Wages of Welfare War
On a warm Friday morning in mid-December, the local Work and Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency (WAGES) coalition held its monthly meeting at Miami-Dade Community College's downtown Wolfson Campus. The troubled agency's mission is to ease program participants off welfare and into the work force, a transition that has been rocky at best. As board members filed into the James K. Batten Room, they were greeted by a black, disoriented homeless man with raw, bloodshot eyes. The man attempted to light a cigarette butt he had retrieved from the ground, then pulled out a small Styrofoam cup from the inside pocket of his brown blazer. He held it out, hoping someone would drop in some spare change. No one did. One middle-age man attending the meeting avoided making eye contact with the strung-out vagabond altogether; briefcase in hand, he quickened his pace and dared not look back.
Fifteen minutes into the meeting, as some of the 31 board members discussed the results of a critical survey, female chanting resonated through an outside chamber. It was hard to ignore, and loud enough to drown out the bureaucratic drone. "We are the women, the fighting women./Everywhere we go, people want to know/who we are, so we tell them./We are the women, the mighty, mighty women," sang fifteen mostly black single mothers, in military style. The audience stirred and Milton Vickers, the coalition's executive director, shot up from his seat. He made a dash for the door as the collective voice of Minority Families Fighting Against WAGES, a grassroots organization from Liberty City, grew louder. The angry women, who carried signs that read "Save the Children," charge that WAGES is not connecting them to the kinds of jobs they need to support their families. When Vickers met the group at the entrance, an MDCC security guard and two National Guard members already had barred the protesters from barging into the public meeting.
In an effort to quell demonstrators, Vickers offered them five minutes to address their grievances to the board during the public-comment section at the end. "That's unacceptable," replied Ilana Berger, a 26-year-old POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights) organizer from San Francisco, who was donating her time to the newly formed group. "Okay, okay, this is what I am willing to do," Vickers reconsidered, while the demonstrators continued to march, sing, and picket. "I will also provide myself and all of my staff to meet any place you want to, and address any issues that you have." But Berger wouldn't budge. "You people always want to get the women away from the meeting," she responded. "This is the forum to address those issues."
"I am trying to provide you with a forum to speak on your issues," countered Vickers in an irate tone, visibly shaken. "Five minutes!" Berger exclaimed. "How much time does each board member get?"
Miami Heat vs. Atlanta Hawks
TicketsSun., Oct. 1, 6:00pm
UberTailGate: Hard Rock Stadium Dolphins v Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Dolphins vs. Tennessee Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Hornets
TicketsMon., Oct. 9, 7:30pm
Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards
TicketsWed., Oct. 11, 7:30pm
"They are the board, ma'am," Vickers stressed impatiently.
Then he turned to Merlene Tassy, a 30-year-old single mother of four and a member of Minority Families who for the most part remained on the sidelines of negotiations. "You may not know how it works," Vickers scolded, pointing his finger at Tassy. "But she knows exactly how it works," he added, referring to Berger, a white Gen X-er clenching her bottled water. "Let's not be misled. In any public meeting you do not get carte blanche to speak." But succumbing to threats that the women would attempt to break through and chant "on the inside," Vickers agreed to allow three women to speak for three minutes each.
Tony Romano and Gihan Perera, the group's organizers, huddled and strategized with members and volunteers in a separate room. Then the pack entered the conference room, lined the back walls, and waited for their turn to speak. Stickers wrapped around each woman's arm read "United We Stand." Marcia Olivo, a volunteer from a Bronx, New York-based organization called Mothers On the Move, distributed fluorescent-yellow leaflets. Sheila O'Farrell, a 41-year-old consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Change who has donated about $200 to Minority Families, videotaped the session. Outside, beyond the glass windows, as the board approved a plan to fix program weaknesses, a black, homeless man wearing a poncho tap-danced to the music in his head. According to the women, who at times offered less-than-eloquent testimonies of life after welfare, the WAGES coalition has been waltzing around the issues of their lives.
