Stockton Tells the Story

07. 15. 2019

Inside the SEED Storytelling Cohort

Between 2011 and 2013, Tomas Vargas Jr. attended 13 funerals in his hometown of Stockton, California. The names of the family and friends Tomas lost to some of the deadliest years in Stockton’s recent history are etched across his arm — Marcus, John, Ricky, Humphrey.

Next to the memorials on Tomas’s arms is a tattoo that reads “Rendon Ave,” an homage to the mistakes he made as a teenager and vows not to repeat. Tomas was sent to live with his grandmother when he was 12, growing up in a public housing development in South Stockton.

Today, Tomas works as a supervisor at a logistics company. He lives in North Stockton with his two kids and fiancee, who is battling a serious illness. He is paying his little sister’s college tuition, and has his own plans to go back to school. Most days, you can find him donning a hat embroidered with a short and simple motto: “solid individual.” Tomas’s story is one of tenacity through trauma, of remaining rooted and resilient — it’s the story of Stockton.

In February 2019, Tomas became one of 125 randomly selected Stocktonians receiving a guaranteed income of $500 a month. This income has already reduced his stress and has allowed him more family time. “I get to read bedtime stories now, and to find out what the kids did at school. The stuff that’s really important,” says Tomas.

Over the past four months, this guaranteed income has changed Tomas’s life in ways that he is eager to share with the world. Today, we at the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) are excited to launch this blog — a home for stories like Tomas’s to live.

Why Storytelling

From the moment we launched SEED, we knew that sharing the lived experiences of recipients would play an important role. In fact, Mayor Tubbs’s own story of returning home to Stockton to become the city’s first African American mayor at such a young age is part of why the Economic Security Project chose to invest in Stockton.

We’re prioritizing storytelling because data alone doesn’t change hearts and minds; nor does it disrupt deep-seated social narratives about deservedness and unconditional cash support. We know this, in large part, because the numbers are already there — internationally, unconditional cash transfers are one of the most effective anti-poverty measures. Domestically, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has lifted millions above the poverty line, and Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), the closest iteration of a guaranteed income in the U.S. today, has kept 2–3% of state’s population above the poverty line annually since 1990. Yet these numbers haven’t yet shifted public opinion. 34% of Americans still believe that anti-poverty government efforts have made things worse.

Data also doesn’t challenge the racialized and gendered biases we hold, and that our policy decisions have codified. The “welfare queen” trope continues to reign, despite the fact that African American women have always had the highest levels of labor market participation. Poverty continues to be attacked and dismissed as an issue that only affects people of color, despite nearly 1 in 10 white Americans and 4.2 million white children living below the federal poverty line.

So if the data exists, why don’t we believe it? Because statistics and numbers are impersonal — when we hear them, we think of “those folks” or “others.” We don’t see “us” or “me.”

That’s why storytelling is embedded in SEED. Stockton is a majority-minority city — we’re 40% Hispanic/Latinx, 37% white, 21% Asian, and 12% Black. We’re an all-American city and a microcosm of this country; we’re confident that our stories will be too.

With help from community partners, we have identified what it means to tell the story of SEED: give voice back. To that end, our storytelling strategy invites the people experiencing economic insecurity to share their own obstacles. During the project’s design phase, giving voice back meant partnering with San Joaquin Delta Community College to invite everyday Stocktonians to envision a world in which all basic needs are met. Now, with disbursements in their sixth month, we are working to ensure that SEED recipients themselves can articulate their own stories and experiences with the program. These recipients — who are sharing how an additional $500 has unleashed potential otherwise stifled and provided opportunity otherwise denied; who will be the face of SEED — comprise our storytelling cohort.

The Storytelling Cohort

Our storytelling cohort consists of 25 SEED recipients — one of whom is Tomas — who will share their experience with SEED publicly. Members of this cohort are still participating in our research and evaluation, but their data will be kept separate from the main sample of 100 recipients.

