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Ellen Bravo

Author and Activist

Academy Member Ellen Bravo is co-director of Family Values at Work (FV@W), a network of state coalitions that educate the public and policymakers about the importance of universal access to family and medical leave insurance. We recently spoke with Ellen Bravo about her priorities for 2019, and how FV@W mobilizes people to join the movement for paid family and medical leave.

The issue of caregiving is a mental, physical, and financial challenge for many. Given the tenuousness of many families’ economic security—with 44 percent of adults reporting they could not easily manage an unexpected $400 emergency expense—access to paid rather than unpaid leave is critically important. In the Academy’s Report to the New Leadership and the American People on Social Insurance and Inequality, caregiving is identified as one of the major areas where we can modernize protections for workers. For more information, check out the Academy’s brief on Paid Family and Medical Leave Programs: State Pathways and Design Options. The Academy’s study panel on paid leave, affordable child care, and long-term services and supports will release findings in early 2019.

Working to Change Local and National Policy

Since Ellen helped found FV@W in 2003, the organization has focused on the issue of paid family and medical leave and paid sick days, especially for low-wage families. “Our priority for this year is two-pronged,” Ellen explained. “We want to give support to coalitions in states considering legislation, such as Connecticut, which could move very quickly, and Colorado, among others. We are also helping people in the states support the introduction of the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (Family Act) in Congress, which is coming up soon. The state wins have paved the way and improved the model for a federal program.”  

Two thousand partnership organizations make up the coalition of groups working on the state level while at the same time building a national network. “The anchor groups mobilize their own members, often low wage workers or people of color,” Ellen said, “and they also build a broad coalition of diverse organizations, such as educators, health professionals, and groups who care about seniors, racial justice, or people with disabilities. Every one of our coalitions has business partners, especially small business owners who want to offer paid leave but can’t do so on their own. But if they had access to a social insurance program that could help workers draw wages during leave, then they could compete with large corporations.” Reaching policymakers is a critical part of the process.

Talking About It Matters

“The path to becoming an activist often begins with having someone just tell their story,” Ellen said. “We engage people on the ground who can share stories about the costs of not having paid leave, and the benefits to themselves, their families, their communities, and their employers of having a social insurance program in place. These are often people who think of the Federal government as a big bureaucracy and feel politicians don’t care about them. However, when they start to participate, they see that government is needed—to create a social insurance fund we all contribute to so we can have an affordable, sustainable, and meaningful program that helps us when we need to care for our loved ones or ourselves. And most importantly, they come to understand that they can help make it happen."

Some of the activities Ellen described for would-be advocates are: Meet with or write to local legislators, go to a hearing, contact the media, and networking. “A key part of becoming an activist,” Ellen said, “is reaching out to people they know. They can become an organizer without even realizing it, just by getting five people—at the nursing home or the child care center or the workplace—to also write a letter about the issue.” Detailed strategies can be found on the FV@W website (Time to Care: A Work Family Policy Toolkit).

Ellen says of watching people as they get involved: “The most heartening moment for me is watching people realize that something that was painful in their lives which they weren’t able to stop or change on their own, can be changed when they work with other people. And as a result, they now describe themselves as activists for the first time. Most people aren’t apathetic, they feel disenfranchised; they think because they don’t have money politicians won’t listen to them, their employer won’t listen to them, and even if their employer is a good person they don’t have the resources to pay for family leave.  So they feel stuck. This process gets them unstuck, so they can see it doesn’t have to be this way.” More individual stories on “Why I Became an Activist” can be found on the FV@W website.

The Difference Data Can Make

Ellen expressed appreciation for the many Members of the Academy who are studying the options for creating a family and medical leave insurance program. “We know there’s support across the political spectrum for paid family leave, in particular for a social insurance model,” Ellen said. “We won bi-partisan support in several states. There are, however, organized opponents who try to muddy the waters with misinformation about burdens on small businesses or on individual workers.  

“While we can advocate for paid leave as a sensible program, the National Academy of Social Insurance has the gravitas of experts who deeply understand social insurance and how it works. Without advocating for any particular program, the Academy is able to shed light on what it means to have a program that is sustainable, cost effective, and has worked in a number of states. That’s an enormously helpful voice that brings a sense of authority to this issue. The Academy helps open the curtain on why it is sensible to pool contributions and where paid leave already exists and how it works. We can say that, but it’s really powerful when it comes from a group of people who are steeped in research and data.”

Prior to her work at FV@W, Ellen Bravo served as national director of 9to5 for more than two decades.  She has served on several state and federal commissions, and is a leading commentator in the media. She received the Ford Foundation’s Visionary Award, the Francis Perkins “Intelligence and Courage” Award, a Families and Work Institute Work-Life Legacy Award, and a Trailblazer award from the Ms. Foundation. She is the author of Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the Nation, as well as a novel on date rape and politics, Again and Again.