As told to Yolanda Wikiel.
The 4-1-1 on Erika:
- Born: Kirkwood, Missouri. But I grew up in Detroit, so that's usually what I say.
- Current hometown: Las Vegas, Nevada
- Astrological sign: I am a Capricorn through and through.
- Favorite movie: The Color Purple
- Dream job when you were younger: A broadcast journalist
- Current career path: As executive director for Make It Work Nevada and Make It Work Nevada Education Fund, I advocate for economic, racial, and reproductive justice issues as well as policy initiatives that support and uplift working families, specifically women and women of color.
I was 19 when I had my first child. I was married, and had a job as a waitress, yet I was still basically living below the poverty line. Food stamps, WIC, and Medicaid helped me get through, but what those programs couldnt do was help me find affordable, quality daycare for my daughter while I went to work. Not much has changed in the state of Nevada 19 years later. Today, the average cost for childcare is more than the cost of a years tuition at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Think about it: Las Vegas is a 24-hour town, hosting millions of tourists a year, so a lot of its residents are in the hospitality industry. Their schedules are not nine to five. The city does not provide enough round-the-clock daycares, much less ones that don't charge a premium for parents who work the swing or night shiftsand those parents certainly arent getting paid a premium to work those hours. But its not just finding childcare you can afford; its also about feeling comfortable leaving your child with someone you trust.
Folks who are on any type of assistance like I was are usually the first ones hit with governmental cuts. Even at 19, I considered myself smart, but there was no one to explain to me or give me the material to find out just how much voting matters and how poverty is a cycle that you can get stuck in for a long time because you're trying to make ends meet.
I was lucky, though, because I was able to get a job as a freelance reporter at the only African American newspaper in Nevada. I interviewed a lot of elected officials and everyday people, so it gave me real insight into what Nevada was about and how folks felt about living here. When the newspaper closed down, I had to start over. But I had this newly acquired love of politics and I felt that there must be a way I could do this type of work full time. I ended up at the Las Vegas Urban League, which provides social service for low-income and minority residents. We were helping them with short-term issues but not long-term solutions.
So when I joined on as state director at Make It Work Nevada, a nonprofit campaign advocating for social justice issues and working families, it was a dream come true. I still get to hear peoples stories, like back in my journalism days, but then be able to point individuals in the right direction and train them on how they can advocate for themselves. The organizations main focus is trying to register people to get out and vote. We're educating folks on what it all meanshow does the Senate affect your life? How does Congress affect your life? Why is it important to stay engaged, to go to city council meetings and lobby and write letters to hold our government accountable?
Make It Work is also working on a change that's close to my heart: We are pushing for policies so families wont have to pay more than seven percent of their income on childcare. We don't want people to feel like they have to choose between work or their families. Its like, do I stay home with my sick kid and lose a days wages or do I send my daughter to school or daycare with a stomach virus because I can't take any time off? We believe at least seven paid sick days a year for individuals would help promote economic stability. Then there are people who are caring for an ill mother, father, or brother, or even who just had a baby. They should be entitled to paid family leave without having to worry about losing their jobs. Were campaigning for 16 weeks of job-protected time for all Nevadans.
I think its important to get folks involved, even if its through retweeting or having what we call kitchen table conversations. If we dont talk, people will think that their childcare struggles are unique, when really all of us are having troubles making it work in some way. People can get involved with our organization by telling their stories and it helps spread the message for us to say, Barbara had X, Y, and Z happen to her. She's a real person and this really matters. You can also volunteer and donate to other great nonprofit organizations who are fighting for childcare reform, like the Center for American Progress, Child Care Works, and Every Child Matters.
For those who want to do more, we train our volunteers to do grassroots lobbying and talk to our elected officials, senators, and congressmen. Im so incredibly inspired by our Make It Work Nevada volunteers. They possess a hope and a brilliance that so many others in our country have overlookedbecause theyre poor, because theyre single mothers, because they're cocktail waitresses. No ones thinking cocktail waitresses are going to go up and lobby a senator. But they do. And they're effing great at it. Experiencing that firsthand and then seeing their sense of accomplishment is everything.
We just keep applying pressure, and we keep letting the country know that these issues are real, and they are right in front of us. My family matters as much as your family. And my version of the American dream is as important as your version of the American dream, whatever that may look like. I may not see all the progress that I'm working for right now. But hopefully when my kids are 38, they wont have the same struggles I have at this age. Then itll all be worth it.