Change the Narrative: Poverty Discourse and Frontline Work in Community-based Organizations in Post-Welfare Los Angeles
- Author(s): Wells, Rachel B
- Advisor(s): Roy, Ananya
- et al.
Dominant ideas about poverty shape how social welfare solutions are constructed and how community members are treated when seeking services. At the same time, community-based organizations (CBOs) can reproduce or challenge ideas of poverty through their interactions with community members. Through an ethnographic study of two CBOs in Los Angeles that combine services with organizing, and using a relational poverty framework, this dissertation examined how narratives of poverty were communicated and challenged through frontline work. The two CBOs work in Los Angeles, a city that has a history of radical organizing alongside deep inequality and criminalization of low-income communities and with a post-welfare social service landscape that includes both punitive and supportive policies. As a result, this is an ideal site to study contested ideas in community organizing and social services. I purposively selected two CBOs that combined services and organizing. CBOs were selected due to their critique of traditional human service provision and their reputation, but they also had a key difference with one CBO having a greater emphasis on organizing and the other having a greater emphasis on services. Data included participant observation from a one-year period at each CBO; 70 interviews of staff and community members across the two CBOs; and a review of organizational documents. The two CBOs had common repertoires within their frontline work, which resulted in long-term relationships with community members that differed from community members’ relationships with other service providers. These more personal relationships resulted in communities of care and a distinct from of service provision, described in this dissertation as “organic service provision”. These long-term, supportive relationships then created a space to reframe ideas about poverty and community for staff and community members. Ideas about poverty were influenced by each CBO’s organizational mission, history, and neighborhood location, but both CBOs found openings to introduce ideas about poverty across multiple interactions. In addition, CBOs drew from their frontline work to introduce ideas to larger audiences. This study discusses ways that this type of frontline work led to new forms of poverty politics and why both CBOs saw changing narratives and how people talk about poverty as “an issue worth fighting for.”