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Program harnesses power of personal stories to create change

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Oct 08, 2019
Courtesy of: Megan Taft Building Advocates Leadership Program participant Rebecca Falla, right, works with program mentor Lorain Francis on a power-mapping exercise of the Rockland community.

Rockland — Eight clients of Area Interfaith Outreach, a food pantry and fuel assistance program serving Knox County, are learning the power of their stories to help create change through a pilot program jointly developed by Good Shepherd Food Bank and AIO.

Starting Sept. 18, the seven women and one man have been meeting weekly to learn how to craft their experiences of food insecurity and other challenges faced by people in poverty into stories that can help move legislators and other leaders to take action to end hunger.

Good Shepherd staffer Megan Taft, program director for the Building Advocates Leadership Program, said the program is "off to a great start." She added that this is the first time Good Shepherd staff have developed close relationships with the people who use the agency's services. She praised AIO's commitment to people who are food-insecure, saying it has been a good partner in developing the Building Advocates program.

Dori Harnett, a volunteer with AIO's food pantry and child hunger programs and a former staff attorney in the Maine Attorney General's Office, worked with Taft to develop the  Building Advocates program for its trial run in Knox County. She said she is very pleased with the way the program is going so far. "I'm so convinced of [the program's] efficacy, I've told Megan that I would like to do it again," she said.

In addition to getting to know one another and the program presenters, participants have done exercises to identify their personal leadership style and its strengths, and how to relate to other with different styles, Taft said. They will also receive training in public speaking, and in how to tell their story, both orally and in writing.

The program's culmination will be a gathering where the participants will tell their stories to state legislators and other leaders, with the hope of inspiring them to support legislation that will help to end hunger in the state. In addition, participants will meet with Taft and others involved in running the program after the pilot is over to decide what project(s) the group would like to take on next, including testifying before legislative committees, Taft said.

Building Advocates participant Rebecca Falla, a single mother with a 9-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, said one thing that attracted her to the program was the opportunity to be part of the solution to the problem of hunger.

The St. George resident is both a client of AIO and a volunteer there. She said she was glad for the chance to get to know others who struggle with the same things she does. She added that the program has made her feel empowered, and she hopes to get to talk to policymakers and to help run future Building Advocates trainings.

She wants to break down stereotypes about people on public assistance and educate others about the diversity of experiences among people affected by poverty. Falla said health problems have recently forced her to put her training to be a teacher on hold, but she hopes to return to school when she is better.

Another Building Advocates participant, Tim Keefe, said he had done advocacy work before, and he wanted to take part in this training because it was a chance to hone his skills. The Rockland resident said he had had a work injury that kept him from being able to work.

He said the training had helped him and other class members move from feeling helpless to having a voice, as they realized that their stories could move others and make a difference. Keefe spoke about his experience testifying against proposed cuts to the SNAP (food stamp) program before the U.S. Congress, saying it felt empowering and positive. After the training is over, he said he would like to organize groups of people to testify before the state Legislature.

Taft said there would probably be another session of Building Advocates in Rockland, and eventually Good Shepherd wants to expand it to locations across the state. Harnett said she would like to see if some parts of the program could be done virtually or online, to reduce the amount of travel participants have to do. This would make it easier for residents of the islands to participate, for example.

Hearing people who live with food-insecurity and other challenges of poverty every day tell their stories helps to illustrate the complexity of the issue, Taft said, and makes clear the variety of different experiences people living in poverty have. Sharing their stories also helps the program participants realize that they are not alone and they did not cause or create their problems -- that hunger and poverty are systemic problems.

Building Advocates participants and mentors work together on a team-building exercise. (Courtesy of: Megan Taft)
Building Advocates participants and program staff, from left, front: Rebekah Falla, Keisha Beal, Meg Taft, Building Advocates Program director; Amanda Thornton; rear: Kate Brennan, Maine Equal Justice advocacy trainer; Tim Keefe, Dori Harnett, AIO volunteer; Pamela Corcoran, Lorain Francis, Geri Hayward, Tiffany Higgins, Beth Hayward. (Courtesy of: Megan Taft)
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