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A Conversation with Dan Jurman

July 15, 2020 04:00 PM

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​Dan Jurman had just moved to a new state for a new job when a new pastor in a new church said something that resonated.

"The theme of the sermon was: If you want people to know who you are, you have to show them your wounds," Jurman said.

Having moved to Tampa in 2012 to lead an organization working to eliminate poverty in one of Florida's poorest neighborhoods, Jurman had been struggling with how to connect with colleagues and community members in his adopted town. The pastor's message settled the internal debate.

On the day he was introduced as the organization's new leader, before an audience of hundreds, Jurman told his story publicly for the first time.

He talked about being the mixed-race son of a young white mother and the racism he experienced from members of his own family. He talked about the struggles of poverty and the life-saving -- but stigmatized -- public-assistance programs that put food on his family's table. He talked about the time he dropped out of college, despite having a full scholarship, because he felt guilty that his mother and younger sisters were still living in a slumlord's apartment.

When he was done speaking, a young man approached him. He was also attending college on a full scholarship and struggling to cope with the fact that his family was still living in poverty. Jurman's story had made him feel less alone. 

"After that, I never stopped telling my story publicly," Jurman said.

Today, Jurman is the executive director of Pennsylvania's Office of Advocacy and Reform (OAR), an office Governor Tom Wolf created in 2019 to benefit and protect vulnerable populations through policy changes and accountability efforts. It's a high-profile role that's put Jurman on the front lines of the Wolf Administration's efforts to combat economic and social injustice.

Before OAR, Jurman led several organizations working to eliminate poverty in local communities, and he earned multiple degrees along the way. Soon, he'll have a doctorate.

But before he became a first-in-the-family college graduate and a successful pioneer of ambitious anti-poverty initiatives in Lancaster, Jurman was a mixed-race baby born to a 16-year-old mother and into a world that can be ruthlessly judgmental about both of those circumstances.

In the early 1980s, when Jurman was a 14-year-old boy, he was responsible for buying the family's groceries while his mother worked or looked for work. He remembers how it felt when he, with his two younger sisters in tow, would hand food stamps to a cashier.

"The judgment, you could see it in people's faces. You could hear the sighs," he said. "The stigma's always been there."

Jurman recalls similar experiences at the doctor's office, when his mother used her Medicaid card. 

With his mother and two sisters, Jurman survived a decade of domestic violence at the hands of a stepfather, six months of homelessness and years of poverty. Though it didn't last long, there was a point in time that the family depended almost entirely on public-assistance programs to afford food, access healthcare and heat their home in the winter.

"While we were receiving those programs, they made all the difference in making sure that we didn't become homeless again, in making sure that we got three meals a day and could focus in school," Jurman said.

Years later, after college, Jurman embarked on a career of serving vulnerable populations, including individuals with intellectual disabilities and families living in poverty.

"And I still felt that my past was a mark of shame, and I didn't talk about it. I didn't talk about experiencing poverty," he said.

But even before he began sharing his story, Jurman was using his experiences to inform his work. Those experiences affect how he sees people, he said.

For example, Jurman said, he remembers the burden on his mother and their family created by a social-services system operating in siloes. Interactions were largely transactional, and there was little communication and information-sharing among organizations. 

"Time is something we steal from families living in poverty," he said.

That's one of the reasons he led an effort in Lancaster County five years ago to get over 50 social service providers on the same data system with a universal intake process.  People seeking services only have to fill out forms and tell their story once, and then that form follows them from one provider to another, and even tells them what other services they qualify for without them needing to sit in another waiting room.  That project led to him working with Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller and a broad range of partners to build a similar system statewide.

In his roles, he's done little things like designating parking spaces at the front of the lot for families seeking services – because he knows first-hand the burden on single mothers to seek help, often with several kids in tow.

He's also done big things, like co-create a first-of-its-kind plan to cut Lancaster County's poverty rate in half over a 15-year time period. 

Jurman said he's built a career around improving a system that's supposed to be helping people, but too often falls short. A holistic system – the kind he wants to see -- centers the dreams and desires of the person seeking help, and empowers them to achieve their goals and reach for a better life, he said.

Since he told his story publicly that first time in Florida, Jurman hasn't stopped talking about it.

"I stopped looking on it as pain and started looking on it as something that I survived," he said.

When he's speaking to youth, particularly those experiencing hardships reminiscent of his own childhood, Jurman tries to deliver a message of empowerment.

"I think, for those kids and their parents who are struggling, I try to get across to them that your circumstances don't define who you are. They don't define your potential, who you could be," he said. "That's up to you."

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