In hosting its 2018 Conversation with Elected Officials, the Bucks County Women’s Advocacy Coalition underscored its mission to both educate the public and advocate on behalf of women for the economic security of all. As a relative newcomer to the workings of BCWAC and to Bucks County itself, I came away from this event with a deeper understanding of the county’s housing and human services resources and challenges. I also gained a greater appreciation for the commitment of so many to improve the quality of life for community members and the vital role of respectful dialogue in realizing this goal.
In her welcoming remarks, Coalition President Tam St. Claire aptly identified a focal point for all those in attendance: to consider how to maintain the social safety net in light of uncertain funding levels. Keynote speaker Jonathan Rubin, Director of Housing and Human Services in Bucks County, followed her lead with a candid and realistic assessment of what it will take to maintain client services in the face of what may be a likely decline in future appropriations. He detailed a primary agency task as that of integrating the many HHS areas of services, including aging, housing, behavioral health, mental health, drug and alcohol, and children and youth, so that clients are not overwhelmed but rather experience a more seamless, person-centered approach. I was encouraged to hear Jon Rubin highlight what could be effective steps in a path forward: to team and partner, measure and improve, and innovate. His discussion of adaptive leadership that will aim for transformative work in building more supportive community ecosystems sounded some very hopeful notes. Nonetheless, the challenges for his agency are complex indeed.
The “conversation” that followed, facilitated by the Coalition’s Kathleen Welsh Beveridge, was so enlightening, I think, because it was driven not by any prepared statements by elected officials, but rather by the very specific questions and/or comments of Coalition partners, county employees and volunteers who work with at-risk populations. I observed that the elected officials were mostly in a listening mode as individuals gave voice to such concerns as the undersupply of affordable housing units for the working poor, the plight of single, disabled adults, and the need to reevaluate court orders granting visitation rights to parents found guilty of spousal abuse.
The elected officials and staff members present did offer some input. For example, PA Rep. Gene DiGirolamo spoke forcefully about the need to retain Medicaid expansion in the state, and PA Rep. Marguerite Quinn addressed the difficulty of maintaining adequate housing options for seniors in markets like Doylestown. Also, US Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and PA Rep. Perry Warren described some steps being taken to try to raise the minimum wage. Overall, it was a good exchange, but there was much left unanswered, and the complexity and depth of the problems identified beg the question, “Why are issues of basic economic security for all people not the top priority of our county, our state, our country?” It is my hope that the Bucks County elected officials present heard the urgency and frustration of their constituents and place these concerns among their top considerations moving forward. Certainly, these constituents will be in a “listening mode” of their own as candidates detail their priorities come November.
In closing, Tam St. Claire pointed out that the hoped-for outcomes of these Coalition “conversations” are that participants leave better informed, and that perhaps the meeting of creative minds will generate imaginative and effective solutions. I, for one, am grateful to the Coalition for raising my awareness and for providing forums such as this that encourage fruitful dialogue that can lead to meaningful action.
Eileen Walkowiak is a new individual partner of the Coalition.