My Dad’s wallet is a powerful reminder to me of why I do what I do. It’s a basic Walgreens brown leather wallet well-worn by years of use. Nothing fancy or expensive, it’s empty and dirty. My dad passed over a year ago, but I can still see the wallet in his large weathered hands. I had the opportunity to bring it with me to the first day of the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) training. Now in its tenth year, this Women’s Foundation of California program trains grassroots women leaders (called fellows) in how to create policy change that reflects their communities’ needs.
To honor our first time coming together, the thirty four fellows, Foundation staff and I made a circle. We’d each brought an item from our home or office that represented why we do the work we do. We placed that item in the center of our circle, and then told our stories.
The stories and objects were powerful and poignant. One fellow shared a picture of herself and her spouse when they had gotten married (during California’s brief window of allowing same-sex marriage). Next to the picture, she placed a copy of the court documents pleading to the Supreme Court to overturn the voter-approved constitutional amendment declaring marriage valid only if it were between a man and a woman. These items represented both her hope and her disappointment.
Another fellow put into the circle a piece of paper with the number assigned to her when she had been incarcerated – that number now represents her commitment to change the way our society incarcerates so many of us. Other objects? A bumblebee and a marble, a shoestring and toy maze. Each of the fellows and staff shared their item, their story, and their motivation, to create a more just world. And me – with my Dad’s wallet.
As the director and lead trainer of the Women’s Policy Institute, my own commitment to this training program is deeply embedded in my own upbringing – my working class truck driver father and waitress mother were not movers and shakers. They did not know about and therefore did not pass down to me how the laws and policies that shape and control our communities and lives were made or were influenced. To tell the truth, I don’t remember hearing them talk about elections or whether they even voted.
Over the years, as I grew into my work as a young political activist and organizer, with increasing responsibilities in managing and running nonprofit organizations, I found myself in meetings with policy makers and elected officials, but I had no idea how to act or what to ask for. Time and again, I would spend hours, days, and many anxious nights trying to teach myself how public policy worked – whether on the local, state and federal level – and how to be a good policy advocate who championed the people and causes I believed in.
My commitment, which I share with the Women’s Foundation of California, is to make sure that we teach each other how to have societal level impact. The more we know, the more change we can create. My Dad was a good man. The best. His wallet, representing the economic realities of being working class and how that impacts what we know – or don’t know – about how our society is managed, keeps me in this work.