Tassy was one of the single moms who launched angry tirades from the podium. "It is time to wake up and listen to us," she demanded. "We are the WAGES participants. We have the solutions."
Or will have the solutions, according to organizer Romano. "It's not just about putting bandages on the problem," he says. "Part of the solution lies in organizing people. The women in this organization are slowly developing their skills to take collective ownership of their group." Once they do that, it is unclear what their next step will be. In the meantime they are airing their criticisms against WAGES. They have been to the last three coalition meetings and planned a fundraiser during the Martin Luther King Day parade.
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."
With that ideal, a $5000 New World Foundation grant, the intellectual support of the National Employment Law Project, and the guidance of a few other activists (including the two organizers from New York and San Francisco who attended the WAGES meeting), Perera and Romano founded the Miami Workers' Center last March. Perera took a job selling computer parts; Romano dedicated himself full-time to get the center up and running. The two rented a charming, wood-floor Buena Vista duplex and set up camp. Equipped with a laptop and a cell phone, they got to work.
While worker centers have been around for at least 25 years (one of the first popped up in New York City's Chinatown to protect exploited Chinese laborers who toiled in restaurants and sweatshops), the Miami Workers' Center is the first such organization in the area. "It's about time we had one," says attorney Valory Greenfield. "Smaller cities than Miami have them; it's long overdue." Still Perera and Romano have a long road to pave. Unlike cities with an industrial base, there aren't any strong ties to unions in Miami, let alone a tradition of organizing workers. "There is, however, a history of sporadic protests and violence in Liberty City," Romano points out. "Our concern is to try to organize folks to funnel that anger in a positive direction."
Like others across the nation, the Miami Workers' Center reaches out to a constituency that labor unions traditionally have ignored. Specifically Perera and Romano's mission is to organize former and current welfare recipients "without losing sight of the bigger picture of social justice," Perera adds. Like Romano he interprets WAGES's shortcomings through the filter of class struggle.
The duo uses phrases such as "the displacement of workers," "free labor," and a "revolving work force" to describe the working-class's plight against globalization, and what they see as the government's attempt to further bury the poor by cutting off safety nets that have been in place for 60 years. They refer to the local WAGES board as a "power coalition," because more than half of the seats are held by members of the private sector. "There are economic factors at play here," Romano asserts while standing in the hallway of his Buena Vista home. Sketched on each wall are Soviet-era style proletariat figures rising from the ground, their rough, mammoth hands reaching up to the ceiling. "At a time when unemployment is relatively low, the government decides to cut people's welfare and throws them into the unemployment pool. That in turn creates more competition among workers, wages go down, and profits go up. How deliberately it's done, I don't know; I'm not in the backrooms. But there's no doubt in my mind that the whole system is set up to encourage that people don't stay in jobs."
In 1996, before Perera and Romano began flirting with the idea of mounting a battle against welfare reform, the state WAGES board created local coalitions to administer Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The program replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) under the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The law requires former AFDC recipients to earn their welfare checks, sets time limits for receiving them, and eventually pushes welfare dependents off the rolls by placing them in subsistence-level jobs.
Welfare recipients can stay on the rolls for two consecutive years within a five-year period, as long as they participate in WAGES, either through "volunteering" their hours for welfare checks (also termed workfare), or by attending training courses. The goal is for recipients to graduate from WAGES with stable, long-term jobs. But critics claim those long-term jobs often last only a few months. Under the new laws, former welfare recipients can return to the rolls only once, for two additional years. In total they are allowed four years of cash assistance over a lifetime, with an extra yearlong hardship exemption as the only remaining window for monetary relief.
Almost overnight, and in more ways than one, this welfare reform changed the lives of four women who now are active in the Minority Families fight against WAGES: Sheton Bellamy, Treva Landrum, Veronica Sweeting, and Merlene Tassy. WAGES withdrew Bellamy and Landrum's cash assistance because they weren't participating in the program. Tassy's government check stopped coming in when the mild-mannered mother of four began working full-time for slightly above-average pay. (WAGES workers generally earn about $6.09 per hour compared with $5.15 per hour minimum wage.) And though Sweeting's time for assistance is almost up, the 21-year-old says she hasn't even heard from WAGES.
