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Category Archives: 2014 Lyndsie Dellaria

Serving at General Assistance Advocacy Project (GAAP)

Thirty-two days later…

Firstly, dear reader, I would like to apologize for the belatedness of this post by five days. The reasons behind this delay are varied and profound. I hope to write in more detail about said reasons in the blog entry that I will be posting by Thursday night (July 3rd). As for today, I will be writing to you about where I have gone and how far I have come while engaging in community service during the past four weeks I have been offering advocacy and assistance to drop-in clients I’ve seen and met with at the General Assistance Advocacy Project in the Tenderloin.

The primary question I aim to address in this post is as follows: “In the four weeks that I’ve been at GAAP, what have I learned, how have I been of service to others, and what impact have I made?

Oh, dear reader…the answer to this three-part question seems endless in my mind. My internship at the General Assistance Advocacy Project has been one of the most perspective-shifting, stress-inducing, and grief-evoking processes of all time. I truly cannot explain with words the amount of weight I feel in the turquoise blue room of the General Assistance Advocacy Project every time I sit down with a client who has dropped in for advice, referrals, information, or advocacy. This work is tedious. This work takes a toll that is so incredibly heavy in mind and spirit that I do not think I will truly know the greater meaning in all of this until I look back at it several months to a year from now and realize the impact I made. This summer’s advocacy service work is one of those kinds of experiences…

I am constantly working hour to hour every day that I am in the office at GAAP. Offering Direct Services to low-income folks who may or may not be homeless in San Francisco is stressful. When they talk to me, I can energetically feel their burdens to the point where I feel angered and bewildered for them. Truthfully, the amount of anguish I feel on their behalf is astonishing. The toll that is taken upon the poor and/or homeless is treacherous, hideous, and mind-boggling. It is no wonder that the circumstances imposed upon the poor can trigger mental illness and a deterioration of psyche. The taxation that is experienced in their lives is devastating. The anxiety, depression, helplessness, anguish, anger, fear, astonishment, disbelief, frustration, and tumult that my clients experience day in and day out is heartbreaking to see, to hear, to write, and reiterate as I offer my services in order to help them better navigate the bureaucracy of the San Francisco County Public Benefits system. As a highly sensitive person, it is difficult for me to process all of this.

This difficulty extends from there to the point where I feel like legislation and county policy are so complicated and so filled with requirements, expectations, and deadlines, that it is exhausting to try and feel like I’ve made a difference in someone’s life in only a day. To be honest, I wish I could feel like I’m doing more for people. I wish I could feel as though I’m making swift and steady progress for each individual I see; however many times I see them. However, with the plutocratic system of control that wraps around every Cash-Aid benefits program in place (no matter what county), it feels as though I can only assuage my clients’ pain with a meager (figurative) Band Aid that will only wear off over time. I don’t cure the source of their pain. I don’t heal the main problem. I feel as though my work at GAAP is not immediately attacking the roots of an unjust system that I despise so deeply. So, to answer the question of “what have I learned thus far while at GAAP?” – I can honestly say that change takes time. Policy change, in particular, moves at a snail’s pace or slower. Why? Because those in power do not want to lose their privilege. They do not want to see their advantages over others slip and become devalued. They do not want to see equality among themselves and the masses, simply for the fact that it will bring them down from the pedestal they’ve raised themselves so high upon—and only for the purposes of overlooking, evaluating, and judging those who suffer beneath them. Of course, suffering is scary. There’s no denying that. What is astonishing is the level of denial that takes place in the minds of the fiscally privileged today.  The level of denial that is maintained in their minds serves as metaphorical ‘blinders’ that keep them from seeing the collective harm that is done as a result of monetary greed and inequality.

The second question I aim to respond to is: “What do you want to learn in the coming weeks?” In the context of what I desire to learn at GAAP, specifically, in the coming weeks, I hope to become more knowledgeable around issues that pertain to public transportation and transit injustice as it exists in the city and county of San Francisco. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I will be putting together and helping to host a workshop aimed to help low-income folks appeal Muni Fare Evasion citations. I want to become more well-versed in public transportation policy so that the workshop I prepare and organize will be as productive and beneficial as possible for those who attend.

Because many of GAAP’s clients cannot afford public transportation, it is essential that this workshop be centered on ways that our clients (as well as other low income folk) can strategically object to, and fight back against, fare evasion citations.  The workshop will give them instructions on how to effectively write appeal letters to the county, as well as providing a space within which low-income individuals can voice their concerns around MUNI and San Francisco public transportation.

