Gene Wu: Backyard Progressivism

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Gene Wu

Before I became involved in politics, I learned that there are real people in our communities who need hands-on assistance, people who are desperate for others to help lead them out of poverty. Beyond the typical political rhetoric of what we would like to see government do (or, in the case of some, not do) for people, it should be very evident that in order to accomplish progressive ideals, more work is needed in the community on a one-on-one basis. One example that always reminds me that our battle against poverty does not end at the statehouse is that of Yolanda (whose name has been changed here for the sake of respecting her privacy).

Helping people like Yolanda is why I chose a path of public service. I believe that government has an active role in helping people achieve upward mobility. However, my life in Southwest Houston has shown me that accomplishing progressive goals require more than just government action. Southwest Houston has one of the lowest voter participation rates in Harris County because a large percentage of the population consists of non-citizen immigrants and the working poor. Their voices are often ignored in the political process because they cannot vote or do not have the means to contribute financially.

Yolanda was an unusually quiet student when I first met her in the Skills for Living program. Most of the adult students there were shy at first, but joined in once they realized that they had similar life stories. But Yolanda seemed more reluctant to share her life with the rest of the class. Unlike many of the other students, Yolanda was employed, and had been with the same trucking firm for nearly 19 years. She eventually confided in us that she was embarrassed that she could not provide a better life for her children. I was a volunteer mentor and teacher in the program, and we helped Yolanda change her life.

Yolanda was fresh out of high school when she was hired at the company. She had planned to go to college after saving up a little money. However, she became pregnant at 19, and had to keep working because her husband didn’t make enough to support the family. Shortly after their second child was born, her husband simply left one night and never came back. In one of our first exercises, we pored over each student’s finances, looking for areas to make improvements. When I reviewed Yolanda, one single item jumped out at me. Why would a person who had been working at a company for 19 years make so little money? What Yolanda explained shocked me.

In all those years, Yolanda had never once gotten a promotion or a merit raise. Despite the fact that she now trained the people who would become her supervisors, Yolanda had never asked for a raise or promotion. She felt that she was not worthy of one because she lacked a college education.

More importantly, she was worried that she would be fired if she ever asked because she was “just a secretary.” We worked with Yolanda and the other students every week for several months. We fixed their resumes; coached them on interview skills; taught them how to ‘market’ their experience; and Dress for Success even provided them with proper business attire. Yolanda’s final task was to accomplish her own goal of getting a promotion. While we had helped Yolanda with her anxiety, it was hard for her to shake nearly two decades of self-doubt and fear. But she knew that she had to do this because she wanted her kids to have a better life.

In our next class, the students who had successfully completed their objectives shared their stories. I could already see that Yolanda was beaming with pride. She said that when she met with her boss, she told him she wanted to be promoted and he simply said ‘yes.’ She never even had to use any of the approaches or strategies that we practiced. Her boss told her that he had thought that she wasn’t interested in taking on more responsibility and that she just liked her low level position. Yolanda was given a promotion, nearly doubled her salary, and was put on a track to ascend further up the company.

The more important lesson here was not for Yolanda; it was for her children. Her two kids, now young adults, saw their mother succeed through hard work and self-marketing. Yolanda not only began her climb out of poverty, but she taught her children to never fall into that same trap.

We’re only a few months away from another November election. But, as much as we may love the legislative fights or savor the electoral victories, I believe that the bigger accomplishments are not what we can see on 24-hour cable news or the front page of the newspaper. Our real goals are people in our communities. Being ‘progressive’ should be more than just a label, it should mean that a person takes personal responsibility in their community to make sure no one is left behind.

Gene Wu is a candidate for State Representative in House District 137 in Southwest Houston.

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