All four Minority Families members are single moms struggling to get ahead. All sometimes feel as though they're running in place. "These past few months have been the worst months I've ever had," says 28-year-old Bellamy from the dark kitchen of her home in Liberty City. Yet the best these women can hope for, according to WAGES executive director Milton Vickers, is to join the working poor. "No one who comes off welfare is going to be thoroughly self-sufficient," he adds. "That's the reality."
But Bellamy, Tassy, Landrum, and Sweeting contend WAGES can certainly meet them halfway. "We're not asking for handouts," Landrum declares. "Most of us want jobs. And we're not trying to eliminate WAGES either. We're just trying to reconstruct it. We just want somebody to sit down and listen to us." Some of the women point to specific problems in job placement and transportation. Another challenges welfare reform's philosophy that working moms set better examples for their children. All say they feel excluded from the very system that decides their fate. "When the local WAGES coalition is voting on our lives, we can't interrupt," Landrum says. "None of them experience what we experience. We can help each other better than anybody else can."
The first and last WAGES job Bellamy worked lasted only a day. Although WAGES already had cut her cash assistance back in October, Gene Hitchens, a WAGES coalition community ombudsman who had attended one of Minority Families' public meetings, attempted to reinstate Bellamy in December. "I felt like they were trying to win me over," Bellamy says. "They found me a job so that I would stop speaking out at their meetings." Bellamy, who last worked as a phone-sex operator, would now be selling mattresses over the phone for Craftmatic. But the job was located in Pompano Beach, and Bellamy didn't own a car. WAGES would transport her to work for the first 30 days.
WAGES transportation, however, proved to be unreliable on Bellamy's first day of work. Her shift ended at 9:00 p.m. Transportation didn't come for another two hours. According to Bellamy it wasn't the first time there were problems with WAGES rides. "At Craftmatic I had people tell me they would sometimes have to hitchhike their way home," she says. Bellamy, whose mother had to miss work that night to care for her daughter's two toddlers, didn't go back to work the next day. Now she braids and grooms hair from her home to make ends meet.
Merlene Tassy has been through so many jobs, trainings, and caseworkers she's lost track of when she did what, and under whose guidance. Before entering a WAGES six-month training to become a code enforcer for the City of Miami, Tassy had volunteered for WAGES several times. Once she was a maintenance worker at Arcola Lake Park on NW 83rd Street and Thirteenth Avenue, where she worked 25 hours a week for $362 per month in cash assistance (what would amount to about $3.50 an hour). She also typed and filed records at a WAGES career-resource center.
In March 1999 Tassy enrolled in a paid training program that she says promised a $7-an-hour position working for the City of Miami upon graduation. Three weeks into the program, her instructors told her she would also have to attend a WAGES class every Friday for eight hours, for which she would not be paid. She had the option of learning Word for eight hours, or having the session reduced to six hours if she studied Creole or Spanish during the remaining time. According to Tassy her paycheck sometimes would be held for a few days as punishment for not attending the classes. "They treated us like children," Tassy says. "We even had to raise our hands to speak in the class and ask permission to go use the bathroom. I'm a grown woman."
Tassy dropped out of the program after five months when she learned there were no code-enforcer jobs for her or any of her 27 classmates. Tassy believes she and her classmates were just quotas the city was trying to meet in order to receive federal funding. Vickers denied the accusation. "No one goes into a training program with the guarantee of employment," Vickers says. Tassy finally found a job last month. Goodwill, not WAGES, connected Tassy to an opening at the Coast Guard station in Miami Beach. She makes $6.25 an hour washing dishes, serving food, sweeping floors, mopping, and wiping down dining room tables.
