By David Villano
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Romano and Perera, who have tactically remained anonymous during Minority Families public appearances, insist they have taken a back seat in the organization. They say the roles they play are motivational and educational, and assert members have taken the reigns. "Leadership has to come from the folks living this thing we call 'welfare reform,'" Perera comments. "For the first time in their lives, these women are writing speeches, running meetings, creating newsletters, analyzing and thinking critically about the things that affect them."
But some audience members at the WAGES coalition meeting had a different take on the two men's roles: They are outside agitators with an agenda of their own. There was talk of Minority Families' participants being manipulated, and "coached" into action. Not so, says Romano. "We ain't trying to bluff no one. We're very clear and up-front with the members about what we're about. There's no hidden agenda."
Regardless of who's behind Minority Families, those that have joined it have legitimate concerns with WAGES. They claim the federally funded program is not wholeheartedly committed to the goal of helping welfare recipients achieve independence, and that the quality of services is poor. They charge that entire families, ill-prepared to make the transition from dependency to self-reliance, are unfairly cut from the welfare rolls. And they are not alone in their criticisms. Researchers from five Florida public universities who recently conducted a study on WAGES in four regions, including Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, concluded that recipients find it difficult to obtain information on job leads and support services such as subsidized child-care and transportation. Furthermore, cites the Qualitative Study of WAGES, case managers in Florida lack knowledge about the new laws and often do not apply them uniformly. "WAGES providers don't have a clue," says Elizabeth McCulloch, a professor at the University of Florida College of Law, who studied the Miami-Dade/Monroe coalition. "There is no good information out there for WAGES participants."
Already in Florida 75 percent of the welfare population has stopped receiving cash assistance. The numbers in Miami-Dade County (which with Monroe County represents 47 percent of the welfare population in the state) have dropped from 47,028 in 1996 to 17,597 in 1999. Even with more than a 50 percent drop in the rolls (and with a disturbingly high number of people who have dropped out of WAGES programs altogether), the local coalition's case managers remain overworked. "The message coming from these women is not delivered in a sophisticated way," says Valory Greenfield, a staff attorney at Florida Legal Services who specializes in public benefits. "But their complaints are symptomatic of a bigger problem."
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas doesn't seem to think so. Penelas, who chairs the local coalition's board, closed the meeting by claiming a victory for WAGES. "I think we've done a remarkable job," Penelas said. "Three years ago we faced an unparalleled challenge in this community." Penelas cited a high unemployment rate, an overburdened welfare system, and minimal job growth in the years past. "Things have turned around," he assured the audience, then added: "This was a very good meeting to end the millennium. We even had our own fireworks display." Everyone in the room laughed -- except the female residents of Liberty City. They left, almost without being noticed, boarded a yellow school bus they had rented for the occasion, and headed back to Liberty Square, known to them as the Pork 'n Beans projects.
Gihan Perera and Tony Romano are very different from the women they've set out to organize. They're single men, without children, and they've never been on welfare. Both have had middle-class upbringings and privileged educations. Romano comes from a Sephardic Jewish family; Perera was born in Sri Lanka.
Yet because they've spent countless hours organizing people in diverse communities, Perera and Romano have learned to blend in rather well. Here in Liberty City, they sometimes slip into street cadences and colloquialisms while working with the women they are trying to organize.
For Perera, a 28-year-old who has degrees in economics and developing-nations studies, a social consciousness was formed while growing up in a heavily black, working-class neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles. As a student at the University of California at Berkeley, he mentored reform-school inmates. Romano's commitment to the downtrodden developed later in life. "I grew up in a vacuum," says the 30-year-old about his upbringing in suburban Atlanta. His social awakening came when he helped organize a summer camp and after-school program for Southeast Asian refugees while he attended Harvard University. "The classroom for me was just the sidelines," says the anthropology major who later taught in South Africa. "After that I pretty much took the route that any typical Harvidian would take," he adds in frenzied laughter.
The two men met while unionizing textile factory workers in the South. They arrived in Miami about five years ago with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) to organize nursing-home workers. Four years into his job, Romano became disillusioned with UNITE and left. A year later Perera followed. "We felt it was critical for the workers to take leadership in the fight, and we didn't see development of those skills as part of the process in UNITE," says Romano. "The bottom-line needs of the union often contradicted what the workers wanted to fight for."