The real experts in the room

Jenna Severson of Economic Security for Illinois (an affiliate of Economic Security Project), a key partner in POWER-PAC IL’s Stepping Out of Poverty Campaign, recently spoke to a group of COFI leaders during their annual advocacy day. She shared a touching and personal story of how her work has been shaped and guided by POWER-PAC IL leaders. We share an excerpt of her remarks below:

“For the past five years, I’ve been in the Illinois nonprofit network, and I’ve been in the fight for policies that make our economy fairer.

I’ve worked with the leaders on this call on Children’s Savings Accounts. I’ve worked with you on ending driver’s license suspensions for unpaid parking ticket debt. We’ve fought for months together to reform fines and fees in the City of Chicago. You’ve helped me advocate for a guaranteed income. We’ve stood together to promote federal stimulus checks and Child Tax Credits. We’ve reined in the predatory payday loan industry. Those have all been successful endeavors. 

I will never forget the very first time that I went to Springfield for work. We were trying to convince the legislature that they should take this issue seriously. It was an issue that they hadn’t been looking at very much in the past years, and I was there doing my job helping set up the press conference. I rode the train with Ms. Delia [Perez] and Ms. Tara [Williams], and we were fighting at that time to cap payday loans at 36%.

I remember vividly that Ms. Delia and Ms. Tara were looking to me for advice and support. When I looked at them, I told them they had the real stories that needed to be told and heard.  All I was doing was shepherding people from place to place and telling cameras where to go. That first moment of my advocacy career and my press career was with COFI, so it means a lot for me to be here with you today.

Later that year at COFI/POWER-PAC IL Moms on a Mission advocacy day was my first time actually lobbying elected officials. Again I felt that COFI leaders were the ones guiding me. They were the real experts in the room, and they allowed me to be part of their advocacy.

We were in Senator [Jacqueline] Collins’ office, with Lettie Hicks, making the case again for payday loans. The way that Lettie spoke stuck out in my mind. All the stories I’ve had the privilege of hearing from COFI parents have stuck with me.

It’s in Senator Collins’ office with Lettie, or it’s speaking to Senator [Dick] Durbin with Susana [Salgado]. It’s being in front of the City Clerk with Ms. Rose [Grillier]. It’s the Zoom call where Liliana [Olayo] made a rousing call for tax relief. It’s a quiet phone call with Maria Sanchez that brought me to tears, or it’s a hug at an event from Ms. Delia. 

No matter the venue, I’ve had some of the best moments of my career with COFI parents. I’m so thankful for that. This is the power of your stories. It’s making me emotional right now, but I want you to know that they stick with me.

I want you to know how powerful your stories are. How much they stick with us, and there’s no way I could do any of the work that I’ve done without them. There’s no way any of the campaigns that I mentioned could be successful without the leadership of COFI parent leaders and the organizers who have been on this journey, too.

So, I want to give a sincere thank you, and I want you to know that every time that you interact with someone in this work, you have a real impact. It might not just be with the legislators. It might be on somebody like me who’s going to cry in front of you on a Zoom call.”