Redford Center: The Art of Activism. Let's listen, let's talk, let's act
MARTHA RYAN [Founder, Homeless Prenatal Program]
My plan had been all along to go back to Africa or to the developing world to set up maternal and child health programs. And, while I was volunteering in this shelter, I realized that there was a developing world right here in San Francisco. I knew I couldn't volunteer the rest of my life; I had a lot of loans to pay back. I wrote a grant, [my] first class project. I decided I would submit it to the San Francisco Foundation. I was a nurse who had never managed a program, but they liked the idea. In 1989 they gave me a grant for USD$52,000 and that started the Homeless Prenatal Program.
Poverty is an accident of birth. Children don't get to choose which families they're born into and people who are born into poverty or are raised in poverty have fewer opportunities than those that are born into a family of means. I remember seeing one of my clients being interviewed, and the reporter asked her, "Are you worried about the baby you're about to have?" She said, "No, I worry about the ones I already have." And so I realized that the state of pregnancy was a wonderful window of opportunity for a woman to turn her life around. They needed more than just prenatal care: they needed housing, they needed help with addiction, some needed to get away from a batterer. They had lived their lives in poverty and they needed help in learning how to overcome these barriers.
I describe the Homeless Prenatal Program as a place of hope, a place where people can find opportunities that they don't normally have. It's a place where people can turn their lives around. I modeled some of the program here after work I did in Eastern Africa. I worked in refugee camps. What we did there was we trained women everything we knew about the prevalent diseases. In those six months we had four epidemics, and we were able to control those epidemics, not because of western medicine, but because of women who we trained to be our health workers. So one of the first women I ever hired was addicted to crack, and she was in recovery, early in recovery; she said to me, she said, "I can't believe you'd hire an addict." And I thought, "Perfect person to hire as far as I'm concerned." Because they would be able to help people who were addicted to turn their lives around. They would understand them, they would understand the pathophysiology of addiction. And that's exactly what happens.
Today, we serve over 3,600 families, we do this with a staff of 62, more than half of whom came to us initially as clients. We have a computer lab and we have a financial literacy program. We also do classes in English. And we try to help them get what they need to exit poverty. I've always been a volunteer throughout my life. I used to volunteer at St. Anthony's, [at] the same time I was working in the ICU at San Francisco General. And I used to wonder why I would go to St. Anthony's on my day off. But I always left the clinic inches off the ground. When people volunteer and give, they feel so much better. It's so easy to cast judgment on someone that you don't know, and if we could just not do that, and accept people for who they are, and be nice and kind and give a helping hand, we'd feel better about life, and so would everybody else.
Activism takes many forms: perhaps the most radical is kindness