Additionally, we would like to pursue policy change within the actual SFMTA. In the short term, we are hoping to leverage enough community members and government actors to pressure the SFMTA into expanding the MUNI Lifeline Program (which offers slightly reduced riding fees for low-income individuals who qualify for the program). Long term, we would like to see changes in the regulations, the enforcement, and the adjudication of SFMTA citations.

Apart from this workshop, I hope to learn how to become more confident and positive in my outlook with regard to how I am helping clients day-to-day who come into GAAP for Direct Services regarding the aid that they are receiving (or wish to receive) from the San Francisco public benefits programs, CalFresh (food stamps), Medi-Cal, shelter and affordable housing, SSI/SSDI, unemployment, or job-search related matters. It has been an incredibly difficult process learning how to deal with all of the feelings that I have gathered around the extreme inequality experienced at the hands of the poor and homeless. It is a lot to carry on mental, emotional, and physical levels—and something that I expect to be processing out for a long time to come.

The third and final question I aim to address within this post is: “What steps can you take to pursue these learning goals?” Well—I believe that putting together an agenda that details how I will go about making sure my organizing is timely and well thought-out for the public transportation and transit justice workshop is important. Acquiring appropriate reading materials on the SFMTA policies is an important piece to reaching my goals as well. Consistently checking in with my supervisor and executive director is also crucial to making sure I am navigating everything efficiently.

With regard to how I can become more confident and positive in my outlook in terms of how much I am helping to serve people who I interact with—I believe making sure I take good care of myself is important. Learning how to come home and engage in practices of self-love, laughter, and methods of self-comfort is absolutely critical to my maintaining a positive headspace. I have been so blessed to be around my five other wonderful Micah Fellows who support and encourage me in my work and life pursuits every day. Without them, I would not be as ‘together’ as I am right now while writing this post. They make sure the best parts of me shine through at the end of the day whenever we get around to checking in with one another.

Their smiles and hugs bring out the love that is always inside of me as a person who is devoted to social justice and activism. They ensure that I never lose sight of my dreams and the innate nature of my soul as a person who cares on profoundly deep levels about improving the life-quality of all those who are oppressed and marginalized in contemporary society. My voice and spirit gains strength through their love and encouragement, and I know I am never lost when I come home to the beautiful souls of Lauren, Kaitlin, Ari, Rachel, and Emily.

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Advocacy Isn’t Easy

The mission of the General Assistance Advocacy Project is “to provide education, empowerment, and advocacy to those who need it most. G.A.A.P. serves over 2,000 homeless and marginally housed San Franciscans each month by helping them obtain and retain the public benefits to which they are entitled.” As a non-profit drop-in legal clinic for individuals who are looking for resources, referrals, or information regarding public benefits, G.A.A.P.’s purpose is immense. By providing direct, face-to-face service and assistance to people who need help navigating the dense and unfriendly nature of our country’s bureaucratic system, I am advocating for the state and/or federal government’s recognition of their humanity.

The members of the community I serve within (the Tenderloin and greater county of San Francisco) rely on advocates like myself and the three other undergraduate and graduate students whom I am serving alongside in the G.A.A.P. office to help address a variety of important issues when they would otherwise be unable to obtain legal assistance. Clients often come to G.A.A.P. as a point of entry to services they are unable to find on their own, or as a last resort when they have been unable to receive assistance from anyone else. The fact that G.A.A.P. operates as a direct services drop-in clinic four days out of the week (the office is closed to the public on Wednesdays) means that clients do not have to overcome the same eligibility criteria and barriers of communication that typically occur when attempting to access professional legal services. The work that I am conducting at G.A.A.P. as a Direct Services & Public Benefits Advocate (my title) is vital to ensuring that low-income members of the San Francisco community continue to have access to legal and social services.

The individuals who come into G.A.A.P. are oftentimes struggling with a combination of issues including lack of income and housing, mental and physical disabilities, and substance abuse. The Direct Services & Public Benefits Advocates who serve at G.A.A.P. take a holistic approach to client advocacy in order to fully address the intersecting legal and social issues that clients may be dealing with. The holistic approach and client advocacy that G.A.A.P. Advocates provide is informed greatly by the two staff attorneys who are on duty at the organization full-time: Kendra Amick and Gary Lewis, both of whom graduated from U.C. Hastings College of Law. Conducting client casework and advocacy services would be much more difficult if they were not around to help us help our clients! While we (the Advocates) may not have the capacity to legally represent the client in resolving each issue or offer legal advice, we aim to provide clients with as much information and helpful referrals to other agencies whenever possible.

