Advocating for Economic Equity, One Story at a Time
What’s your story? We all have one, but too often they remain untold. Life gets in the way. Confidence wavers. Sometimes it may feel as if the story isn’t good enough to tell. However, in Newark, a historic and culturally rich city, we know that there are always great stories to tell. This is true for Newark’s guaranteed income program and its recipients, an initiative launched in October 2021.
In May 2022, a select cohort of cities with guaranteed income pilots were invited to take part in a seven-week online learning opportunity — Advancing Guaranteed Income Through Local Narrative. Hosted by Results for America and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, the project focused on connecting each city’s representatives with experts in the guaranteed income field to learn about and experience best practices for narrative building to support the guaranteed income movement locally and nationally.
“The simple truth is that the guaranteed income movement would not exist without recipients willing to share their experiences,” said Mayors for a Guaranteed Income founder and former Stockton Mayor, Michael Tubbs. “We can change minds with data, but we only change hearts with stories. Everyone fighting for a more just economy owes a debt of gratitude to storytellers.”
Narrative building, or storytelling, is the mouthpiece for guaranteed income pilot programs. Stories from participants help to humanize what is often a heavily criticized initiative, while also putting into perspective a more realistic vision of what such programs can accomplish. As participants share their realities in their own words, advocates and critics alike can more fully ‘see’ the person behind the program and have a deeper understanding of the intimate and transformative impact of guaranteed income.
But how can participants be encouraged and prepared to share their stories authentically and with authority? In Newark, the answer was the Newark Stronger Resident Storytellers Fellowship program.
Newark’s Resident Storytellers Fellowship
Inspired by the Advancing Guaranteed Income Through Local Narrative project, the Newark Stronger Resident Storytellers Fellowship launched in September 2022 with 20 participants. Local creative experts, Dr. Antoinette Ellis-Williams and Tamara Fleming, designed and taught the program. Dr. Ellis-Williams guided participants in the art of poetry writing to craft their stories in prose, while Ms. Fleming inspired their storytelling through photography
“As a photographer, I understand how powerful storytelling can be in advocating for change. We have the ability to capture not only what is seen, but also the emotions and experiences of those we photograph,” Ms. Fleming shared on the importance of storytelling to advocacy work. “Through visual story-telling, we are able to communicate truthfully and effectively about issues like income assistance and other social justice causes. Storytelling serves as an important tool for strengthening the voice of those who may not have access to traditional media outlets, thus allowing them a platform to advocate for their cause on their own terms.”
The fellowship application process reserved 10 of the program openings for residents receiving guaranteed income. All applicants had to be Newark residents, 18 years or older, and completed an interview as a part of the application process. The interview helped to ensure participants’ commitment to attend all the scheduled classes, in person and online. Program graduates received a $500 stipend and their original creative works will be published and showcased throughout the city.
Celebrating Storytelling Success
“Give people an opportunity to take care of themselves,” said Mayor Ras J. Baraka during his opening remarks at the December 6th, 2022, Newark Resident Storytellers Penning Ceremony to close-out the fellowship program. Emphasizing the importance of the guaranteed income program pilot with a simple statement, Mayor Baraka also expressed the importance of the voices behind the stories of the recipients.
Throughout the ceremony, the power of the program was clear in not just the poetry read or the photographs presented by the featured storytellers. In only six weeks, the group of storytellers formed a tight-knit creative family, supporting each other as they collectively created over 500 photographs and poetry pieces. As poems were read with emotion and photographs presented with dynamic narratives by the featured participants, the melodious cheers and praises from their cohort members became an ongoing and expected part of the celebratory event.
Newark transplant, Emilie Vocaj Wan Bok Nale, who is not a guaranteed income recipient and has only lived in the city for four years, was drawn to the program to learn more about her new home from people who knew it more intimately. She shared, “I am not a recipient of the GI program. Prior to joining the fellowship, I had no idea that this program existed and wish I knew about it sooner to help more people who could benefit from GI especially throughout the pandemic.”
Beyond gaining new creative skills, the NMEE team gave participants like Emilie an opportunity to learn how to advocate for and uplift those in need in their communities. The outcomes of the program are more than just art — they are powerful reflections of the resilience of the human spirit.
Emilie further stated, “Diverse storytelling is vital to bringing about change through a democratic and educational process. Our stories reflect experienced challenges, and how communities have sometimes overcome them, and otherwise not. If these authentic voices and qualitative accounts are actively considered and advocated throughout the policy-making process, we can hopefully see policies that work for and help far more people in cities across the country.”
The Next Chapter
After seven exciting and fulfilling weeks in the fellowship program, there is still much more work to be done, locally and nationally, in support of guaranteed income and its beneficiaries. A pandemic and an ongoing unpredictable job market, continue to reveal how many families are walking a very tight rope when it comes to economic security.
As expressed by Mayor Ras J. Baraka while discussing early data from the Newark Movement for Economic Equity, these programs are helping people to simply survive by providing some financial ease. Funds provided through Newark’s guaranteed income program are mainly spent on food, household items and clothing.
It is important that as an advocacy tool, we continue to support storytelling to make sure everyone has access to accurate information about guaranteed income programs and their recipients. As we prepare to publish and promote the creative works from Newark’s Resident Storytellers Fellowship program, we encourage you to stay informed and involved in the advocacy movement in our communities.
Thank you for supporting Newark’s efforts in 2022 to create a more just and equitable society for all! Our team is excited to continue this honorable work with you in 2023.