More than fifty attendees piled into the conference room eager to continue working collectively on alleviating poverty as a follow-up to the January The Poverty of Poverty Intervention: Doing More with Less meeting sponsored by the USF Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships.

“It is wonderful to see gathered here so many people who are so passionate about something so depressing,” said Dr. Lance Arney, OCEP Associate Director.

Arney announced that the Reporting Back to the Community report released on April 22nd was the direct result of feedback from the community; and he stated that among the strongest recommendations was the need to create action groups. He said that participants reiterated, “Let’s actually do something” outside the scope of convened meetings.

A Poverty Action Working Group focusing on Program Evaluation and Asset Mapping.

A Poverty Action Working Group focusing on Asset Management and Evaluation.

The Poverty Action Groups represent an opportunity for faculty and community members to think on a larger scale about the structural inequities leading to widespread poverty experienced in our community. The time has come to consider how we might coalesce around major issues to make changes in legislation and policy.

To that end, Brandon Wagner, Operations and Legislative Affairs Officer for Hillsborough County’s Board of County Commissioners and Legislative Programs, presented a legislative toolkit to empower community groups with the ability to get issues related to poverty on the forefront of the legislative agenda.

Wagner informed the audience that this year only 264 bills passed of the 1,816 filed in Tallahassee, representing the lowest pass rate in legislative history.

He said, “You need to get your voice heard.” Interestingly, money doesn’t always talk, given that Wagner said gaming interests spent 3.4 million dollars to push legislation positively impacting them, and yet this resulted in no legislative successes.

A Poverty Action Working group focused on the School to Prison Pipeline.

A Poverty Action Working group focused on the School to Prison Pipeline.

It is also important to keep in mind that the state legislature has a limited volume given that there are only 160 legislators, and the legislative session lasts only 60 da

Wagner stated that in order to be successful, “community members must represent a broad coalition of diverse interests coming together.”

He told the audience to avail themselves of his assistance, saying, “I’m not a black coat wearing lobbyist. I receive no campaign contributions. I work for you. My job is to educate you.”

“I have to rely upon information, facts, and the ‘hometown pull’ to get in the room and get an agenda done,” he said. “3.4 million will get you in the door every day of the week, but if you are from the home district you will get in first.”

He warned, “It’s not a fast process. We need time for the crock pot to simmer and come out with something that’s edible.”

He said that the interests of the 1,000 square miles of Hillsborough County run the spectrum including civil service reform, economic development, gas pumping, consumer protection, and environmental protection.

Interestingly, the Tampa Bay region’s largest export by volume is tropical fish and the largest export by weight is dead bodies being shipped out to be buried elsewhere.

He also referred to the diversity of the County Commission, four separate district members and three at-large commissioners representing divergent interests coming together.

He said it is important to assess the Commissioners and determine where to go for support. He continued, “They will open the door; they will listen.”

“Nobody wants poverty,” he said, “we all get that.” But that fact alone doesn’t take you far enough. He recommended coming into meetings armed with a “concrete set of solutions.”

“If you talk theoretically, they will feel good about it, but they are not going to do anything about it.”

On the upside, to help advocates prepare, Florida has the best electronic access to legislative information of any state in the union. Furthermore, the county and city websites are user-friendly.

Wagner reiterated, “You need a defined message of what you want to do, and it needs to be an achievable request.”

Another important message was “get a legislator in this room.” He continued, “You’ve got to engage them and make them own this process for the good of the community.

He concluded by stating that he would be available to anyone who wanted assistance in reviewing their legislation before presenting it to legislators.

The group then broke up into action groups, which gave everyone the opportunity to come together around specific issues or concerns. Among the Poverty Action Groups that formed were Childhood Literacy, Transportation, Housing, Program Evaluation and Asset Mapping, Health and Wellness, and the School to Prison Pipeline. Stay tuned for more details on the specific goals and measurable outcomes to come out of each of the Poverty Action Groups.

Should you wish to join a Poverty Action Group, or for more information, please e-mail us at CommunityEngagement@usf.edu.

By Bonnie Beth Silvestri, JD, OCEP Director of Strategic Communications

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