Tara Marks sits on the edge of her chair, arms folded on top of the table. She looks her senator’s aide straight in the eye and—nicely, but firmly—asks him to urge the senator to consider the needs of low-income people and families in the United States and around the world.
“The business community has a circle of protection around it,” she tells the aide. “We need a circle of protection around poor and hungry people.”
It’s a request she’s been making for years, especially in her work as co-director for policy and communications at Just Harvest, a small Pittsburgh nonprofit that works for economic justice through direct service, education, and advocacy. But it’s also a request that comes from the truest kind of education—experience.
Marks and her son, Nathan, hit a rough patch about 10 years ago when their lives changed suddenly. “I went from being a stay-at-home mom to a single mom living on cash assistance, public housing, and credit cards,” she said. “It all happened so fast.”
Marks pieced together assistance from various sources, but it wasn’t enough. Months of stress culminated in a terrible weekend, when she picked up Nathan after school on a Friday and realized she only had enough food to feed him through the weekend—if she didn’t eat anything.
Come Monday morning, Marks—lightheaded and unable to focus—drove Nathan to daycare and realized she needed to get help. “I swallowed my pride and pulled what dignity I had left, and told a neighbor what I had gone through,” she said. “She told me about a food pantry nearby, and I put food on the table that way.”
Those groceries filled a critical gap, but Marks and her son needed more sustainable help—assistance that would help her finish college so she could secure a better job and provide a living for her family.
Staff members at Just Harvest—now her current employer—helped her navigate the application process for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). That assistance—combined with other sources, such as WIC—helped Marks and her son get on their feet and into a life of economic sustainability.
That experience has since fueled her advocacy for others who are struggling. Marks is a regular and persistent visitor to her senators’ and representatives’ offices—in Pittsburgh and in Washington, DC.
“I met a lot of amazing women in the apartment complex Nathan and I lived in. I think of these women every time I advocate,” she said. “Being poor is a full-time job—you don’t have time to advocate.”
“I advocate for these programs because I know they work,” she continued. “I used to be a statistic. I’m now another statistic, but a different kind—of success.”
Marks knows the power of connecting with her members of Congress—particularly through letters. During a recent visit to Capitol Hill, she ran into a member of Congress she knew.
“He put his hands up and said, ‘I got the letters. I got them all!’” she said. “So, wow, it really works. It really does work.”
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