Recipients self-selected to be a part of this group. Our onboarding process entailed an in-person meeting with SEED staff to introduce them to the concept of storytelling. The conversation went like this –

Finally, I want to share with you a possible, additional opportunity. We want to work with recipients to help them tell their stories. This group will share their experiences with journalists, that could involve interviews with local print or tv reporters, you can choose what you’re more comfortable with, about how the guaranteed income is affecting your life. All reporters would be vetted by our team before we put them in touch with you, and you can opt out at any time. Are you open to being a part of the storytelling cohort that shares their stories with journalists?

Interested recipients were then asked about their lives — the challenges, triumphs and everything else in between. Some recipients who originally opted-in to storytelling later opted-out; other recipients did the opposite, reaching out after the first disbursement. One such text read as follows –

“I was wondering — I decided to tell how the money [has] helped me out. It really helped me out last month… I was sick for a whole week without pay.”

Because SEED’s mission is to produce powerful stories and data, our storytelling cohort was capped at 25. Storytelling could be an additional treatment effect, and a sample size of 100 was the minimum required to ensure that our academic research can yield significant results. To further preserve the integrity of our research, the only selection criteria imposed upon the storytelling cohort was that its overall demographics matched those of the treatment group.

Agency and consent are core SEED values — as such, recipients fully own how they share their stories. During our first meeting, SEED staff broke down common terminology (for example, off the record vs. on the record) and broadly educated the cohort on how media works and things to consider when saying yes or no to an interview. Throughout this process SEED has aimed to help recipients understand how and why they should share their stories; we do not tell recipients what to share. Storytellers chose if they would like to participate in our longitudinal projects, such as a long-form magazine article or documentary, or in one-time media hits, like this feature in the Atlantic, or this piece of local coverage. Recipients choose where to conduct the interview — in their homes, or at a SEED office; to use their real names or a pseudonym; to make other members of their family available for comment, or not. Recipients also choose which form of media they’re most comfortable with — some prefer print interviews, others prefer filmed. Recipients can also refuse storytelling altogether at any point during the demonstration. To summarize — SEED provides a platform; storytelling recipients choose how to leverage it.

Though we firmly believe that storytelling has an unparalleled power to shape and shift shared values, our team also recognizes its limitations. Namely, our opt-in approach creates a self-selection bias. Those who opted-in seem eager to shed a positive light on Stockton and disrupt stereotypes about how the poor spend their money. Those who declined storytelling did so for a variety of reasons — some recipients haven’t even disclosed the additional $500/month to their families; others are part of families with a mixed immigration status (at least one undocumented family member), and fear that media coverage increases the risk of deportation.

Finally, SEED is committed to maintaining the privacy and safety of our storytelling cohort. To that end, contact information for recipients will not be shared with any external media outlets and all inquiries will be coordinated through SEED staff.

Near and Far

As we consider the stories coming out of Stockton we must also consider the diverse audiences these stories will reach. SEED has found that local media coverage is key in keeping the citizens of Stockton educated and excited about the program, while national media coverage plays a role in elevating the city and the experiences of participants to a much broader audience. Both of these approaches have proven fruitful in not only changing the narrative around deservedness and a guaranteed income, but they have also had a positive effect on the people sharing their stories.

Last month, CBS interviewed Tomas to understand how a guaranteed income had impacted his life thus far, and the plans he had for the disbursement over the next 13 months. For Tomas, storytelling is an opportunity to prove that he’s more than a statistic. Judging from just the color of his skin, the neighborhood he grew up in, or the clothes he wears, Tomas feels the expectation “was that [he’d] be locked up, or on the streets,” that he’d be “someone who gave up and didn’t care.” Instead, he wants people to know that he’s a “provider and, more importantly, not just a dad, but a father.”

As disbursements continue, we’ll use this blog, as well as local and national media coverage, to continue highlighting stories like Tomas’s, and push people to see guaranteed income as not just a policy, but as something that makes a meaningful difference in the lives of real people.