Opportunity: Your Invitation is Waiting (August/September 2018)
Scrolling through emails last weekend, one from a financial institution caught my eye with its subject line teaser, “The definition of equity.” I clicked to open and was greeted with an invitation to “unlock the equity in my home to support my family’s current needs and future dreams.”
It was, not surprisingly, a simple invitation to homeowners; but it immediately brought home to me the realities we see every day at Cornerstones and the plight of so many hard-working people struggling to get by, let alone imagining a future where they will ever have “equity” in a home or any other assets to share or pass down to their children.
I was drawn to that email because the term “equity” has taken on a new significance in recent years – in human services practice and justice movements, as well as by corporate and government leaders who recognize its role in achieving economic success. While “equity” may still be understood by most in terms of building assets and wealth such as home ownership, the emphasis today is on making sure that all people have access to opportunities to build those assets.
When the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and School Board embraced equity in their joint resolution known as “One Fairfax,” they publicly acknowledged that many residents do not have equal opportunity to succeed; and not only did they deserve that right, but the very future success of our county depends on it. It is a powerful message and invitation for all to unlock their potential.
With this bold declaration and commitment to guide us, I sense a new enthusiasm in the human services field and also growing interest among local business leaders – to examine the role of equity in governance and decision making, access to capital, recruitment and leadership development, and culture and communications – and to work together in putting meat on the bones of this equity framework that will yield permanent change in areas of housing opportunity, wealth building and ending generational poverty.
Indeed, Cornerstones is honored to join Leadership Fairfax, Northern Virginia Health Foundation, Fairfax County’s Chief Equity Officer and other allies from business, faith, and civic groups in participating on the One Fairfax Roundtable charged with developing recommendations across seventeen areas of focus, such as housing and job creation that will support a thriving and equitable community.
So how will we get there? And where might we expect to run into points of contention – both in the public conversation and within our own organization as we strive to adopt the framework?
Well, I think we must start with an understanding that it’s a journey and one that requires us to accept and believe that we all win if everyone has what they need to succeed. It will require us to revisit the “equal opportunity” framework that society has long believed would be enough to level the playing field for people to achieve their goals, if they only worked hard enough.
Indeed, treating people equally, or exactly the same will never result in creating the same opportunity for success; it might be “fair”, but it blinds us to individual differences, or how decisions or policies not of one’s own making can influence your potential for success.
Take how we educate our children as an example. Fairfax County has one of the best educational achievement records in the country and one of the factors contributing to this success can be attributed to the strong, yet simple understanding that all children learn in different ways. In order for students to succeed, educators play their part by tailoring instruction style and resources to unlock their potential. In short, some students will get “more” or “different” help than others – more time for test taking, translation, access to technology, instructional assistants, and other tools.
Equal? No. Fair? Yes; if we accept that by providing students what they need to succeed, we have truly leveled the playing field for each student to achieve. Equitable? Yes. By giving every student what they need to succeed or reach their potential, we also increase the success rate for students overall.
A well-known cartoon in architectural and educational circles entitled “Clear the Ramp” by Michael Giangreco and Kevin Ruelle illustrates the benefit of embracing success for all. The punchline? Following a snowstorm, a student in a wheelchair is told he must wait behind a large crowd of students while snow is cleared first from the steps. The student wisely notes if they first cleared the handicap ramp, everyone could enter.
As we embrace these concepts, we will begin to look beyond the safe topics of diversity, inclusion, and equality, and to see where personal responsibility fits in the continuum of opportunity. The framework also suggests that we look at the way power and privilege have accrued to some, but not all, and to identify structural inequities based on race and other factors in historical actions and present policies that contribute to lack of opportunity.
In the context of an equity framework, privilege doesn’t mean that things are handed to you, or that you don’t deserve the success you worked so hard to achieve; it simply means that one starts with a different advantage. Referencing One Fairfax, it means all residents deserve an equitable opportunity to succeed if they work hard – regardless of their race, color, sex, nationality, sexual orientation, income or where they live.
