Newsmakers/Jon Liss – Profiling an activist


Jon Liss, executive director of Tenants and Workers United, gets paid now. But prior to 1990 his organization passed a hat to raise money for photo copies, according to the non-profits co-founder.

The association, which grew out of a 1986 fight to save low-income housing in the immigrant-rich Arlandria neighborhood where its office still resides, has since migrated to sectors of society beyond where people sleep and work.

We would argue that work is the eight hours that you punch the card, Liss says. But people are working 24-seven, day in and day out. One of the benefits if youre getting low wages should be to provide services that lift every one up.

An animated but serious Liss refers to TWUs stance on education, specifically for Northern Virginia minorities whom he hopes will become more cohesive in affecting systemic change in that realm. Liss says that the demographic dominance of the school systems black and Hispanic populations should positively reflect their performance and graduation levels, which are lower than whites, according to TWU literature that sourced the Virginia Department of Education.

We really are trying to build on what we would argue is a new majority in Northern Virginia politically, Liss says.

TWU is working on a project that Liss says lobbies for more personalized direction from counselors to students on an individualized level. Ideally, Liss wants each student in the school system to have a customized track en route to a better life after graduation. 

We think theres enough resources here, and even think theres enough community good will, that if its focused properly we can actually make that happen, Liss says. We meet with parents regularly, do leadership development training, [explain] where to go to get things done collective power.

Liss recounts a situation when TWU facilitated communication between a non-English-speaking family and a school: Weve seen a student come in with a 10-day suspension, he says. The parent comes here, the parent gets on it and it becomes a 2-day suspension; and the kids not losing out in his or her education.
Parents and students need to step up. Everybodys got to step up.

Liss and TWU have made healthcare for the working poor a priority as well. He speaks of the Arlandria Health Center with a small sense of satisfaction, happy it exists at all, but unhappy with the three-month wait to get a check-up especially in Arlandria, where Liss says 78 percent of residents work full time without health insurance.

Its generally a good clinic and were glad its there, however it needs more funding, Liss says. Germs dont respect gated communities, they permeate throughout. Liss adds that he wants to see the wait time go from three months to three days, so that hospital emergency rooms dont remain a primary care solution for low-income individuals.

Alexandria, from the mayor on down, has been pretty clear about being a welcoming community for all, Liss says. But in society there are hidden injuries of class.