Ketny Jean-Francois

New York City Chapter, Co-Chair, CVH Board of Directors

I am a single mother and a former welfare recipient. As a welfare recipient in New York City, I was required to work 5 days a week for eight hours each day for the City in exchange for less than $100 of public assistance money I received every two weeks to care for myself and my 5 year old son. My work consisted of pulling staples and putting documents in boxes.

I was required to do this because I was assigned to the Work Experience Program (WEP) of the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the New York City welfare agency. I did not receive a wage, benefits of vacation, sick or personal days and there was no chance of me actually getting a real job at HRA, the city agency where I worked, let alone a promotion at the site or an official job title in exchange for my labor. I was not entitled to Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) because I did not get paid. I could not use the unpaid WEP assignment on my resume because there was no one that potential employers could call to verify that I worked there. Because we received no training of any kind, many of us were forced to stay on public assistance.

I learned about CVH when an acquaintance overheard me talking about building an organization with other women in WEP to fight for our rights. I learned that CVH was founded in 1994 by women on public assistance who were tired of having their lives dictated by policy makers who have never experienced life on public assistance. These women created a grassroots organization where members fight for issues affecting low-income families—the very issues that affect me.

Upon becoming a member, I learned how to effectively use my power so I could be a part of the decision making process with policy makers. In learning more about the political process, and how it impacts my life, I now feel that I have greater control over my life, and that my voice is heard when decisions are being made, both personal and systemic. I have worked with my fellow members to expand a paid transitional job program in place of WEP, and to change the way services are delivered to low-income people.

I value CVH because it is a true membership led and driven organization. We members are comprised of low-income people throughout New York City and State, and we hold 11 of 13 seats on the board of directors. Members determine the campaign issues, goals and the strategies we use to create change. Our community organizers support and facilitate our work, and provide us with critical skills-building trainings to give us the tools we need to develop our leadership and work collectively to win concrete policy changes.

Despite the challenges before me, I have been able to continue my education, and am now a certified nursing assistant and studying to become a licensed practical nurse. The confidence I have gained to continue pursuing my career is a direct result of my involvement with CVH. In fact, the program I am in was created in New York City because of work that CVH did. We pushed the city to address poverty and joblessness through the creation of a new Deputy Mayor position and a Commission for Economic Opportunity. As I develop my skills to fight for issues that affect me, my dedication and commitment to CVH has only increased.

We have built a people’s organization that engages in political action and education to retain a place at the negotiating table when policy decisions are made. Our actions through CVH have shifted the parameters of the debate around economic justice issues and changed the balance of power among policy makers.