Treva Landrum had been working steadily for eleven years, first as a nursing assistant caring for an elderly patient and later as a cashier at Joe's Supermarket. When the corner store closed down, Landrum suddenly joined the ranks of the unemployed. For about two years, Landrum tried unsuccessfully to get off welfare on her own. She enrolled in vocational training courses and scrounged money for bus fare just to get to job interviews. Landrum had applied at every hospital in town; for a position as a switchboard operator at the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (now called the Department of Children and Families); and at the State Attorney's Office. "No one would call back," she says from the living room of her neatly kept apartment in Liberty Square.
When WAGES came into her life in 1997, the program forced her to do more job hunts or face sanctions. (WAGES withholds cash assistance and food-stamp benefits if welfare recipients don't participate in the program.) Every time Landrum didn't get the job, she would have to enroll in courses designed to prepare chronically unemployed women to re-enter the work force. "I went through that cycle of courses and searches several times," Landrum says. Victory to Vision, she recalls, was one such prep class. "It was a bunch of crap," Landrum says. "But I sat through it with the promise of a job." A job, that according to Landrum, didn't exist.
Landrum was tired. She decided not to comply with WAGES anymore. When the 38-year-old gave birth to her second child in 1998, she chose to become a stay-at-home mom. As a result WAGES cut off her cash assistance. Landrum, who depends on her fifteen-year-old son's SSI (disability check), child support, and food stamps, says her family no longer is covered by Medicaid either. "I don't want my children to step on the stones that I've had to step on," Landrum says. "I want them to step on some stairs, concrete stairs that go up."
Local WAGES coalitions work within the guidelines of state and federal policies. But on the ground, they enforce welfare laws and administer services such as subsidized child-care, job training and placement, transportation, and transitional benefits -- all areas that, according to critics, haven't met the standards for success. At the heart of the problem, opponents say, is that WAGES providers don't have a complete picture of their recipients' needs. Furthermore they aren't familiar with the new laws and apply them inconsistently. As a result most program participants receive piecemeal information and miss out on the services available to them.
"I have not been impressed with the level of case management," says Edith Humes-Newbold, Mayor Penelas's advisor on welfare-to-work. "The laws are applied inconsistently, and caseworkers don't take the time to really get to know the participants."
Robin Reiter, Miami Herald vice president and former co-chair of the local WAGES coalition, had never heard of Minority Families. She wasn't moved when she heard of the group's problems with WAGES. "As good as WAGES may be, it will never provide full satisfaction for everyone," Reiter says.
Although WAGES punishes some for not participating, many have dropped out of the program in frustration. "It's a very complicated system that involves far too many cooks," says Valory Greenfield, the public benefits attorney. "It allows far too many people to be served in a very superficial and generic way."
Indeed, for all the cooks involved in coming up with a recipe, there is not a single WAGES participant sitting on the board of the Miami-Dade/Monroe WAGES coalition. A committee within the board nominates candidates; there is no external or community process for nominating people to the local coalition. "It just hasn't been done like that," says a WAGES coalition staffer who did not want to be named. "We advertise nominations and take applications; everything is public record."
According to the Qualitative Study of WAGES, coalitions make decisions mostly based on information they get from service providers and administrative staff; board members do not receive regular feedback from WAGES participants. "The philosophy of democracy is that people should have a say," says University of Florida professor Elizabeth McCulloch, one of fourteen researchers who worked on the WAGES study. "The people who are being governed by these rules are poor people. They're the ones who know how it's actually all working out."
"You can speculate all you want about why people fall through the cracks," Greenfield adds. "But it's a whole different thing to bring people who have fallen through the cracks to the table. These are people right in the thick of it, and they may very well have the answers."
The anonymous WAGES staffer says the coalition's outreach isn't far: "They're welcome to be involved. But we're not going to search them out." Vickers concurs. "This is not a public agency," he says. "There should be some input, but that does not necessarily mean that [WAGES recipients] should be on the board level."
Like the other 22 coalitions in Florida, Miami-Dade/Monroe WAGES awards contracts to public and private agencies to provide services for welfare recipients. But WAGES hasn't been efficient when it comes to coordinating the flow from providers to individuals. The result is that the majority of WAGES participants is missing out on some of their benefits. Thousands have dropped out of the program entirely. "There are lots of opportunities for people to get lost," admits the anonymous coalition staffer.
