During a team ride to an away game for the Mills Volleyball team in the early nineties, Jessica Bartholow realized just how wide the class gap can be. She heard her teammates talk about how hard it was to believe that there were people who made less annual income than the price of tuition at Mills. What those students didn’t realize was that Bartholow’s family was among those ranks.
When Bartholow entered Mills as a freshwoman in the fall of 1990, her family couldn’t afford a place to live. She paid for Mills with a combination of aid and scholarships, including a CalGrant, a PellGrant, a Supplementary Education Opportunity Grant, a Bank of America Scholarship, a Mills Scholarship, federal loans and a work-study job.
Her mother, father, and sister lived in a camper, the kind on the back of a truck, in a KOA campsite when Bartholow started living in the dorms at Mills. Economic drawbacks that she faced in her youth gave her a special understanding of the people that she would eventually help after many years of hard work and experience – the clients at the Alameda County Food Bank.
Bartholow is now the director of Education, Advocacy, and Outreach at the Alameda County Food Bank. As the Director she spends her time organizing in the community she grew up in, Oakland, trying to help the hundreds of thousands of low income people who are in need of food in Alameda County.
According to the Alameda County Food Bank’s Web site, “Each month, tens of thousands of low-income Alameda County residents cannot afford well-balanced meals for themselves and their families. Many never imagined they would need to request food assistance, but barren cupboards and empty pockets have led them to local soup kitchens and food pantries.”
“I knew that I was really interested in politics and government,” said Bartholow. “I’ve always been interested in poverty as an issue, because at times in my childhood I was poor and experienced hunger. I was interested in those issues, but I didn’t understand how much it would shape where I would go in the future.”
At first Bartholow was more interested in studying international poverty and income disparities, which is why when she was at Mills, she majored in international relations. She graduated a semester early by taking summer classes as well as a heavy semester load. During her time at Mills she worked 30 hours a week. Her employment ranged from being head lifeguard at the Mills pool to working at Sizzler as a salad bar attendant.
“What was also kind of crazy was that in addition, I had unpaid internships my sophomore and junior years,” said Bartholow.
During Bartholow’s junior year, her parents were able to move into a one bedroom mobile home. When she came home during breaks from school, she had to sleep in a van outside of her parents’ home.
“I would say at this point that they weren’t homeless anymore,” she said. “It just meant that I didn’t really have a fall back plan if I needed a place to stay.”
With intimate knowledge like this of the difficulties faced by people living in poverty, Bartholow went to graduate school to study Latin American Politics and Democracy Studies at the University of New Mexico. At first, she wanted to teach students who were financially disadvantaged.
While doing her graduate studies she got the opportunity to study in Chile. Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship paid her tuition, room, board, and spending money to travel to Chile. This was the first time since she was 13 that she didn’t have to have a job to pay her own way because the scholarship paid for all of her immediate needs.
“It was very luxurious,” said Bartholow.
While she was there, she went to school with people who had worked in Chile to fight the military dictator Augusto Pinochet who assassinated the democratically elected president Allende in 1971. Many of the people that she studied with had been imprisoned for their efforts to fight the dictator.
“For me it was really amazing to be in school with people who were older and had spent their whole lives trying to improve just the neighborhood around them and the lives of their own community,” said Bartholow. “I just felt very presumptuous to be there as a 23-year-old, not having really done anything for my community. I’d always worked really hard, but it was always to go to school to get a degree for myself. When I came back to school to finish my master’s degree I just felt that was really missing for me. I hadn’t really done anything to improve anyone else’s situation. I was pushing myself forward and didn’t really bring anyone else along with me.”
She came back during the same month she finished her master’s degree and started working with a voter registration campaign that was aimed to assist low income groups in the south valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“I had the choice as to whether or not to continue on to the PhD,” she said. “I didn’t want to stay in academia when I felt like I was probably going to be pretty good at doing community work.”
The Progressive Alliance for Community Empowerment hired her in May 1998 to do community research. She worked with welfare officials to register voters at welfare offices, at unemployment offices and at the food pantries.
“It was pretty amazing because nobody had ever really done voter registration at these places before,” said Bartholow. “Not only were we reaching people who had never even been asked to vote before, we were also challenging our right to do voter registration at those places,” she said.
“I’d ask them to take a chance and believe me that if a policeman asked them to leave a sidewalk in front of the welfare office that it would be okay if they didn’t do it because we had the ACLU representing us.”
In the end they registered about 15,000 voters in many low income areas of New Mexico.
She then moved back to Oakland so that she could be with her family and to assist disadvantaged people from the community she came from. That was when she found the Alameda County Food Bank.
“During the interview I wanted to make sure that they were really serious about working with low income people and not just working for them, and they were,” she said.
In this job she gets to use the skills that she acquired in college because of the policy, research, and advocacy elements of her job and at the same time she gets to work directly with low income people.
Bartholow was the Chair of the California Hunger Action Coalition from 2001-2004, where she organized leaders of senior coalitions, faith based organizations, medical advocates, welfare, anti-hunger and disabled advocates. She has been active in the coalition in passing important legislation and fighting budget cuts.
This last year the food bank and the coalition staffed a bill, AB1796, which ended the lifetime ban on food stamps for people who have been convicted of drug felonies, a bill that Sacramento lobbyists called dangerous and potentially unpopular. After two vetoes and little legislative support the group almost gave up, but it finally passed on Sept. 30, 2004. According to Bartholow, it was the first ever rollback of welfare reform measures in California.
“It’s not fair that somebody who’s been convicted and done their time and gone through recovery, then still can’t use food stamps,” she said. “Especially because people really need good nutrition in order to be successful in their recovery.”
The Alameda County Food Bank and California Partnership plan to write a guide to passing legislation because of the difficulties that they faced.
Also during her time as the Chair of the California Hunger Action Coalition, her group called together the “We have a Dream Day of Action” on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 2004.
“We held four actions throughout the state to highlight the inequities in the governor’s proposed budget,” said Bartholow.
The group stopped most of the proposed cuts by organizing rallies and having leaders within the coalition visit legislative offices and lobby against the budget cuts to social programs.
“Solving the budget crisis should not come out of the pockets of low income people,” she said.
Bartholow also directs seven people, coalition building, supervision of the following programs: nutrition programs, advocacy and policy, a hotline that serves an estimated 1,000 people a month, food stamp and summer lunch government nutrition food programs and research and messaging around poverty and hunger in Alameda County in her work with the food bank.
“This kind of job was absolutely not something that I would have pictured myself doing when I was in school, mostly because I didn’t know that it existed. I think that a lot of people don’t understand the breadth of non-profit work. You know they talk about social justice, but not a lot of people talk about economic justice and all the work that is going on around it.”