The individual work I conduct is three-fold: I manage the front-desk and reception area and determine when clients can see advocates as they become available, serve face-to-face behind a desk in the back area as an informal legal Advocate, and am in charge of helping to coordinate a formal, organized workshop that will be held in July for low-income or homeless individuals who have received fare evasion citations instructing them on how to write an impactful appeal letter to the court order to fight the charges they’ve been fined with. There is a great deal more that I could write about with regard to the workshop organizing, but I will save the intricacy of transit justice and its concomitant details for a later blog post.

The past eight days of work at G.A.A.P. have provided me a lot of enjoyment in the form of meeting wonderful new people who are just as passionate about social justice work as I am. My fellow interns are incredible people with a lot of heart – two of whom are already in school to earn their law degrees in the graduate programs at U.C. Hastings and Golden Gate University (both of are located in San Francisco). I have enjoyed having my mind opened to new ways of thinking and learning about social justice issues as they relate to real-world legal matters. During the academic year at Saint Mary’s, I am often only exposed to theoretical problems and issues. Having all of these interpersonal experiences with people living in and around the community of the Tenderloin is incredibly emotional, and an entirely visceral experience from which I can learn the ways in which my theoretical, academic learning relates to the realities of others. To understand the areas of privilege from which I come through a legal lens is incredibly interesting, and at the same time considerably devastating when truly understanding how greatly such privilege of mine impacts others. The poor are kept in a marginalized state for the benefit of those in county, state, and federal programs intending to make money off their cycle of poverty. It is a sick, backwards, capitalistic system.

I know it is my duty as an interning Advocate at G.A.A.P. to do everything I can in order to create change and reform in policy and legislation within San Francisco. That so many individuals who are disabled, mentally ill, struggling with eviction, or devastated by any other marginalizing circumstances are treated so poorly is rage-inducing for me. All I want is to learn how I can best serve those who are treated completely unfairly by being the best Advocate I can. My privileges as a White, able-bodied, U.S.-born citizen who speaks English fluently, comes from a middle to upper-middle class background, and is currently earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in a higher education institution are pieces of my identity that I need to utilize for the greater good of others. What I am doing is not charity work. It is not drive-by service. It is solidarity and immersion into the communities of those who want to see the qualities of their lives improved. I want to do everything I can to uplift and empower those individuals to live their lives as fully as possible with the same possibilities and potential for success as everybody else. I believe in the clients who come into the office at G.A.A.P., and I will use all resources possible to ensure that I am making a significant dent in improving local policy that will help change their life experiences for the better.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in 2014 Lyndsie Dellaria

 

A new beginning means a time for change: Growth, advocacy, & solidarity in my new home(s).

What are your first impressions of the space and place that you find yourself?

To answer this question most adequately, I must reflect to you, my reader, the thoughts that I have on the two separate places/spaces that I will inhabit and be creating change within over the course of the next fifty-three days. The first of these spaces is Apartment C on 271 Stardust Place in Alameda, which resides on the grounds of Alameda Point Collaborative, a multi-faceted non-profit organization that provides transitional housing, educational assistance, and locally grown produce for those in need. The second space is located within the building that houses the General Assistance Advocacy Project, a non-profit organization situated in the Tenderloin of San Francisco on the ‘200’ block of Golden Gate Avenue.

Another important distinction that should be made is my own personal belief that spaces and places are not always tangible. They are not always readily seen. Spaces and places also connote reference to the mind, the spirit, the soul, and one’s psyche. The way that I currently feel about myself in my physical body houses potential for dramatic shifts, changes, and evolution. The space that my mind is in, the place that my spirit is at in my soul’s current path of lifetime evolution, and where my psyche resides in terms of my own personal perspective, are also areas that I have the ability to reflect upon in the context of ‘first impressions.’

With that, I will reflect to you my feelings on the topic of my roommates, our current place of residence on Stardust Place in Alameda, and the emotional bond that I feel to all five of them. I should preface this portion of my reflection by informing you that I went into this program knowing that I was already very close with four of the five Micah fellows that I am serving alongside. Two of them, Emily Klingenberger and Kaitlin Roth, are individuals who I had previous experience serving with for an entire month in Colombo, Sri Lanka this past January when we conducted our community engagement Jan-Term class there with the Lasallian Christian Brothers and immersed ourselves as informal instructors to children within their educational institutions in that area of the country. I had known Ari Alvarez and Rachel Gacerez from a class that we had taken together on the SMC campus in the Fall semester of 2013: Youth Cultures and Identities. It was within that class that our friendships flourished, and we each kept a strong connection to one another outside of the classroom up until this summer. Lauren Lorge, one of the two individuals serving/working on the farm at Alameda Point Collaborative, was the only person I had not met prior to coming together for our collective service work this summer. However, when I met Lauren on May 17th for our group pre-orientation to Micah, I knew that our entire group would have impeccable synergy, and that we would all merge together very, very well. This set the tone for one of the most awesome first impressions of community that I have yet to encounter.