Despite the program's emphasis on work, more than half of those surveyed in a WAGES-financed study did not receive employment referrals or job leads from their WAGES career counselors. Vickers counters that while most participants may be landing work on their own, it's in part thanks to the training WAGES provides. "They receive the skills we afford them in order for them to land those jobs," he says. "They're trained on how to use computers and newspapers to search for work on their own."
Yet according to the survey, 82 percent of WAGES participants weren't even aware of the number of months they could take educational classes. Child-care and transportation also were trouble spots; more than half expressed ignorance on time limits for both. Sixty-six percent didn't even know they could receive clothing, uniforms, and school supplies. Seventy-five percent were unaware there was a WAGES hotline.
The problems were compounded last month when the number of people classified as missing or not participating in WAGES reached 11,000, out of approximately 17,000 still on welfare. Miami-Dade/Monroe also fell short by about 10 percent in meeting state standards for job placement and training (local coalitions must serve at least 40 percent of their area's caseload). The state board threatened to shut them down, and in response the local coalition drew up a "corrective action" plan. Miami-Dade/Monroe has a year to get it together. But Greenfield says there's no meat to the plan. "It was written in a way bureaucracies speak to each other."
Gihan Perera and Tony Romano began measuring the pulse of the welfare population in Liberty City in 1998. From Lincoln Fields to the Edison Terrace housing projects, Perera says, Liberty City's denizens believed WAGES was cornering them with few options for a decent life after welfare. Once the two men surveyed the population, they recruited a handful of women and formed Minority Families Fighting Against WAGES, a Miami Workers' Center project, in March. The group leafleted Liberty City, did grassroots outreach, and then began phone banking.
The biggest complaint, according to Perera, was that WAGES was not helping people find employment. Not minimum-wage, dead-end jobs, but real jobs that offered stability, benefits, and upward mobility.
"People are not being paid a living wage," concedes the WAGES staffer. "They're also being placed in jobs where there's no growth opportunity." Not surprisingly then, says Perera, from the very beginning residents of Liberty City saw WAGES as an attack on their community. "Welfare for some people is cyclical; they were raised on the system," explains the unnamed employee. "Their mothers and grandmothers did it before them, and now here we come along asking people to change their culture. We want to change about 60 years of history in 3 years. It's gonna take time."
Sheton Bellamy was living with a friend and her two baby boys in an apartment on NW 60th Street and Twelfth Avenue when Perera knocked on her door and introduced himself in November 1998. She's been attending meetings on and off ever since. Merlene Tassy was leaving a Liberty City flea market when she stepped on a brightly colored flyer that called out to her. It read, "Our Voices Must Be Heard." Now Tassy, who has spent her life in the projects, is a Minority Families steering-committee board member. Treva Landrum opened her door to two strangers one day and now she too is on the committee. "Everybody around here was tired of WAGES," Landrum relates. "Gihan and Tony went door to door listening to each person's story." A friend of Veronica Sweeting dragged her to a meeting. Sweeting, also on the steering committee, has even been to a conference in San Francisco representing Minority Families.
Last September 21 Perera and Romano held the organization's first meeting in Liberty Square's community center. It was a symbolic choice; the barracks-style housing project is the second oldest in the nation. Fifty people showed up at the pale, blue-gray center that at one time was used most frequently as a forum for crime-related discussions. "It was like a religious revival," Perera says.
"People were like, 'I haven't seen people come together in this community for years,'" Romano adds.
There hasn't been much of a sense of community in Liberty City for the past three decades. Beginning in the 1970s, the area fell victim to a nationwide economic slump, and then it became a virtual drug state. The dire problems boiled over in the early 1980s in the form of social unrest, and crime and violence have continued to plague the area ever since. The severe social and economic ills persist: Unemployment is as high as 26 percent in some corners of Liberty City, more than four times the county average. Liberty City also is home to one of the highest concentrations of welfare recipients in the county.
