When the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty holds its 10th annual Fighting Poverty with Faith Vigil at the State House next week (Wed., Jan. 3, 3pm), it will be among the first public event for the group’s new director and lead organizer, Victoria Strang.
Strang, who started in October, grew up in Massachusetts and more recently lived in Connecticut. She’s worked for The Humane Society of the United States and comes to Rhode Island armed with a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied the intersection between social justice and faith. She’s currently studying to become an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
In a Q&A with RI Future, Strang tells us a little bit about who she is, how she came to care about social justice and faith, her early thoughts on Rhode Island, and what the Interfaith Coalition will be working on this year – ending rental discrimination and expanding the Child Care Assistance Program.
What is the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty and how does it help reduce poverty?
The RI Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty was formed in 2008 to serve as a faith-based voice on systemic issues that underlie poverty. We are a coalition of diverse religious communities (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and others) and community partners coming together to fight poverty. In our unique faiths we each find the common call to work for social justice – and the strength to sustain us on that journey. As people of faith, we believe that each and every Rhode Islander deserves these fundamentals: affordable housing; nutritious food; accessible healthcare; equitable education; and work with decent wages. We connect, educate, empower, organize and mobilize communities of faith to change perceptions about poverty at a local level, build deeper connections across lines of difference, take strategic action, and shift state policy.
If the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition was to make a New Year’s resolution for 2018, what would it be?
The Coalition would love to see policy changes that would improve the lives of Rhode Islanders. One of the big things we are focusing on this year is ending source of income discrimination for housing. Right now a renter can be rejected by a landlord if they are paying through the Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8). This program pays the difference between what program participants can afford to pay (30% of their income) and the cost of housing. About 9,300 Rhode Island households receive rental assistance through this program, many of whom waited years to receive that assistance. Landlords’ refusal to accept tenants using these vouchers is one of the primary reasons participating families give for why they need more time to find an apartment, or are unable to find housing at all, forcing them to turn back their voucher. It is very common to see apartment listings on Craigslist, that state “No Section 8.” In 2015, half of all renters in Rhode Island were housing cost burdened (paying more than 30% of their income on housing). Many families struggle to find housing they can afford in safe, stable neighborhoods. 14 states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine, have enacted laws prohibiting discrimination based on source of income and we hope that in 2018 Rhode Island will be added to the list.
Additionally we hope that more RI families can get quality education for their children. By expanding the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) to allow families at 200% of the federal poverty level to enter the program more of our children will be able to access education that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
How did you become involved with the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty?
After finishing my Master of Divinity degree in May I was looking for a position where I could combine my passion for social justice with my experience in faith-based community organizing. When I read about the opening at the RI Interfaith Coalition I knew it would be a perfect fit!
Are you new to Rhode Island? If so, give me your initial impressions?
I moved to Providence in September to take on my position at the Coalition. Having grown up in Massachusetts and spent the last three years in Connecticut I assumed that Rhode Island would be similar to other New England States however; I am continually surprised at how unique this little state is! One of my favorite things about Rhode Island is the strong sense of community. This is wonderful for me not only as a new resident but as someone who works in community organizing. Almost everywhere I go I see a familiar face. People have been extremely welcoming and eager to recommend their favorite restaurants and things to do.
How did you first become interested in working on poverty issues? And how did you first become involved in studying religion? Did one drive the other? Which came first for you?
My passion for religious studies and social justice came about towards the end of high school and matured during my time in undergraduate school. I found myself drawn to the study of religion because I was (and still am) fascinated with the way religion impacts culture, society, and politics. Whether or not someone identifies as religious almost everyone has been impacted by religion in some way and has an opinion about it. During this time I also became interested in social justice and advocacy work. Like many college students I recognized severe injustice in the world and wanted to figure out a way I could change the world for the better. While I wasn’t sure exactly how these two areas of my life would intersect I was fortunate enough to become involved in the environmental and food movements which have a long and diverse history advocacy from religious leaders and theologians. My work in this field took me across the country allowing me to help faith leaders and their communities advocate for policy changes. It was through this that I began to see the power religious communities have in our political system. As an advocate, I have come to see poverty as an incredibly unique issue in its ability to unify people across political and socio-cultural sectors. While many people, including myself, feel passionately about specific issues (whether they be environmental, health, immigration, etc.) we can often forget how closely they intersect. Poverty is a multifaceted concept which can refer to ones economic, social, and political standing. Although it is a broad term, it is actually extremely powerful as it has the ability to link diverse advocates and movements that are often siloed. This unifying factor as well as the billions of people that are affected by poverty and the dire need for change is really what has drawn me to this field. I feel extremely fortunate that I have been able to find a way to combine two areas that I am passionate about.
Are you religious? If so, is there a specific denomination you subscribe to?
I grew up in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and just entered the ordination process.
At Yale, you focused your studies on “the intersection of faith and social justice.” Can you tell me more about this?
Faith traditions are extremely important when we look at social justice as almost every religion provides an established set of values that creates a moral framework and influences the daily interactions of their practitioners. Many religious texts provide commentary on important justice issues such as slavery, torture, war, human rights, and the environment. My studies involved not only looking at what these teachings are but how they can be put in practice today. At the same time I examined the role of faith communities and how they could be sources for change not only in advocating for improved policy but provide direct services to those in need. As one of the last forms of organized community in the United States religious groups are increasingly important when trying to mobilize groups of people around a shared moral cause. My studies helped me not only to recognize this but to find ways to unite both secular and religious organizations to work for a better world.
What do you like to do when you aren’t studying religion or working to reduce poverty?
I have really been enjoying exploring Rhode Island. I am fortunate to live in a very walkable neighborhood and spend a lot of time on weekends walking around Providence, trying new restaurants and looking at all the wonderful historic buildings. I’m looking forward to warmer weather and visiting some of the famous beaches!
What are you looking forward to in 2018?
Getting settled into Rhode Island and working with passionate people across the state to make sustainable and effective change!