Sense of Mission Drives Plan for African American Elders 

LaShawnDa Pittman
LaShawnDa Pittman
Matt Howze
Matt Howze

Assistant Professor LaShawnDa Pittman wasn’t expecting much of a response to her in class and email request seeking student volunteers to help develop a report for the Mayors Council on African American Elders (MCAAE). To her surprise, seven replied and said yes. In doing so, they gained insights into city policy planning and the plight of underserved African American elders, and made a big contribution to completing the report, now in review by Mayor Ed Murray’s staff. “All the council members are busy professionals with full-time jobs and we couldn’t have completed the report on time without the students’ help,” Pittman says.

Pittman was appointed to the 12-member council not long after she joined the AES faculty in fall 2013. The council serves as an intermediary between the African American community and city government, advising on policies, programs, and services that can improve the lives of older African Americans.

A primary goal of the report and its recommendations is to change the face of homelessness in Seattle. African Americans age 50 and older account for 35 percent of Seattle’s homeless, although they account for just seven percent of the city’s population. Another goal is to better serve frail and socially isolated homebound elders. The report title aptly captures the mission — Advocating for Change: The Deepening Crisis of Seattle’s Extreme Risk African American Elders.

“This is my life’s work, and I want to help keep a spotlight on their needs,” Pittman says. It’s also a mission at the core of her research as an urban poverty ethnographer. She especially focuses on the coping experiences of socially marginalized women, including low-income black grandmothers caring for their grandchildren under harsh conditions. Pittman earned her doctorate at Northwestern and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a second as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at her undergraduate alma mater, Georgia State University.

Last summer four of Pittman’s students assisted with research and development of proposals, attended meetings with MCAAE and Seattle City Council members and a fall briefing with Mayor Murray’s aides. At a March 14th working retreat, five students brought their laptops and helped pull the final data together. They created a budget for a proposed 24-hour senior shelter, formatted charts and graphs, and edited the report. “They did in a few hours what it would have taken days for the rest of us to do,” Pittman says, and we had great discussions about the issues.”

Matt Howze, a senior sociology major, and Mariama Suwaneh, a sophomore majoring in AES and political science, volunteered both last summer and at the retreat. Howze found the sense of purpose he had been missing since completing four years of military service. “Getting involved was a no brainer because Dr. Pittman was one of the best teachers I had at UW, and I was looking for a way to be productive and use what I had been learning in her African American studies course,” Howze says. “It was a morale boost too, knowing that others valued what I could bring to the team.” After he graduates next winter, he will explore career options where he can be of service, including training to become a physician’s assistant.

“It was an awesome experience, learning from the knowledge and wisdom of the council members,” Suwaneh says. “It also was a good way to get my foot in the door and learn about how policy is made and how to write a proposal.” She plans to earn a master’s in public policy and then aim for leadership roles — like becoming the state’s diversity manager or mayor of Seattle.

Howze, Suwaneh, and the other student volunteers proved that collaborating across generations is a great way to further a community mission and personal goals too.

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