Article by Jenna Clark
Dalynn Kuster can tell hundreds of stories that would break your heart. As a longtime activist working on issues related to poverty, homelessness, fair housing, and substance abuse, she has seen first-hand the effects that Idaho’s policy decisions have had on families and communities. It’s a position that’s made her uniquely qualified to speak to possibilities for improving the quality of life in Idaho.
The list of organizations and groups that Dalynn has been involved with over the last twenty years is quite extensive. As a Boise State student, she was the first recipient of the Larry Selland Humanitarian Award. In the late 1990s, she and Dana Hardy co-founded Idaho Sisters In Solidarity, the first Idaho organization to form solely in response to the welfare reform legislation during the Clinton administration. She also served for over 10 years on the Board of Directors at the Idaho Women’s Network, where she co-chaired their legislative committee, and testified at the Statehouse on dozens of bills pertaining to a variety of issues affecting women and families. She helped to provide feedback on the 2004 Status of Women in Idaho report, which analyzed the state’s progress in securing equality and opportunity for women. In addition, she helped to found an annual Garden City event called Mama Jam, a free festival celebrating mothers and their children. She was instrumental in securing Boise’s participation in the National Homeless Person’s Memorial Vigil, a yearly event each December.
Dalynn also serves on the planning committee of Mayor Bieter’s 10-year plan to reduce and prevent chronic homelessness, the advisory committee of the CATCH (Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless) program, the Community Detox Coalition and the Corpus Christi board of directors. Currently, she not only works as the Multi-Programs Manager for El-Ada Community Action Partnership, but serves on both the Family Studies Program Advisory Board and the Service Learning Advisory Board at
Boise State University.
Dalynn has faced numerous obstacles in her life. For example, at various times, she has been homeless, had to live on public assistance, and worked as a single mom. Such hardships have helped to shape her career choices. As an advocate for people who need help and who live on public assistance-just as she once did-Dalynn can clearly relate to the experiences and the struggles of others as she learns about them through her job.
“It’s really difficult for people living in poverty, or who might be homeless, to be their own advocates,” she explains. “When you are worried about how to feed your kids, or where you are going to sleep, you seldom have the luxury of time to go to the legislature to discuss policy issues. So it’s important that organizations and individuals who have an interest in economic justice are willing to work together at all levels, whether that means service providers, grassroots consumer groups, or organizations that deal solely with lobbying and education. ”
Despite the many obstacles, Dalynn was able to eventually work toward a better future. In 1992, she enrolled as a student at Boise State University. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1999. However, she is quick to qualify this achievement. She says, “That didn’t happen in a vacuum, though. Part of my ability to get that education, to get a job that would support me and my family and help us to gain a stable life, relied on assistance programs that are no longer available since ‘welfare reform’ went through. There’s been a big shift in perspective away from investing in supports for low-income women…it’s almost become an ‘Us-versus-them’ mentality. And it’s troubling, because it’s really changed the landscape in terms of women being able to access training, education, and jobs that pay a living wage. Without that, it’s impossible to move out of poverty long-term.
“Families work full-time, and yet are still unable to make ends meet. I’m reminded of what my social work mentor, Dan Huff, used to say: that we’re all so busy pulling the bodies out of the river, no one’s able to go and deal with what’s going on upstream.” She goes on to add that welfare reform, intended to decrease perceived dependence on the state, has actually translated into an awkward and cumbersome system that wastes the resources designed to move families out of poverty. “At what point are we going to start investing in people and really ending poverty?” she asks.
What keeps Dalynn grounded in the face of an often-overwhelming career is her dedicated circle of family and friends. “I’m lucky to be surrounded by awesome women in my life; they help me process the issues and they inspire me with their ideas. Ideas developed in a community of women are the things that I get to do now.” Dalynn’s friends call her “tireless” and “unbelievably perceptive” in her efforts to end poverty in Idaho. She is, truly, an inspiration and another Idaho Woman Making History.