Devon pictured at Jack London Square in Oakland
“Systems have been influenced by false narratives that poverty is a result of individual or moral failure and that people experiencing poverty are fundamentally flawed. EPIC is changing that narrative. It’s not the people. Poverty is driven by policy choices that have set people up to fail.”Devon Gray
We had the opportunity to sit down with Devon Gray, President of End Poverty in California (EPIC), an organization that elevates the voices of people experiencing poverty by creating and implementing bold policies rooted in their needs. Learn more about Devon and EPIC’s work to build people power and center community perspectives below.
Devon Gray was born and raised in a town called Placentia in North Orange County, California. “Growing up in a place with such extreme inequality really shaped my perspective on poverty and economic mobility throughout California. People think about Disneyland and beaches and reality TV when they hear about Orange County, and that’s definitely part of the story, but it’s an incomplete story. Orange County has the second highest poverty rate of any region in the state, behind LA County,” says Devon.
In Orange County, Devon grew up seeing lush, gated communities just blocks away from largely immigrant, low-income housing. He attended public schools with students primarily hovering around the poverty line.
“With the low-income kids that I went to school with, no matter their brilliance or their hard work or their ingenuity, the circumstances of the neighborhoods that they grew up in put a ceiling on their potential. For the kids who grew up really privileged, no matter how many mistakes they made or the trouble that they got into, they had a floor on how far they could fall down,” he says.
A first generation college student, Devon later attended Stanford Law School. He found himself dismayed that even after obtaining a high-quality education, he did not feel he could get ahead financially.
“I don’t think you can ever convince someone that the economy is strong if they can’t buy a house in the neighborhood where they grew up in, even if they make more money than their parents ever did. That’s downward mobility,” he says. “People are feeling that in California and that’s why they are leaving. It’s not the rich people who are leaving, but the middle and low income communities.”
Devon’s drive to combat economic inequality led him to take on roles as a director with Evergreen Strategy Group and as a Special Advisor to Governor Newsom’s Chief of Staff. Eventually, his work and involvement led him to connect with End Poverty in California (EPIC)’s founder Michael Tubbs, who offered Devon an opportunity to lead the organization’s work to connect policy makers to people currently experiencing poverty.
As the President of EPIC, Devon aligns the organization’s priorities across issue areas to make a lasting impact for Californians. EPIC organizers and staff go around California learning about low-income communities and communities of color in order to uplift their voices and perspectives in the halls of power in Sacramento, where policy decisions for Californians are decided.
“We are constantly on the ground talking to people living in poverty to ensure the policies we’re advocating for are led by them and informed by their lived experiences. We ask simple questions like: ‘What does the government get wrong about poverty?’ And we take those learnings and incorporate that into our policy advocacy and into our storytelling work,” shares Devon.
Devon encourages those looking to build economic opportunities to go into their communities, hold listening sessions, and learn from people who have lived experiences. “We can’t be making assumptions that we know what’s best for other people. We have to make sure that the folks we’re actually trying to serve are in the driver’s seat moving forward,” he says.
EPIC is currently working with legislators in both the California State Assembly and Senate to put together a package of legislation focused on ending poverty in the state that will cover everything from access to benefits, to housing rights, to criminal justice reform and capital for small business owners.
“Systems have been influenced by false narratives that poverty is a result of individual or moral failure and that people experiencing poverty are fundamentally flawed. EPIC is changing that narrative. It’s not the people. Poverty is driven by policy choices that have set people up to fail,” says Devon.
Devon believes that people have the power to eradicate poverty through systems change. “For all of us who engage in economic justice work, whether we’re in policy or advocacy or philanthropy, it’s crucial that we internalize the belief that ending poverty is not only vital, but that it’s possible. We must disavow the narrative that poverty is a natural phenomenon of capitalism. With all the political capital, wealth, innovation and brilliance we have in California, it’s unacceptable that we haven’t done more to end poverty,” says Devon.
To stay updated on EPIC, follow them on X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram @endpovertyca or visit their website at endpovertyinca.org.