Tianna Gaines-Turner holds a photo of the hug she shared with Congressman Paul Ryan. Photo by Jas Borman.
Tianna Gaines-Turner, a participant in Drexel’s research and advocacy project, Witnesses to Hunger, is the focus of one film in a documentary series spotlighting social issues in the United States.
A program out of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities in Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health, Witnesses to Hunger is working to build a platform for the true experts on poverty, people with lived experience, to share their experiences with the public, press, and policymakers. Gaines-Turner is a founding member of Witnesses to Hunger and has long advocated for change in her community.
Now, she is the star of a short documentary called “A Hug from Paul Ryan.”
The film is part of the “Take 5: Justice in America” series that was produced by AMC Networks’ SundanceNow Doc Club. Chosen for inclusion by curators that included Susan Sarandon and Ira Glass, “A Hug from Paul Ryan” centers on testimony Gaines-Turner gave to the House Budget Committee’s “War on Poverty” hearing in 2014.
A beneficiary of SNAP — commonly known as the food stamp program — Gaines-Turner told the gathered members of Congress the story of her family and their struggles. Her hope was to convey what it is like to work hard but still struggle to make ends meet.
“A lot of people think they know what it’s like to walk in our shoes,” Gaines-Turner said in a recent interview on Slate’s “The Gist,” which covered the documentary. “Until you’ve actually been through it, you will never know what it’s like.”
Tianna Gaines-Turner, at center, with the directors of "A Hug from Paul Ryan," Sheena M. Joyce (left) and Dan Argott (right). Photo courtesy of the Center for Hunger Free Communities.
At the time of Gaines-Turner’s testimony before the War on Poverty Committee, she had an interaction with then-Chairman of the Budget Committee and now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan that included a hug.
“He put out his hand to give me a handshake and I said, ‘No, I want a hug,’” Gaines-Turner recalled in the film. “I wanted to hug him for him to understand that I am a person. I met you, you met me, and it’s now personal.”
Mariana Chilton, PhD, professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health and director of the Center for Hunger Free Communities, founded of Witnesses to Hunger in 2008. She explained that, Tianna Gaines-Turner represents the sentiments of so many members of the program.
“Members of Witnesses know so much more than policy-makers about how the policies and programs work. They know it in their everyday lives, their homes, neighborhoods, and in their own bodies,” Chilton said. “Tianna’s hug embodies that wisdom. It demonstrates the obvious: policy-making has human, physical, visceral consequences for millions of people.”
Unfortunately, Gaines-Turner felt her hug with the congressman ultimately didn’t matter, as Ryan has since proposed to make changes to some of the programs Gaines-Turner and her family rely upon that would mean less food in her fridge and even tighter budgets.
Their family had been receiving almost $800 per month at the time of the “War on Poverty” hearing, but their seven-person family now receives just $390 since both adults are working — albeit with fewer hours and a lower pay than is necessary to keep the family afloat. With rent, gas, electric and bills for three of their children with medical concerns constantly looming over them, nutrition benefits are precious to Gaines-Turner’s family.
Yet they’re constantly in the crosshairs.
“We do have a safety net in place,” Gaines-Turner said on “The Gist.” “But the safety net has giant holes in it.”