This is the second post in TheNation.com’s #TalkPoverty series—an effort to push a deeper conversation about poverty into the mainstream political debate. The series profiles people working on poverty-related issues, and lays out the questions they want president Obama and Governor Romney to answer. You can read the first post here.
In 1989, when Dr. Mariana Chilton was a junior in college, she lived in Chile for a year working as an interpreter for a US reporter doing a story on “Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared.” It was just after Augusto Pinochet had been voted out of office.
Chilton traveled the Atacama Desert with “wives and daughters and sisters” who were searching for hundreds of loved ones who had been murdered and buried in mass graves.
“They were trying to call attention—carefully—to finding their loved ones,” she told me. “People were starting to learn how to come out and talk—it took their enormous courage to break seventeen years of silence.”
Fifteen years later, as an associate professor at Drexel University School of Public Health and co-principal investigator for Children’s HealthWatch, that indelible experience of breaking the silence would change her work on poverty and nutrition at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities (@HungerFreeCtr).
She was testifying before Congress on the 2007 Farm Bill, offering data on food stamp benefits and how critical they are for children’s health.
“I literally watched the Congresspeople’s eyes glaze over, and I thought, ‘Well this isn’t doing it,’” she said. “I thought of all the women that I’d spoken to who had invited me into their homes to talk about hunger in the previous two years, and that they are the ones who needed to be testifying. The people most directly affected by food policy were being left out of the conversation. How do you get their stories out? How do you break through the silence?”
With an unrestricted $100,000 award from a foundation, she decided to give cameras to women living in poverty so that they could get their messages out through photographs and testimonials.
“It was an attempt to have women speak directly to legislators at the local, state, and federal levels—with something real and tangible from their own experiences,” she said.
Some people thought Chilton was nuts—that the women would end up selling the cameras, and her project would do nothing to help change policy. Chilton disagreed.
“Whether I was getting to know the relatives of the detained and disappeared, listening to their stories while wandering the desert; or sitting with women in their kitchens in Philadelphia and learning about what their experiences with hunger and poverty were like—I always felt an absolute conviction that these stories needed to be heard,” she said.
Chilton had no idea whether the new project—Witnesses to Hunger—would work. But sitting on the sofa with Witness Barbie Izquierdo, and looking at the project’s very first photograph that Izquierdo had taken of a neighbor’s kitchen, Chilton vowed to get “her story, her presence, her photographs” to the White House.