To change policy for workers paid low wages, change the story

Category: Listening Sessions, Personal Stories, Poverty News & Policy Updates, The Safety Net

January 30th, 2023

Michael Tubbs is the Founder of EPIC and the former Mayor of Stockton.  

This article originally appeared on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

In February 2022, I launched End Poverty in California (EPIC) to do exactly what our name suggests.

We can’t change the policies that create and perpetuate poverty—what we call “The Setup”—without changing the dominant narratives about poverty and people who experience it, including millions of workers paid low wages. We aim to “Upset the Setup” by telling a new story that detaches people’s worth from their income, creates space for bold policy change, and helps mobilize people to achieve it.

When EPIC launched people repeatedly asked me, “What do you want to change the poverty narrative to?” Many were frustrated that I didn’t know. But I do know this: People closest to the problems and the stories are also closest to the solutions.

That’s why EPIC embarked on a statewide listening tour last year to learn directly from the diverse communities that make up our state. The idea is simple: Meet with people who are struggling and listen: What are their ambitions, obstacles, ideas for solutions? After all, a narrative is a story we tell ourselves to explain the state of things. The more we create a safe space for people to share and for us to listen, the more accurate a story emerges.

In Oakland we spoke with about 20 fast food workers. We heard about regular denial of paid sick leave, rampant wage theft, workplace violence and abuse, and consistent retaliation for speaking up about abhorrent workplace conditions.

Workers said they want:

To go to work happy, not scared or forced to work sick.”

To eliminate abuses and have a salary that provides dignity.”

“To leave one job and keep only one, and be able to pay more attention to my health.”

“[For employers] to not be able to retaliate [and] take away hours.”

What these workers and many others want is simply a seat at the table so they can work free from fear, be treated with dignity, and be paid enough to afford basics like food, housing, healthcare, and education. And we know the problem isn’t money—in 2021 McDonald’s alone netted $7.5 billion in profits.

In Fresno, an Amazon warehouse worker who works 10 hours a day while caring for her children and her mother, expressed frustration that working more than 40 hours a week doesn’t deliver the promised payoff of getting ahead or even being able to afford necessities. “We don’t deserve to just work and work and work and not get time with our kids,” she said. Her mother still works as a farmworker even as her body breaks down. She described her mother’s life and that of many workers paid low wages as “keep on working and working, pretty much living to die.”

When we listen to workers, we find most of us want the same things— there are shared values— key to communicating and advancing any narrative.  Most people believe work should pay sufficiently to cover the basics.  We should be safe in our workplaces and treated with dignity. We should be able to take paid time off to care for ourselves or loved ones, and childcare should be affordable so we are able to work. Schedules should be predictable so we can manage our families’ lives.

Speaking to shared values doesn’t mean we avoid identifying and calling out barriers specific to Black and Brown people, or women, or immigrants, or anyone else. Indeed, we need to be unapologetic truth-tellers. But it does mean we can also find shared values to broaden our movement for economic justice.

A throughline in all our conversations with workers and others who are struggling is a demand to be treated with dignity. For our work, treating people with dignity starts at home. As we build relationships in communities throughout the state, people are paid for their time at our listening sessions, and childcare, food, and beverages are provided as well. They are paid when they write about their lives, a key part of our narrative change strategy. You would be surprised how common it is—still—for people who are struggling to be asked to give their time to nonprofits without compensation. This practice must end.

We know, too, that people who are paid low wages are tired of sharing their stories just for sharing’s sake. That’s why we not only pay people; we look for opportunities for people to advocate for change with people in power, as we’re doing through the California Assembly Select Committee on Poverty and Economic Inclusion.

Ultimately, our theory of narrative change involves recognizing that we have to overcome centuries of racist, classist, misogynistic, and xenophobic stereotypes. To combat this, we need to flood the public with authentic stories about economic struggle in America. EPIC does this through long and short videos, written and video content produced by directly impacted people, engaging the media, meeting with content creators in Hollywood, and sharing what we learn with policymakers and allies.

Members of the philanthropic community who want to support narrative change work may also need to shift—from expecting immediate results to investing in long-term, sustained efforts. Changing the story we tell about workers and others who are struggling in America will require time, a multitude of content creators, and trial and error. Moreover, a heart and mind that is shifting today might be imperceptible but revealed through ongoing engagement and observation.

Philanthropy can also change how it talks about poverty and people experiencing it. Often language in the nonprofit sector, where philanthropy has influence, unintentionally otherizes and stigmatizes individuals and communities by focusing on their disadvantages while giving short shrift to their strengths and abilities. That, too, affects narratives. 

Our collective success in narrative change—a necessity if we are to achieve bold policy change for workers—depends on strong, long-term, strategic partners. I am thrilled EPIC has begun to find them, and that together we are creating platforms for workers and others to change the way we understand economic struggle and the story we tell to explain it.