Advocacy in Action: The First Step Toward Justice
Bread for the World member Jeanette Mott Oxford is a former Missouri state representative who now directs the Missouri Association for Social Welfare. Jeanette played a leading role in Bread’s recent actions in Missouri. She recently sat down with Zach Schmidt, a Bread for the World regional organizer, to talk about her time as an elected official and her years of faith-based advocacy.
Tell us about your faith journey. Were there any significant shifts or defining moments?
I grew up in the Christian fundamentalist tradition in rural southern Illinois. My parents were in a gospel quartet, and my uncle was a tent evangelist. As a child, I attended a lot of revivals! We were encouraged to personally witness to others, and I have carried with me the belief that there should be unity between what you say you believe and what your actions demonstrate.
I left the church for a while and then came back through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA]. Eventually, I settled on a United Church of Christ [UCC] congregation and have stayed with the denomination ever since. I found that these denominations had a focus on “corporate sin.” This was a significant shift for me, from a focus primarily on individual practices and a pious life to thinking about who we are as a part of systems and nations, and thinking corporately about questions like, “Are people being fed? How are we treating the least of these?”
How did you come to see advocacy as an important part of helping people in need?
Bread for the World played an integral role. When I first discovered Bread in the 1980s, I thought it was about sending money to care for someone in a famine-torn corner of the world. All I had known about responding to hunger was through charity-type actions. Then I started getting letters from Bread encouraging me to write to my members of Congress, and I quickly became an advocate and tried to learn as much as I could about how domestic and international policy affect hunger.
I also worked with Bread as an intern while studying at Eden Theological Seminary in the St. Louis metro area. At the time, Bread was working on a campaign to increase funding for WIC, and it was an eye-opening experience for me to learn that we could save four dollars in health costs with one dollar of healthy food!
You were a member of the Missouri House of Representatives from 2005 to 2012, representing a district on the near south side of St. Louis. During that time, was there a particularly memorable experience for you related to hunger and poverty issues?
The most memorable experience was a heartbreaking one. In 2005 and 2006, Missouri’s legislators tightened the income limits for Medicaid, resulting in over 180,000 people getting cut off of Medicaid. I remember looking over at the side gallery of the Missouri House, just a few feet away from my seat, and seeing it packed with people in wheelchairs and with oxygen tanks. People who depended on state health care were looking right at us while we pushed our buttons to vote. While I voted “no,” I understand that we as a legislative body made those cuts, and I’m ashamed of that. People do run into situations where they have to decide between food and medicine, and this made things worse for so many people.
Now you are the director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare [MASW]. Tell us about the organization and what you hope to accomplish this year.
MASW has been around since 1901 and was a pioneer in citizen advocacy in Missouri. We are a unified voice to win changes that will improve the lives of Missourians. I have worked in partnership with MASW since the 1990s, when I was director of Reform Organization of Welfare [ROWEL], a statewide anti-poverty organization. We often worked together to win victories like reducing sales tax on food by three cents and creating a Missouri Housing Trust Fund. Last October, I came on as executive director, and I have enjoyed the move back into advocacy after my time as a legislator.
Our top priority this year is Medicaid expansion, urging the state to participate in increasing income eligibility guidelines as allowed through the Affordable Care Act so that 260,000 hard-working neighbors in Missouri will gain access to vital health care. We are also working on federal budget issues related to SNAP, as well as state legislation that would harm Missourians’ access to SNAP. One bill would cut over $3.5 billion in federal funds for SNAP because the changes would put the state out of compliance with federal guidelines. Obviously, we don’t want to see that happen.
MASW focuses primarily on advocacy at the state level, but you recently took action with Bread for the World, engaging U.S. Senators Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt. Why did you choose to get involved in these actions on federal policy?
This is a good illustration of the debate over whether to focus on state or federal policy. We need a partnership that does both. The federal government provides national programs that help people, and they are administered at the state level. If we at MASW are to best do our work of improving conditions in Missouri, there will be times when we need to be in dialogue with federal officials.
Members of U.S. Congress are not always aware of how certain policies impact the people in their states. One example is a recent proposed budget amendment to SNAP that would hit Missouri especially hard. This amendment would further bog down an over-burdened system, adding stress to state workers whose SNAP caseloads are already high. [Click here to read more about how Jeanette and Bread for the World responded to this amendment.]
What can we learn from this, and what can we improve on next time?
Twice in the Gospel of John, we read the exhortation to “come and see.” I think this is a call for us and for our U.S. senators and representatives to “come and see” the situation, to see the state offices that administer benefits, to meet the people and the workers, to see how things are really going. When we “come and see,” our hearts can be touched and our minds can be changed. This is incarnational ministry—seeing people “in the flesh.” And it should be an important part of policy-making.
I think we need to get Sens. Blunt and McCaskill, or their staffers, to “come and see.” If they tour state social service offices, they can see how federal laws and policies impact the people they’re elected to serve. And they can carry those experiences back to Capitol Hill and remember them when they vote.
Zach Schmidt is a Bread for the World regional organizer in the Central Hub, which includes Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.
Photo courtesy Jeanette Mott.