He came. We saw. We voted.
According to weekend newspapers, Americans are either acting locally to facilitate change or waiting for the new administration to prompt it. On Saturday, we saw an inspiring story in the Inquirer of an anonymous donor who stepped forward to save Ali’s Wagon, a boutique on the brink of foreclosure in Fairmount; in his Sunday New York Times editorial, Frank Rich criticized the GOP for practicing “petty politics” by rejecting stimulus plans without “advancing policy debate.”
Unfortunately, regardless of our party affiliations, don’t most of us practice “petty politics”? Instead of acting as social advocates, we wallow in complaints about the past, show off our bumper stickers, and watch to see what change will come.
Maybe this is because we don’t know what to do. The vote allowed us to participate in something greater than ourselves. Now that Change has come, we don’t know how else to contribute, so we live in the past, waiting for someone to tell us specifically what to do next. Teri Ramsey, a 54-year-old grandmother and resident of Fishtown, is that person. “Find the common message,” she says. “It’s always the same.”
Ramsey found this message forty years ago, when she was a student at St Hubert’s High School. She remembers watching coverage of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War on television, then taking her questions to the priests and nuns at school. These discussions made her think about the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. “I took [them] by their words,” she remembers. “I remember thinking that if it’s all words, isn’t that a lie?” After high school, Ramsey attended the Academy of Fine Arts, moved around the country, and worked as an art teacher, an apple inspector, a bartender, a police dispatcher, and a theater technician (among other things). No matter what the day job, each paid the bills while Ramsey pursued her true passion: social advocacy. In 1986, when she became the social concerns committee chairperson at Old Swede’s Church, she began voicing “the common message” even more loudly. So what is it? “We are all in this together.”
If we are all in this together, then aren’t we voters just as responsible for change as the new administration? “I can point to certain times in my life,” Ramsey says, “where I needed to move or act.” And what if people don’t act now, failing to move with the momentum resonating around the inauguration season? “Then it’s all a waste.” Ramsey’s main concern is that people will lose their optimism when they don’t see things change quickly enough. “It’s going to take a while,” she continues. “Keep your focus on a small scale. Use that intention. Trust that will.”
By taking the step to get involved at Old Swede’s Church, Teri Ramsey responded to the everyday problems of everyday people. As she became more involved in her role of social advocate, she made homelessness one of her main priorities. “It never made sense to me that anybody in this country wouldn’t have a home,” she says. “How do you do anything without a home?” Working with the Delaware Valley Housing Coalition and church groups like Episcopal Community Services, Ramsey connected mothers in shelters with Adopt-A-Family programs. She also became involved with the 18th Street Redevelopment Corporation, a group that pushed for “Empowerment Zones”—subsidized, low-income neighborhoods that enabled families to move out of shelters and tenement buildings. Ramsey also took homeless mothers to town hall and committee meetings, making sure that they interacted with donors and chairmen. “I wanted [the committee people] to see the homeless as people.” She also wanted the women to advocate for themselves, so she purchased a video-camera and recorded the women’s conversations; after the meetings, she showed the women the tapes, encouraging them to hear the power in their voices.
Now, after several of the non-profits she previously worked with have fallen under, Teri Ramsey continues to run By My Side, a non-profit she founded nearly twenty years ago to help homeless families in need. These days, By My Side’s largest project is the Neighboring Parenting Program (NPP), an organization that Ramsey took under her wing when it lost its funding. The original goal of NPP was to help prevent child abuse by teaching parents about appropriate behaviors that accompany child development. A Head Start-certified parent educator, Teri Ramsey runs NPP out of the cheerfully decorated basement of the Summerfield Church in Fishtown. Three times a week, caregivers and their children meet for ninety minutes of free play and structured activity time. For $5 a playgroup, Teri and her team of parent educators review age-appropriate developmental activities. “The Parenting Program is about connecting people and creating support networks,” Ramsey says. “We need to be aware that we are not in this alone.”
In January, Ramsey and other community organizers gathered at City Hall to protest the closing of the Fishtown branch of the Free Library; soon afterwards, they and others met with Mayor Nutter to discuss alternatives to the closures. The easiest way for people to support their libraries, Ramsey says, is to check out a book. “A lot of this stuff is based on numbers.” Library supporters can also write a letter to the Mayor, or attend the City Council meeting at 9:30 AM on February 26. Protestors will gather with signs outside of City Hall at 9 AM.
Ramsey agrees that many ignore opportunities for community service because they don’t believe their individual efforts will help. “Don’t over-think it!” she emphasizes. “Hold onto your strength—whatever it is. Check in on a neighbor. Pick up the phone. Make some soup for somebody who’s had a rough week. Just concentrate on real simple stuff that will make a difference.” As for her own continued efforts, Ramsey says she looks forward to what’s next. “I feel like I’m in a working partnership. I see it in the faces of the families I work with. All of these efforts mean something.”
Image Credit: Flickr user Calc-tufa