Could you describe your role with MEJP and how you came to it?
My work is unique and exciting! I have the privilege of connecting with multiple community members each day. We work together to craft personal narratives regarding their experiences accessing quality health care. Often, I connect with community members who are uninsured and have been so for years due to our state's decision to forego Medicaid expansion and because health insurance can be incredibly expensive. This November was an incredible win for many of the folks I have conversations with — those who have gone without annual exams for years, who have lost family members and loved ones because of a lack of health insurance, and those who are drowning in medical debt because they make too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to afford private health insurance.
I studied public health in graduate school and had the opportunity to work abroad at an international NGO that focused on high-level decision-making. I loved the work, but we were working to improve health conditions for a community we were not directly connected with. After this experience, I knew I wanted to work with community members to impact policy. I moved to Maine and worked as a community organizer with the Maine Women's Lobby, an advocacy organization focused on creating a future for Maine women and girls free from violence and discrimination, with access to health care and real economic security. I traveled around the state to speak with community members about challenges accessing paid leave and quality child-care services. I began collecting stories from community members to help shed light on their lived experiences. I dabbled in journalism, but this was my introduction to storytelling as a tool for social change.
Your organization has been doing research around Medicaid and the proposed Section 1115 Waiver, which would require Medicaid recipients to work 20 hours a week or pay Medicaid premiums or else risk losing coverage? How do you think this would affect the populations you're working with?
We are working to address this issue! The bottom line is that work requirements don't work. In fact, they do the exact opposite, meaning that they do not actually increase employment or income. The majority of folks enrolled in safety net programs are, in fact, working. Those who are not engaged in work often have good reasons to forego work. Some community members I speak with are full-time caregivers for their family members or are living with a disability but do not qualify for social security disability insurance. If the 1115 waiver is implemented, people could lose MaineCare eligibility. Folks who are unable to find a job or navigate some of the waiver's prospective rules to show they qualify for a work exemption may experience difficulty doing so. They will suffer increased hardship and will continue to live in poverty. People need health care to be able to work. They should not have to work to be eligible for health care. This waiver is antithetical to helping folks finding and maintain work.
In your work talking directly with Maine's low-income people, can you share any of the myths or misconceptions at odds with mainstream media reports?
There is a common narrative that people living with low-income are somehow lazy and undeserving of help. There is this pervasive idea that people living with low-income must have done something, maybe taken a 'wrong turn' somewhere in their lives that they should now be able to address themselves. Of the hundreds of Mainers I've spoken with, never once have I had a conversation with someone who isn't trying to better their situation in some way, whether it be through work, school or job training, or volunteering in their community. There's a myth that safety net programs are being abused by people who don't deserve them. Perhaps among the most common and fabricated narratives is that of folks within immigrant communities, specifically undocumented immigrants, utilizing benefits when in fact, they aren't eligible to receive benefits.
You're appearing at the next edition of 'Girl Talk' at the Apohadion Theater Friday, March 23 (at 5:30 pm) with host Ines Giramata, talking about "the myths of communal validation and the importance of self-validation." Is this something you think a lot about?
I do think about self-validation a lot. We live in a country that often prioritizes the voices and stories of those who are white, cis-gender men, and of higher socioeconomic status. When your identity does not fit the standard or norm, you begin to question your capabilities and worth. For communities of color, folks living with low-income, and folks in other communities whose identities are often overlooked and suppressed, the idea of self-validation is so important for their resilience.