This is an excerpt from an interview I had with Molly Coon, a volunteer with the Amherst Survival Center. She talked about the organization, which will be moving into a new space next month, and about the problem of poverty in America.
What sorts of services does the Survival Center provide?
The Amherst Survival Center provides services to meet three primary needs (1) food (2) clothing (3) healthcare. It does this through a variety of programs; a morning distribution line of produce and breads, a pantry with non-perishable and refrigerated groceries, a free store with donated clothing and household items and a medical clinic where you can drop in to see a doctor.
You are a volunteer for the Amherst Survival Center, and you also are the Education Coordinator for the Food Bank of Western Mass. Can you talk a little bit about how you see poverty playing out in women’s lives on the local and national level?
The Amherst Survival Center was founded by a woman named Jane Holappa. Jane was a single mother with four kids. The way I’ve heard the story told is- when she had her electricity cut off she decided that no one should have to struggle with the day to day challenges, in isolation. So she went to a town meeting and asked for space to start the center. I imagine that took a lot of courage. Before that she began running the free store out of a garage, completely grassroots.
Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, but my experience has been seeing women make choices to address obstacles in their lives by building networks of support. As a college volunteer at the center, I met so many women who were raising kids and still found time to volunteer, who relocated to Amherst out of unhealthy relationships even though it was hard- and so I think it’s looking at the choices women make for themselves and how they model that resolve for other women.
What advice would you give to young people who want to work on these issues?
My advice, as a middle class white woman – would be directed to other allies working to end poverty. Practice listening. If you are white and a person of color is talking to you about racism, listen. If you are middle class or privileged and someone who grew up working class is talking about that, listen. I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with this quote, “If you have come to help me than you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” At a time when 45% of Americans are a single emergency away from needing food assistance, that message is more relevant now than ever. We stand to lose a lot as a nation if we don’t have the resolve to address poverty, by ending hunger. And I believe hunger is a policy issue.
Poverty has been a topic that’s faded in and out of national spotlight, there was a lot of media coverage after 1967 when Marianne Wright Edelman took senators Robert Kennedy and Joseph Clark on a tour of the Missippi Delta. The reason there is more discussion of the ‘p’ word (as Cornell West has said) now is because so many middle class families are slipping out of a place of security. Families are losing their homes, and working for not enough pay- for decades. So now it becomes a ‘ national issue’, but poverty has always been shameful in the U.S. given our wealth as a country.