As residents and institutions living and working in Fairfax County we will have opportunities to explore these issues. Doing so will bring us closer to seeing how “equitable opportunity” will work in our own lives.
Historical research offers good reasons to look at things through an “equity lens”. Every day at Cornerstones we see people who come to the table with the weight of burdens that are not of their own making, but rather from documented systemic and racial inequities in access to education, employment, housing, and wealth-building that can make the journey to self-sufficiency a daunting one.
And what will history say about the regional crisis we face today in the availability and affordability of housing that is needed not just for people experiencing homelessness, but for nearly half of the county’s households who are paying more than 50 percent of their income towards rent alone? At a time when the business buzz is about how the same investments in housing, infrastructure and education are needed to land HQ2, I say, let’s chart another course in our history. Let’s pick up our shovels, and “clear the ramp”!
The evidence is clear that our community is ready for these conversations, from establishing Reston as an Opportunity Neighborhood where every child can succeed and thrive, to the students who attended school board hearings on policies related to gun violence and joined the national march to hold state and federal leaders to account.
Locally, Reston’s first Pride Festival, hosted and inspired by the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, brought hundreds of community members together to offer information about and support for the LGTBQ community. In what will now be an annual event, Reston Pride offers a needed forum to connect with other issues and movements where fear of unknown, difference or bias can cause harm.
Every day I am amazed at the faith, strength and resiliency of the men, women and children who travel through our doors at Cornerstones and who somehow manage to come out at the other end, despite the multiple personal and systems challenges they face.
I am inspired by the compassion and welcome offered by more than 6,000 volunteers, and the informed care and supports offered by the Cornerstones staff who believe in the possibility that every person can achieve their goals if they are given the right opportunity.
Cornerstones has been deeply engaged in leading and shaping conversations for decades – our mission grounded in the inclusive language and principles of equity offered by Reston founder Robert E. Simon. Because of you, we will continue to work on all levels to extend that invitation so that all families may find opportunities to secure stable housing, find meaningful work, and see their children succeed.
Social Work Month (March 2018)
Each year, indeed each month, there are a number of opportunities for citizens and residents to honor those among us whose history or contribution to our nation requires a pause for reflection and acknowledgement. This month is a significant one for me as CEO of Cornerstones because it focuses on some of our most critical staff – Social Workers – and I would like to invite you to take a moment to pause in recognition of our Social Workers who have chosen a path in life to work for the welfare of others; whose compassion and resourcefulness enable many in our community to weather the storms of life and feel connected and hopeful for a better day to come.
Cornerstones has several employees on staff who hold a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Social Work and/or a certification to practice as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Such a degree requires not only rigorous academic coursework, but hours of practical experience. Each year Cornerstones hires up to seven Social Work interns from George Mason who need that experience, and who roll up their sleeves to support staff across all divisions and learn firsthand the ropes of Cornerstones’ integrated care management system.
Integrated care management is a customized “wrap-around” support service offered to community members who need to obtain or maintain stability and journey toward self-sufficiency. The wrap-around services include: client-identified goals and action plan development; referrals to resources, such as emergency food and financial assistance, dental or medical assistance and benefits; opportunities to engage in direct programming and services at Cornerstones, such as housing counseling and eviction prevention, employment services, educational assistance, financial literacy, and citizenship classes; and access to partner resources and programs such as ESL and parenting classes, pro bono legal support, childcare, and computer courses.
Cornerstones’ Social Workers, working across all our program and service areas, are key to this integrated care management process and thus building the resiliency of individuals and families who have hit hard times and are struggling to keep their heads above water in our high-cost-of-living community.
This year I would like to draw attention to two of our many Social Workers, both of whom have been with the organization for over 15 years: Sandra Jessup and Jeanine Gravette are dedicated to enhancing the well-being of others and meeting the basic needs of all people, especially the most vulnerable in our community.
I hope you will take a moment to learn about their inspiring work.
