Renee Koubiadis grew up poor and on welfare for most of her childhood in Camden County, but she didn’t begin to understand how her upbringing could make her a powerful advocate until at least a decade later.
That’s when she started working professionally to fight poverty and homelessness, eventually cofounding Garden State Leaders—a free advocacy and leadership-training program for New Jerseyans who have experienced homelessness and poverty. The mission, according to the organization, is to help participants “effectively tell their stories and further their advocacy goals.”
“These folks are the true experts by virtue of their lived experience,” says Koubiadis. “They intimately know the issues and the solutions that would help them most.”
The program—a partnership between nonprofits New Jersey Citizen Action, where Koubiadis works as the anti-poverty program director, and the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness—runs sessions over the course of 4-6 months that focus on public speaking, media training and policy. Participants connect with activists, elected officials and others who are or have been in their shoes. Nearly 100 New Jerseyans have been part of the program since its start in 2015.
Ultimately, the objective is for Leaders to impact their communities and legislation, like when Brian Kulas’s testimony preceded New Jersey’s minimum-wage increase in 2019.
“The goal of the program has always been to bring people with lived experience to the decision-making table,” says Kate Leahy, a Garden State Leaders cofounder and director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. “Legislators were coming to us when we were advocating for certain issues, saying, ‘We need people who have lived through these experiences here with us, helping us make these policies and shaping what’s happening in the state.’ So that’s where the idea for the program came from.”
Participants have gone on to volunteer, run for office, and advocate in Trenton and D.C. Armed with public-speaking skills, members have secured new jobs and promotions. All the while, they use their own experiences to change perceptions and influence a state with 8,097 homeless people as of January 2021. Of those people, 1,493 were identified as chronically homeless.
“We as a society tend to blame people for their situations rather than recognizing the structural issues that create barriers and lack of opportunity for many, especially people of color,” says Koubiadis. “We don’t give people who are struggling economically the credit they deserve for surviving…and for all of the skills and talents they already have to be able to do that.”
For more information, or to apply for the Garden State Leaders program, visit njceh.org/gsl. Donations can be made through njceh.org. Visit njcitizenaction.org/category/careers or email [email protected] for volunteer opportunities.