Life Lessons from My Dad, A Rock Star Advocate for People Living in Poverty
After more than 30 years, my dad, Jack Frech, recently retired as the director of Athens County Job and Family Services, a local Ohio county entity responsible for administering benefits to the poor, like food stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance. In one of Ohio’s poorest counties, this was no small feat. In addition to overseeing these critical programs, he worked tirelessly as an advocate for people living in poverty, educating the public, policy makers and the media about the realities poor people face, and providing a voice for those who often weren’t heard. Something of a legend in Ohio’s advocacy community, I have been proud to hear many of his friends and colleagues praise his work as his time in public service comes to a close. But despite many successes, my dad’s tenure wasn’t without heartache. Dedicating one’s life to fighting poverty is, sadly, an uphill battle. My father experienced decades of dreams haunted by poor people and their plight, and though he often felt overwhelmed, he never stopped. Read more about my dad and his work here.
Lately, I have been reflecting on my dad’s career, and the many lessons I’ve learned from him, about poverty, work, and life. As we all face new opportunities and challenges in 2015, I would be remiss to not share a few with others seeking to help those in need and make the world a better place.
- Recognize the common threads we all share. Regardless of color, income, or geography, at our core, most of us want the same things—to find happiness and health, acquire jobs we don’t hate, and provide for our families. Once you adopt this truth, and begin to see the world through this lens, compassion and empathy become second nature. Judgment, stereotyping, and mistrust subside.
- Share. This basic concept I’m working so desperately to teach my two year old is somehow the hardest for us as adults to embrace. Incidentally, it’s also the only real antidote to ending poverty and inequality. Unbridled capitalism and growth can’t go on forever without leaving far too many behind. At some point, we need to realize that in order for everyone to have enough, those with a lot need to give up a bit. Accept it, embrace it, and work to implement policies that can make it so.
- Children shouldn’t be forced to suffer for their parent’s mistakes. Certainly, after decades of working with poor folks, my dad no doubt ran across some who had made some pretty crummy decisions. Who hasn’t? And the politically charged blame game that so often takes over when we talk about the causes of poverty emphasizes either broad system issues or individual behavior and choice. Regardless of your position, the real victims of poverty are kids, who certainly can’t be held responsible, and lack the ability to provide for themselves. Stripping a family of their housing, food, and basic income in the name of personal responsibility only assures that generational poverty will continue, and the achievement gap will grow.
- As the income gap becomes more like a crater, and more and more people lack the resources to participate fully in our society, we risk losing not only our humanity, but our democracy. Decisions are increasingly made exclusively by the powerful while the whispers of the poor and powerless are disappearing altogether. This is a reality we should all fear. Speak up for those who can’t be heard.
- Money can’t buy happiness. Curious advice from an anti-poverty, pro-welfare advocate, but sage nonetheless. We’ve all likely heard this adage since childhood, but, based on what I see on TV and social media, I can’t help but think it seems like we all could use a reminder. The wealthiest people you know are probably not the happiest. Aspire for something greater.
- Pursue meaningful work. Of course careers focused on helping others are critical to creating real change in this world, however the added benefit is that pursuing meaningful work will give you a better, purpose-filled, and happier life. Not easier, not more profitable, but just better. My dad has self-deprecatingly referred to himself as the “least effective advocate”, in part blaming himself for enduring high poverty in his county over the past thirty years, in spite of his efforts. And while those who have worked with him know that this is certainly not the case, my dad also recognizes that committing his life to helping others could not only improve their wellbeing, but that it can, and did, improve his life as well.
- Do what’s right, even when it’s hard. Alas, spending your life talking about poverty issues will not necessarily earn you a lot a friends. Stereotypes and myths about poor people continue to flourish, and poverty politics are often gruesome. Many choose to ignore the issue, and even for those who do care, it’s often just too uncomfortable or sad to fully engage. However, life’s not a popularity contest, even if it often feels like one. And just like in high school, if you follow the crowd, you’re likely to be led astray, or worse, do nothing at all. Stick to your convictions and follow your own moral compass. You may not always be the best looking in the room, or even the smartest (though my dad often was) but you can be the best prepared and the most passionate. Speak your truth, loudly and with confidence. And that’s where true respect is earned.
Congratulations on a commendable career, Dad. Thanks for all of the great life lessons, and I look forward to learning more from you in your many years that follow. I’m a better person for knowing you. And, if I had one word of advice to offer my Dad for 2015: Relax. You’ve certainly earned it.
About the Author: Rose Frech, Fellow, The Center for Community Solutions