth designed to deny services; from providing childcare for one another to pooling resources to help make ends meet.
Word spread about this project that was putting the voices and experiences of people living in poverty front and center, and empowering women to overcome their despair and social isolation. Witnesses expanded to Boston, Providence and Baltimore (where one Witness is a single father). There are now seventy-three Witnesses and they have taken over 10,000 photographs and shot over 200 videos. There have been twelve formal exhibitions and many smaller showings. Currently, there is interest in starting new groups in California, Camden, Omaha, Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
With this kind of track record, it was somewhat natural for these women—and the advocates they work with at Drexel University’s Center for Hunger Free Communities, where Chilton serves as director—to break the conference mold and bring people together to pursue a new model of antipoverty work, one that builds a bridge between the advocacy community and people on the ground in low-income neighborhoods.