Cornerstones of Our Community Annual Appeal – Because of You (December 2017)
Because of YOU and the support of those like you, Cornerstones is able to help more than 15,000 neighbors each year who are in need of housing, childcare, food or financial assistance. Your support enables us to meet families and individuals wherever they are on their journey to self-sufficiency, families like this young mother, who along with her two daughters, came to Cornerstones’ Embry Rucker Community Shelter to flee domestic violence.
Her Cornerstones care manager (seated left in this photo) worked with her to find employment and legal help, as well counseling for the violence she experienced. She and her daughters lived in Cornerstones’ housing while she attended Cornerstones’ financial literacy, ESOL and parenting courses, determined to gain self-sufficiency. She maintained steady employment and over time saved enough to buy her first home, where she and her daughters can thrive! She came to Cornerstones this month to turn in her Cornerstones housing keys, and to thank the care manager who walked this journey with her!
You’ll soon receive our Cornerstones of Our Community Year-End Appeal asking for your gift. If you would like to donate today, please click here . With your gift, thousands of individuals and families — families like this mother and her daughters — will have hope for a future that may have otherwise been out of reach.
In addition to our profound gratitude, I extend our warmest wishes to you for a happy holiday season.
Kerrie B. Wilson
The majority of people without homes in our community are children and working families. (September 2017)
Many of us returned to school or work today after enjoying a long Labor Day weekend, celebrating at barbecues, picnics and parades with families and friends.
On Labor Day, we may not have been thinking about those experiencing homelessness. What’s the association between homelessness and Labor Day, a day “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers”?
Did you know… the majority of people without homes in our community are children and working families? 66% percent of adults in families that are homeless are employed.
The real challenge in Northern Virginia is that it takes an average household income of $70,560 to cover the basics of housing, transportation, food and clothing, without even thinking about other extras.
Low incomes and expensive housing are the main reasons for homelessness in our community. The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is more than $1,700. Thousands of individuals and families in Fairfax County spend more than half of their income each month on housing costs.
For example, a teacher with a starting annual salary of $47,046 would need to work 11 years before earning enough to rent the average one bedroom apartment, a police officer with a starting salary of $50,264 would need to work 5 years, a public health nurse would need to work 6 years before earning enough to rent the average one bedroom unit. For an individual earning minimum wage, it is impossible to pay for an apartment — even if you work 24 hours per day, 7 days a week.
Cornerstones reached a milestone in 2015 when it doubled its stock of local, affordable housing, but we would need to double that again year after year to meet the projected 3,000 new households with extremely low- and very low incomes who will be working and living in the greater Reston-Herndon area over the next 15 years.
What can be done?
By investing more intentionally in an effort to increase housing availability locally, Cornerstones and Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness (OPEH) seek to uphold and support the “One Fairfax” resolution that speaks to the County’s commitment to create the conditions for all residents to “live, learn, work, and play” and have equitable access to opportunities that enable them to participate and prosper in Fairfax County.
Recent CEO Messages
The Path of Totality (August 2017)
Equity is Opportunity Plus Access (June 2017)
Volunteers are our Cornerstones (April 2017)
November is Homeless Awareness Month (November 2016)
September is “Fruits and Veggies: More Matters Month” (September 2016)
The State of Homelessness In Our Community (March 2016)
Our Impact FY 2015 (February 2016)
A Place Called Reston (September 2015)
You can make a difference in the lives of children (August 2015)
National Children’s Awareness Month (June 2015)
We applaud our Volunteers! (April 2015)
Investing in families strengthens our community, FairfaxTimes.com, March 16, 2015
Connecting to End Homelessness: Letter to the Editor, Kerrie Wilson and Sara Leonard, Fairfax Connection, September 25 – October 1, 2014, Page 8.
Housing Values On the Rise; Opinion article, Cornerstones’ CEO, Kerrie Wilson, Reston Connection, October 8-14, 2014, Page 6.
On Health and Community (February 2015)
Reflections – Stu Rakoff (January 2014)
Homelessness in Perspective (November 2013)