“Bless those who challenge us for they remind us of doors we have closed and doors we have yet to open.”
Native American Prayer
This week I want to tell you more about a woman I mentioned in the post about the documentary, A Place at the Table: Jessica Chanay, Deputy Director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, has worked in the “anti-hunger field” for 14 years–but she’ll soon be moving in a new direction.
On June 10, Jessica will begin a training with Teach for America, and by September she’ll be teaching social studies to kids in Detroit.
“I want to find out what else I’m made of,” says Jessica, smiling. As she approached 50, she began to reflect on her life and on the idea of comfort. “It’s not that I want to be uncomfortable, but I don’t want to be asleep at the wheel.”
Jessica was a kid who dropped out of school early, joined the service and then found herself struggling to feed two kids. Now she hopes to be a positive presence for students, a guide for those who might be struggling to keep themselves going strong.
She says she doesn’t feel that she is leaving the social justice field, only changing focus. And she’s not someone who’s trying to be a hero either. As we talk I think these kids–and the colleagues she touches–will be fortunate. She listens. She’s curious.
The thing about her is that she’s “been there” when it comes to struggle. She knows what it’s like to drop out of school, and she knows what it’s like to walk into the welfare office and file for Food Stamps, meet a different case worker rather frequently, and feel that people are looking at you as if you aren’t as good as they are.
“I was lucky,” she says. When forced onto public assistance back in the 1980s, she was able to enroll in educational programs without the sort of time-restriction imposed on people today. When her marriage fell apart and she moved into her disabled mom’s house with two kids, Jessica first enrolled in a “non-traditional trades” program and learned carpentry, welding and was actually hired on as a framer– “hard but fun work,” she says.
But once employed, all benefits immediately went away, and she couldn’t feed her kids or pay the bills. Since she had zero savings and accepting a job caused her to lose assistance, she had to give up framing before she built up mighty-muscles. She returned to welfare in order to feed her family. True story!
Luckily for Jessica and her kids, a new case worker soon made all the difference: He convinced her to enroll in a program dedicated to helping Displaced Homemakers earn a college degree.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” she says. “After all, I’d had no success in school, but he convinced me, and I began with the basics–remedial math and writing.”
Six years later, Jessica had earned a BA in Planning, Public Policy and Management. She began at Lane Community College and finished up at the University of Oregon. She then worked for a year as a VISTA Volunteer with St. Vincent DePaul–and was hired on full-time by the end of that year.
During her studies, lots of research and continuous visits to the welfare office helped her to see things differently than she ever had.
“It all raised my awareness of why things are as they are. It was empowering, and I realized ‘This is not just me. Something larger is going on.'”
Soon she began graduate studies in Public Policy–with a focus on Social Planning. She earned a Masters of Community and Regional Planning and was recruited to work for Food For Lane County as “Special Projects Coordinator”. By the time she left this work at the food bank, six years later, Jessica was interim Director. She was also ready to move on and work toward prevention.
She says “Addressing the problem is important, but if that’s all you do, the problem gets bigger.”
Over the years and especially while working for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, Jessica has told her story to legislators in Salem. She has helped to organize others, mostly women, to also tell their stories–and some progress has been made. But it’s so complicated, and back in 1996, everything changed at the Federal level, making it much harder for states to consistently provide the kind of assistance that really helps someone like Jessica to get back on her feet.
I wonder how much of her story she will share with students. She is making a bold move now–to leave a position she has worked hard to earn–but she is ready for a change and for this new challenge. My bet is she’ll openly share herself with those she meets along the way.
Our story is what we have.
It was fun talking with her as she prepares to teach in the public schools. These days she spends many an evening reading books about history and watching documentaries. I’m so excited for her–and those kids. I hope she’ll keep in touch, and I’ll plan to check in.
To become a teacher through Teach for America, Jessica had to pass all the tests any teacher would have to pass, and she will enroll in university classes toward earning her credentials (and possibly another Masters degree.) The initial commitment with Teach for America is two years. We’ll hope to update her story along the way.