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Suggests boycotting big banks

VOICES’ leader gave up insurance job to volunteer

By Mary Stamp

To listen to people’s stories and help them advocate for themselves so they can move from low- to middle-income, Kiondra Bullock left a full-time job with an insurance company to become full-time volunteer executive director for Voices for Opportunity, Income levels, Childcare, Education and Support (VOICES).

Kiondra Bullock
Kiondra Bullock seeks to give voice to people in poverty.

Aware how health care costs impoverish people, she said she “jumped at the opportunity to help people speak for themselves and work themselves out of poverty.

Her husband’s work as a hunting, fishing and tour guide in British Columbia provides support that made her decision possible.

“Growing up Pentecostal, my relationship with God calls me to help people, especially the most vulnerable in society,” said Kiondra, a member of Mt. Zion Holiness Pentecostal Church who also volunteers at Calvary Baptist’s Soup Kitchen.  “I had a good job, but decided to give it up and give back.

“If it’s in your power to do that and not be hurt, how can you decide not to help people?” she challenged.  “If I can inspire someone to change, I need to give my time.”

VOICES’ speakers’ bureau, through which people share their personal stories of how public policies affect their lives, is a key part of its public policy education. Working with other organizations, VOICES has recently advocated for lower swimming pool fees, police accountability, tax fairness, human services funding and health care for all. 

In addition, VOICES has started two other education programs: Adolescent Women Actively Learning Life’s Lessons (AWALL) and Financial Independence Courses.

“VOICES is the place to go to find what issues keep people in poverty,” she said.  “Our focus is on solutions.  Our slogan is that no decision should be made about us without us.  We seek to bridge the gap between haves and have nots through education to break the cycle of generational poverty.”

VOICES grew out of the Greater Spokane Coalition Against Poverty, which was started by the former Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries in 1988.

After she earned a bachelor’s degree in business management in 1989 from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., and a master’s in organizational communication in 1991 from the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., Kiondra did what she was supposed to do: go back to her hometown, Caruthersville, Mo., and make life better for the people there.

As executive director of Southeast Missouri Weed and Seed, she worked eight years in 29 cities “to weed out negative influences and seed positive reinforcement.”

In 1995, she met and married her husband, Donald, but continued to live in Caruthersville until 2003, when she moved to Spokane to be closer to his work in Cranbrook, B.C.  She worked as diversity mediator with an insurance company, handling personnel discrimination claims in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

When her daughter, now 18, experienced discrimination at school, Kiondra first learned about VOICES.  She gathered 200 parents in March 2005 to share their stories of discrimination and organized classes to help them understand school policies on discrimination. 

“My goal was to help parents be strong and powerful, armed with knowledge,” she said. 

Now she transfers that commitment to VOICES.

Financial independence courses help people understand credit and know they can ask creditors to accept payments they can afford—even $10 a month.  The classes teach budgeting and limiting use of credit cards.

The Adolescent Women Actively Learning Life’s Lessons (AWALL) course began Feb. 16, teaching 10 teen girls each six-week session, with a goal of preparing 70 girls a year for life beyond high school.

Women leaders teach self-esteem, self-care and dressing for success; college, vocational school and job readiness; nutrition and health; financial planning, and how to advocate for oneself.

The program includes a two-week job shadow with a woman in a career the participant wants to pursue.  The girl job shadows two hours a day after school four days a week.  The fifth day, the professional woman life-shadows the girl to see how she lives, what she does and what she eats.

Participants prepare three-year plans, outlining steps they need to take to reach their goals. 

Graduates are matched with mentors, who guide girls to achieve their goals.

“Mentoring programs have a high turnover and drop out rates, because most mentees are not ready for mentoring, so they need a voice in how they want to be mentored,” Kiondra said. 

VOICES seeks more volunteer mentors to have a large enough pool for effective matches.  It will train the mentors.

Mentors meet the girls once a week for a year to guide them to make good choices and to introduce them to cultural and recreational activities, Kiondra said. 

Through Teen-Aid, Whitworth students will tutor the girls twice a week, and the girls will spend one day a week helping a nonprofit organization as a way to give back to the community.

“We don’t need to be wealthy to give. Time is valuable,” she said.

“We hope this program breaks barriers of generations living in poverty—helping reduce teen dropout, pregnancy and delinquency rates,” she said.  “We want to teach the next generation of young women to dream so they will teach their children and their children’s children to dream, so they move beyond poverty.”

Kiondra is writing grants and VOICES is planning a Benefit Luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Thursday, April 29, at the Spokane Masonic Center, 1108 W. Riverside, to raise money for AWALL.

Concerned that policy changes in recent years have undermined safety nets for low-income people, Kiondra said that VOICES’ only paid staff member, Cheryl Amann, has worked part time for five years, starting as a public policy advocate and education intern.  Since earning a master’s degree in social work at Eastern Washington University in June 2009, she continues to work part time with her salary supplemented by disability payments.

She helps train the speakers, who give presentations to colleges, businesses, congregations and conferences.

“Empowering people to tell their stories empowers them to learn about the codes related to their benefits and how to advocate for themselves when they are denied benefits,” Cheryl said. 

Kiondra said VOICES’ constituency is changing and growing because of the economy.  It has about 500 supporters and 40 active core members.

“People who had traditionally not used low-income services are now unemployed, using food stamps and going to the Department of Social and Health Services,” she said.  “They are realizing the struggle of people in poverty.  They had no idea how much advocacy low-income people need until they experienced it.

“Most poor people who go to organizations for help need an ear,” said Kiondra, who often stays after meetings end at 7 p.m., talking with people until 10 p.m.

“When I give time, it’s the time I would want if I were in need,” she said.  “I want to know someone cares about me, where I’m going, what I want to become and how I can get there.

“I can’t pray about something and ask God to change it unless I am willing to help do it,” she said.  “So I ask God to help me do what I can.  I put my life in God’s hands to mold me and tell me what to do to make it happen.”

For example, aware that many people who do not have money are depressed because they lack options, she is challenging greedy banks that received billions of stimulus dollars, but are not loaning to low-income people.

Because credit unions and local banks invest in their communities and give loans to lower-income people, she likes the Move Your Money Movement, inviting people to move their money from big mainstream banks to credit unions and community banks.

She moved her money to send a message to the big banks by herboycott, a method that worked in the civil rights movement.

“Why would we invest in a bank that puts our money into its executives’ pockets?” she asked.  “If everyone moved their money, it would make a difference.”

“Proverbs 22:22 and 18:23 warn the rich not to rob the poor,” she said, noting that payday lendors charging 391 percent interest rob the poor, as do banks that charge high interest for the poor and low interest for the wealthy.

While many wealthy people want to do right, she said, too many have lose their ideals and succumb to greed. Kiondra challenges people to become informed, organize, speak out and act.

For information, call 326-4135, email kiondra@spokanevoices .org or visit spokanevoices.org.