Moving in together on Saturday and Sunday this past weekend was a fluid experience. We immediately made our apartment on Stardust Avenue a home. We set up colorful decorations, and fortified the space with our loving energy. With regard to the greater community around us, my first impressions were good! There are 300 children living in the area, a playground right behind the apartment, and such a beautiful garden that is only a few blocks away from where we live. Something I find interesting about Alameda Point Collaborative is that it is positioned directly across a housing community that holds million-dollar homes. They are very cookie-cutter looking without any back yards, but they are absolutely indicative of economic privilege. While I know nothing about the families that live within them, I find it incredibly interesting that a single road, or street, separates that nicely groomed, wealthy-looking housing community from our own. Driving into Alameda Point Collaborative, there is a distinct difference between that community, and the one that we live in. APC and its housing units have been transformed from the housing units that were used by military personnel during the time that this area was in operation as a U.S. Naval Base. As such, many buildings are abandoned and boarded up. There are ‘NO TRESSPASSING’ signs on many windows, and there are no nicely groomed lawns in front of the apartment buildings. In fact, we live right across from a big abandoned building! The paint is worn off and chipping, and its perimeter is entirely gated.

What I love about this area is how simple it is. I cannot tell you how appealing that factor is alone. Being raised in an upper-middle class family in the suburbs, I was isolated from community – at least, community like this, here in Alameda. My neighbors didn’t really do much to create community, and the area I lived in wasn’t conducive to creating support or a loving social foundation upon which I could come home to. Alameda Point Collaborative’s community, however, is just the opposite. People are riding bikes everywhere; there are community gardens; parents or siblings who come out of their homes with the intention of gathering their children for meals who say, “Hi” if you’re near. Interaction within this housing community is not foreign. Individuals are not preoccupied with their busy schedules or the intricacies of privileged lifestyles. It’s organic here. People are authentically who they are, and I love it. There is no façade of superiority or superficiality within this human community. And that is what I can’t get enough of: the real, true nature of people whose lives are rich, deep, and beautiful. I love that I can finally see that richness. It’s a privilege to be immersed within, and one that I haven’t gotten to live beside much until now.

My first impressions of G.A.A.P. in two words are: wow and busy. My first two days serving have been all of the following: jaw dropping, overwhelming, (sometimes) triggering, heart breaking, and frustrating. Walking into the building, there is not a lot of splendor. For a non-profit, that’s to be expected. There are turquoise walls, a waiting room, a front desk, the advocates’ areas and their respective desks, Kendra’s office, and Gary’s office (which is upstairs with a window overlooking the advocates and clients waiting in the front-desk area). There is a small break-room area upstairs outside of Gary’s office, and a quaint little kitchen adjacent to that. I will call this place home. This is the area I will implement radical objective to the best of my ability within the frustrating logistics of bureaucracy that functions within this country. I embody service within this space, as do my three other volunteer-advocate colleagues (not from Saint Mary’s) who will also be conducting advocate work beside me throughout the next fifty-three days. Our workstations are not big, but the work, itself, is. In only two days I have had some of the most interesting encounters I’ve had thus far in my life. Three, in particular, hit home for me. While I wish I could go into detail about them, I can’t, primarily because that information is confidential on the clients’ behalves, and also because I’m already writing so much here in this first response. All I can tell you is the broad context of these three encounters: domestic violence, trans* identities and non-cisgender non-heterosexual marriage partnership, and one’s release into society after over a decade of incarceration. These circumstances are incredibly close to my heart. These issues are SERIOUS, and after only two days of working at G.A.A.P., it doesn’t seem that our U.S. government feels the same way.

With regard to my first impressions of the Tenderloin—yes, it’s a little nerve-wracking to be walking around near visible drug use, drug dealing, and to not feel completely, 100 percent safe. However, I know I’ll get used to it. I know that I’ll adjust and learn to merge within this community of people with whom I am in solidarity. I love them. I do. I know they live on the margins of society where nobody seems to give much of a crap about their lives or how to help them, but I do. I want to provide them with as much justice, service, and support as I can—as do my G.A.A.P. intern-colleagues. We are here because we want to help. We are here because we love. We are here because we care—with passion, dedication, and heart. No one should have to live with feeling like their lives are not valuable—I will listen. I will be present. And I’m ready. These feelings are my first impressions. Love is my first impression. Patience is infused in my drive and the sincerity of my will. Love—my love—it’s unconditional.

