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Drexel Program Participant Tianna Gaines-Turner Gets a Seat at the State of the Union

January 27, 2014

Tianna Gaines-Turner, a participant in Drexel's Witnesses to Hunger program, speaks with Senator Bob Casey, who invited her to attend the State of the Union address.
Tianna Gaines-Turner, a participant in Drexel's Witnesses to Hunger program, speaks with Senator Bob Casey, who invited her to attend the State of the Union address.

Tianna Gaines-Turner, a low-income mother of three children from North Philadelphia, will attend the State of the Union address as a guest of Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey on Jan. 28, the Senator announced today. Her attendance marks a new achievement of a Drexel program raising the voices of families living in poverty to gain a place in the national conversation.

Calling for a renewed focus on jobs and the economy, working families and early childhood education, Casey announced that he had invited Gaines-Turner to attend Obama’s speech with him because policies and programs enacted in Washington have major impacts on working families.

Gaines-Turner is an expert in hunger and poverty, employment and the true struggles of working families – because she has experienced all of these challenges first-hand.

“We don’t want a hand out. We want a hand in,” Gaines-Turner said. “I hope to hear tomorrow at the State of the Union what we are going to do about hunger and poverty. I want to hear a solid plan to end them.”

Since 2008, Gaines-Turner has participated in Witnesses to Hunger, a community-based participatory research and advocacy program based at the Drexel University School of Public Health’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities and founded by associate professor and Center director Mariana Chilton, PhD. The Witnesses to Hunger program features the voices of true experts, including Gaines-Turner, by equipping caregivers of young children with digital cameras to document and describe their experiences with hunger and poverty. After beginning in Philadelphia, the program has expanded to multiple other sites, including Boston, Baltimore and Camden, N.J., with more than 80 participants in total. A new site in Sacramento, Calif., will begin recruiting soon. Through their photos and testimony, the Witnesses spark dialogue, engage and inform policy makers and inspire change.

As a Witness to Hunger, Gaines-Turner has spoken eloquently about poverty, unemployment, homelessness and struggles to afford medical care for her children in pursuit of policy changes to support better opportunities for families like hers. She has attended face-to-face meetings with representatives at the U.S. Capitol and Pennsylvania State House, written testimony submitted to the House Budget Committee, and spoken in public and through media interviews, including multiple appearances as a guest on the “Melissa Harris-Perry Show” on MSNBC.

“Her story and her struggles are emblematic of what’s happened in a lot of families,” Casey said at a press conference today. Families like Gaines-Turners’, he said, are “working hard but falling behind, working but not making the kind of progress that should result from hard work.”

“Our nation’s leaders have to be accountable to the families and communities they serve, and I know Tianna will be listening closely to keep a real perspective on what she hears at the State of the Union,” said Chilton. “I’m incredibly proud of Tianna and the women and men of Witnesses for all they have achieved, and are continuing to do, to shape the conversation around breaking the cycle of poverty and the need for programs and wages that will support low-income families and their communities.”

Note to news media: Gaines-Turner and other participants in Witnesses to Hunger (from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and other sites) are available to discuss poverty, food insecurity, income inequality, employment, homelessness and associated issues they have experienced. Chilton is also available to discuss these issues based on her research and work with Witnesses to Hunger.