By ELYSSA VILHAUER & ANDREW WILKINS
AW: Tell us what you are studying and the purpose of this assignment.
EV: I am currently a junior in the BSW (Bachelors of Social Work) program [at Portland State University], hoping to use social work to work with Portland’s houseless community.
For my capstone this term I’m taking Housing and Homelessness, which is the class this assignment was assigned for. It’s an open-ended advocacy letter, with the only prompt asking to address the issue of homelessness in some sort of way. Our instructor had us send her a first draft for her to review, and afterwards asked us to send it to whoever we felt appropriate as a second graded part of the assignment.
AW: How did you choose this topic?
EV: I chose to write to my work about the bathroom codes, because it’s been something on my mind a lot lately and I realized I’d never actually talked to management about it. I knew I wanted to write to my work, as there have been a lot of equity issues there (over the summer there were lots of protests outside of my work led by employees, I believe there are still news stories up) that I’ve felt have gone unresolved, and I didn’t want that to just be our company culture.
I also know that many of my co-workers have really discriminatory attitudes towards our customers who may be experiencing homelessness, and I haven’t heard anyone speak up. This is mostly hearing people complaining in the break room, generally saying really unkind things, and I felt as if the new bathroom codes were one of the first policy changes informed by that discrimination.
AW: What was the response?
EV: After talking to my store manager about the letter I sent him, I had mixed emotions. I learned that there had been an incident (that my manager said he was not allowed to talk to me about for privacy reasons) in the public restrooms, and that he felt it would be irresponsible on their part to not address it in some way. He also told me that the idea of bathroom codes were first introduced a few years ago when the store just opened, and that folks had been fighting the idea until this incident.
I guess it was good to hear that at least some management disliked the idea of bathroom codes, but frustrating that that still wasn’t enough to consider removing them. My manager did say that he would forward the email to corporate, and that he would talk with someone about the idea of adding a sharps container to the restroom, which he seemed a bit apprehensive but open to.
Overall it was relieving to talk to him about everything, and good to hear that he at least in theory shared some of my values of equity. It was disappointing though that no resolution was met, and frustratingly familiar to old conversations about equity issues that didn’t go anywhere either. Weeks later and so still haven’t heard any follow up on the sharps containers, but I’m going to continue talking to my manager about it and not let the conversation just fizzle out.
AW: Did this assignment change your thinking about civic advocacy (if that’s the right term)? Did you hear any interesting stories about the assignment from your classmates?
Despite all of that, I still left feeling extremely positively about the idea of advocacy work. Even though there weren’t necessarily any policy changes (and don’t get me wrong, that’s definitely something that should be a goal), I’m glad that the conversation happened in the first place and I don’t want to get discouraged.
The way I think about it— you can either keep doing advocacy work with the goal of actually changing something, despite change ever happening, or you can not. I would much rather engage in conversation, which is honestly underrated and extremely valuable, than to not engage at all because I’ve been discouraged.
Advocacy work is not just one conversation and change happens, it happens overtime with persistence, patience, and through relationship. I think this assignment opened my eyes to more of the reality of advocacy work. And, as well, the fact that it is actually very simple, and that I need to just do it.
Photos by Elyssa Vilhaur