Hunger Justice Leaders Impact Communities
By Michele Learner
At first glance, you might not think Erin Rath and Chris Ko have a lot in common. Rath is a longtime South Dakota resident who is completing her training as a sign-language interpreter, while Ko lives in Los Angeles and works as a consultant to nonprofit organizations.
But Rath and Ko are members of Bread for the World’s first class of Hunger Justice Leaders (HJL) -- a group of activists in their 20s and early 30s who are committed to making a long-term difference for hungry and poor people.
The two were active on hunger issues before receiving HJL training in 2008. Rath served as the coordinator of her local Bread group in Sioux Falls, SD, and Ko worked for the Los Angeles mayor’s office on asset-building programs for low-income families. They credit HJL training with building their skills and revitalizing their advocacy.
Rath sees her work on hunger as a religious and spiritual obligation. She says that HJL training gave her strategies for building connections with a wide range of people. “If they don’t agree with Bread’s position or they’re not well-informed about the issues,” she says, “I can listen carefully and engage them in conversation and offer my opinion in a non-threatening way.”
In addition to her work on Bread’s national and international hunger issues, Rath also puts her energy into state issues, such as the repeal of South Dakota’s food tax, which disproportionately affects people struggling to put food on the table. South Dakotans have been working to eliminate the tax for several years.
“This year, for the first time, the bill made it out of committee. It hasn’t passed yet, but just clearing the committee is a very important step,” she says. “From a religious perspective, I know that I have to do my part, and then God is ultimately in control.”
Ko says that he came to the HJL training in search of spiritual revitalization. “I got that, and I also had a great time. I think I’d been getting a bit cynical, and I was pleasantly surprised by how receptive members of Congress were,” he adds.
Since he became a Hunger Justice Leader, Ko has written his first op-eds on hunger and submitted them to newspapers. He is also starting an international community development project to connect Los Angeles with cities in developing countries.
“Our city is really a collection of dozens of neighborhoods, and a lot of them have deep poverty and many of the other problems of cities in developing countries, like lack of transportation,” he says. “So if we can do community development and get it right in L.A., ultimately maybe we can help other cities -- Mumbai, Rio -- address some of these problems.”
Many immigrants who live in L.A. travel back and forth every summer; Ko envisions working with them to help transfer ideas and resources from L.A. to their home communities and vice versa. “I know that when I studied in Ghana, I was struck by how far a dollar will go in some communities. The $20 a month I contribute as an individual is actually helping people,” he says.
Ko and Rath reflect the energy and thoughtfulness of many of Bread’s younger activists. Rath says she is motivated by hearing the stories of experienced advocates. “A lot of them have been active for many years, and they still have compassion and dedication,” she says. She also hopes that her class of Hunger Justice Leaders can collaborate with the 2010 class, which meets for training in Washington, DC, this summer. “We can connect on Facebook and help each other be more effective.”
Ko notes that he visited the FDR Memorial while in Washington for HJL training. “I realized that we live in a country that actually builds memorials to our values of justice and compassion. So when I went home, I tried to figure out how to apply this to my life.”
You can learn more about the HJL program from Vanessa Martinez, a Hunger Justice Leader from Santa Ana, CA, on this short video.