Most of the seven women who formed a steering committee that September evening did so on impulse. A majority dropped out, and another handful enlisted. Nine women have since formed a second steering committee. They meet weekly, pass out flyers, and do community outreach. Large monthly meetings like the first one held in Liberty Square's community center are open to the public.
But getting members to commit remains a challenge. Distractions at home, such as babies, boyfriends, and day-to-day struggles, are factors Romano and Perera must contend with. "It can get frustrating for us," Perera says. " We pull out our hair a lot. One of our biggest challenges is convincing members that the power of change lies in them."
Sometimes a lack of motivation also poses a problem. On a recent early Tuesday morning, Veronica Sweeting wouldn't get out of bed to leaflet hundreds of WAGES dropouts who had congregated near her home. The crowd waited for rides that would transport them to MDCC's North Campus as part of a WAGES-backed two-week push to re-engage former program participants. In other words just the right candidates for Minority Families. But Sweeting lost a golden opportunity.
On the other hand, Sweeting has taken on responsibilities for which no one ever prepared her. A turning point came in mid-November. For the first time in her life she left Liberty City. For the first time in her life she boarded an airplane. For the first time in her life she visited San Francisco, attended a conference, and hung out with people unlike herself. Thanks to a paid invitation from the Applied Research Center in Oakland, California, Sweeting and Perera represented Minority Families in a conference of 45 organizations rallying against welfare reform. "It was encouraging," Sweeting comments unenthusiastically from her rundown two-bedroom apartment.
But the scene outside Sweeting's drab brown building is anything but promising. Weeds and detritus have conquered an otherwise empty field across from her house. Young men are congregated outside the corner store early in the afternoon. Still Sweeting remains hopeful Minority Families will usher change into her neighborhood. "Being part of an organization that can turn lives around is exciting," she says. "Some people have done gave up. We know it's gonna be a struggle."
Minority Families' uphill battle is twofold. The group must tackle its own weaknesses as an organization before it can offer solutions to a tottering WAGES agency. The goals aren't set in stone. Right now the group's most powerful ammunition is discontent in inner-city women. "The organizers of this group have no preconceived notion of what the organization's agenda will be," Greenfield says. "They're very protective of the members setting their own pace, and that strikes me as being the right and true way to go. I can't imagine that they won't achieve some kind of success."
On January 21 three members of Minority Families fly to Los Angeles for another conference. This time the National Employment Law Project will pick up the tab. Sweeting is on for another trip to "Cali." So is Tassy. "What they've been taught forever they can't do, they're finding out that they can," Perera says.
It's a wet winter night in Liberty City, and Gihan Perera has just gotten off work in North Miami Beach. He travels these streets almost every night, most of the time alone, briefcase in hand, making his rounds. He knocks on the doors of strangers and touches base with familiar faces. Tonight he visits two Minority Families members.
At Veronica Sweeting's apartment they reminisce about their trip to California, share a few laughs, and briefly go over the articles that are set to run in a newsletter she edits, which will be published by the end of January. Sweeting's two teenage sisters are in the living room watching television, uninterested in their older sister's endeavors. One of them has her month-old baby stretched out across her thighs as she sucks the infant's pacifier. Before departing, Perera informs Sweeting that Romano will be by the next day to drop off the laptop.
Perera gets in Romano's "family back-up car," a sky-blue 1981 Toyota Corolla with a gold stripe, and calls Sheton Bellamy from his cell phone. "I'm on my way over," he tells Bellamy. "Be ready 'cause I got CNN, NBC, and the New York Times with me."
"No, wait, I gotta clean up the house," Bellamy responds in a panic.
"I'm just kidding," Perera says laughing.
At Bellamy's house Perera tells her how much they missed her at the last WAGES meeting, and asks how her son is doing. He had been hospitalized with an ear infection. Before leaving he wishes Bellamy and her family a merry Christmas. Hypnotized by what's on TV, family members don't even look at Perera as he walks by them across the room toward the door.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.