 

What have you already learned about yourself and others?

I have learned that I am very comfortable living and working in highly impoverished areas. Not only this – I thrive greatly in communities who are working together to lift themselves up to a greater quality of life, or who are simply trying to get by to live as aptly as possible for themselves, no matter where they’re at. I have learned that I’m an incredibly emotional person, and that it is not easy for me to shut off when confronted with other individuals’ struggles. It has been very hard for me hearing of all the stories I’ve encountered while working the front desk at G.A.A.P. I am unlike others in that I outwardly show in my face the empathy that I feel for them. My heart aches to offer others what they need. That is what I’ve learned to recognize about myself. Compassion, understanding, tolerance, patience, solidarity, and self-care are all things I’ve learned that I need to sustain completely when working in the field that I am, because that is how I will prevent any potential activist burn out. Learning to pace my work, acknowledge that I can’t help everybody this exact minute, and that legal matters happen over the course of time are all things that I am learning to accept. The struggling and suffering of others (and within myself) is not something I can assuage instantly. It takes thorough work, and a multifaceted understanding of all of one’s underlying issues. In just several days, I have come to see that any inclination I may have had toward wanting to resolve problems in an organized or neat manner is most likely not going to happen. In the context of a non-profit direct services drop-in clinic, there is no assuredness as to the consistency of a client being able to come in as much as possible. I have learned that no social change can be made without the good intentions of a whole community all focusing on serving for the good of others. It’s truly surprising how much government institutions and other organizations (mostly for-profits) could give less of a crap about anyone else but themselves. I truly can’t believe how many individuals are left to fend for themselves when society has already pushed them to exist uncomfortably into the margins.

 

What do you hope to learn in the weeks to come?

I hope to learn how to acquire more and more patience over the coming weeks. Patience is a key component required in the work I’ll be doing while at G.A.A.P., particularly when it comes to pre-legal matters, or having to work with state or county policies and legislation in order to get my future clients their benefits. I hope to learn more details and experiences about the lives of those in and around the Tenderloin. This is the greatest gift I could receive during my work, and a critical part of any service or community engagement work – just being able to listen to others. Listening to one’s lived truth is a fundamental part of compassionate service, and it is an essential element of simplicity.

I also hope to learn how my service work intersects with the service experiences had among my other Micah fellows. Each day that we serve at our separate agencies and then come back home to our Stardust apartment to live together in community is a special and unique learning experience. It will teach us in a much richer, more growth-inspiring way than a typical classroom or lecture based experience, which is what we usually experience during our academic semesters. This way, we can hear about and understand the similar problems we encounter and what we believe the root causes to those problems may be with respect to our greater Bay Area community.

 

What are your thoughts about the value of simplicity, and how do these connect with your summer experience?

 The value of simplicity is incalculable. Simplicity can be understood in so many varying ways that it is hard to give my thoughts about it in the most general sense. I see simplicity as a mindset. One with a simplistic mind can help to deconstruct the most complicated problems of our time period. The capitalistic nature that our country was founded upon has created a web of inconvenience and a lack of empathy for others. Simplicity is the opposite of what our country believes is best for its economic growth and development. Technological advancements and the insensitive competitiveness that provides inauthentic momentum for some of the most monolithic corporations currently active and functioning in our country provide the least amount of simplicity for the people who act as consumers.

There is also a stark contrast between simplicity and the glorification of poverty. There are many folks who come from privileged backgrounds who believe that they can put a stop on the amount of money they spend, or how much or what types of food they consume, and that those experiences will give them a sense of what it’s like for those who live in extremely impoverished areas who have been marginalized as a result of systemic discrimination in our country. What is most striking about this “decision” to live “as a poor person would” is that it is not true solidarity. What they are doing is trivializing the lives of those who suffer because of the oppression they face due to mental health, stigmatization of some aspect their identity, eviction, joblessness, or otherwise. Why? Because these people from privileged backgrounds can just as easily return to lives of affluence and of material goods. This is absolutely not the same as “living simply.”

What our 6-person service group is doing are consistent acts of sincere solidarity. We go to work every day with the collective intention of serving not only holistically but physically beside those whom we hope to affect change for. What’s best is that we serve not with money, but with a mindset that nurtures and incubates a critical consciousness both in ourselves and in those whom we serve. This is what allows for the mindset of simplicity that will deconstruct the complicated and complex nature of the structures of our society that have got our population into such a hierarchical, stratified system of existence that perpetuates disadvantage.

I am so incredibly excited for what’s to come.

 
 

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