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Thursday, 20 June 2019 02:58

An Inside Look at the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress

Written by Jason Bergman | The Observer
Attendees hold signs at the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress at Trinity University in Washington D.C. Attendees hold signs at the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress at Trinity University in Washington D.C. Jason Bergman

“We are here because there is a crisis in America,” proclaimed Reverend William Barber at the start of the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress at Trinity University in Washington D.C. on Monday. 

Over seven hours in a sweltering gymnasium, nine of the Democratic presidential candidates, the largest gathering of Democratic contenders yet, allowed members of the Poor People’s Campaign to hear directly about their plans for the poor and economically disadvantaged. The Poor People’s Campaign, a revitalized version of Dr. Martin Luther King’s campaign from the 1960s, planned the three day conference to put a focus on the estimated 140 million low-income individuals living in the country.

Attendees came from across the nation for three days of talks, trainings and plenaries that will culminate with a budget hearing in the House titled “Poverty in America: Economic Realities of Struggling Families” on Wednesday, June 19.

Each candidate was given 30 minutes to make their case to the packed room, and took questions from the audience, with moderator Joy Reid of MSNBC steering the conversation for the day. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the current front runner in the Democratic race, stressed his commitment to working together with members of Congress, regardless of party. Biden went on to state that he would bring back the Voting Rights Act if elected president and stressed that if nominated, he believes he could carry the southern states that would be crucial to winning the White House.

Representative Eric Swalwell got cheers when he said that he wouldn’t take his two-year old son to McDonald’s anymore until they increase pay for their workers. Senator Bernie Sanders re-affirmed his stance that incarcerated individuals should have the right to vote. And Senator Elizabeth Warren made sure to highlight her financial background by saying, “Tell me how you spend your money, I’ll tell you where your values are.” Warren then went on to discuss her plan for an increased tax on the wealthy that would help bring down inequality throughout the nation.

For many in the room, these issues are not just hypothetical, but ones they have encountered personally or in their communities. Pastor Michael Finch of Jeffersonville, Indiana believes that many of the candidates “don’t even realize how many people in this nation live below the poverty line.” His community is facing issues like a lack of affordable housing, and he hoped to bring the lessons from this week’s conference back home in order to start making changes on the local level.

We chatted with attendees about their thoughts on the candidates, the issues their communities are facing, and why they see a need for major economic and moral change throughout the 50 states.

Michael Finch (“Pastor Mick”) From Jeffersonville, Indiana

What brought you out to the Congress this year?
I’m on the Indiana Coordinating Committee. So I’m on the committee that helps manage the organizing in the state of Indiana.

Are there any specific candidates you’re looking forward to hearing from today?
I’m just glad to hear from all of them. I don’t have that particular candidate at the moment. I’m going to be working with and trying to encourage people to choose candidates who fit a moral agenda that fits our moral narrative of attacking poverty in our nation and doing this policy type of implementations that will reverse the course of that.

Are there any issues that you think are being ignored in this race?
Nothing I actually expected them to actually talk about, and frankly I won’t mention any names, but listening to them, it’s really interesting to see how much they struggle with trying to identify with people of poverty. I don’t think they even realize how many people in this nation live below the poverty level, even though they’re working. As the pastor in Crawford County, Indiana… Crawford County, Indiana is always rated in the top three of the poorest counties in Indiana. So we struggle with people not making a living wage. My church is deeply involved in the local food bank, and people think that people that come to the food bank are just people who won’t work and are just looking for free handouts and that’s not so. The majority, 75 percent of the people that come into our food bank have jobs. Some have two jobs, but they just don’t make enough to support their families. Food insecurity, health care and housing. That is our major issues. If there was a living wage in Crawford County, then that would encourage the investment for building affordable housing and there would be people there that could afford to buy it and purchase it and live in it or rent it. Our initial start is if we’re going to attack poverty, we have to attack the issue of living wage in this country.

What first attracted you to the People’s Movement?
I’m a child of the 1960s and so, I was in college when the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement was brewing all up, and they kind of got linked together. I was involved in those, in seeing those issues, in the ’60s. And then, for some reason, me personally, I left that movement after I got out of college, started a career, raised a family and we passed the civil rights law and we had passed the voting rights law. And all of a sudden in the last 10 years, it’s all come back boiling under the surface again. The disparity in income between the very wealthy and those who are working to sustain the wealth for the very wealthy has spread so far that the inequality and injustice that I deal with as a pastor and giving pastoral care, is not sustainable. We have to do, we have to take a moral step forward and end that injustice and inequality.

What are you looking to take away from this year’s Congress?
It was nice to hear the candidates and listen to their answers, but that wasn’t the main reason I came. The main reason I came here is because tomorrow we’re doing the educational classes on the community organizing and how we’re going to facilitate that in our states. So really we came here as a learning tool to take back to the state of Indiana some of the things that we learned, learn from this Congress. And then to be able to be introduced to the moral budgets that they’re going to induce to the congressional committee on Wednesday and take that back to our states and talk about it because, it isn’t just a matter of them from the top down hearing this information, and then we just think something will happen. We have to actually get voters involved on the local level to make it, to push it from the bottom, to make local officials want to be involved in it, to make local officials want to talk to their state officials and get that invite. And make the state officials talk to their congressional people. It all has to start at the bottom, because quite frankly, people don’t listen to people of poverty because [they believe] there’s something missing in their lives and it’s their own fault. That’s a false narrative that we have to change.

Cody Hunter From Seneca, South Carolina

What brought you out to the Congress this year?
I am excited about a movement that organizes a bunch of different issues rather than just kind of organizations working independently and not in conjunction with one another. So I am excited for the fusion of different interests that are actually gonna have this conglomeration that can work towards something productive.

Are there any specific candidates you’re looking forward to hearing from today?
I’m really excited about the educational events that are coming up tomorrow, particularly for things that I can take home. I’m interested to see Bernie Sanders speak, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bennet, because my family’s from Colorado and they all have nice things to say about him. And just to see the other candidates that don’t get that much exposure and see how much of their conversations today pull into the debates. It’s kind of a litmus test, I guess, for me to see how they speak to this crowd versus to the national audience.

Is there a singular issue that you’re hoping to hear about today?
I’m really in support of the, the “Breaking the Silos,” discussion that this campaign is working towards, because like they say, it’s not a single issue that’s going to fix America, it’s all of them. I mean, particularly my vested interests of course, in college debt and things like that because I’m so far in the hole with a humanities degree… I mean that’s where like my personal vested interest lies. But I think that the conglomeration of all of these different issues is a really important approach that needs to be taken.

Is there an issue that you feel is kind of being left out of the national debate?
When I listened to National Public Radio and things like that, I hear a lot of issues, regarding redlining, regarding gentrification, which is a word that I have not heard any of the candidates discuss, which is a huge issue for a lot of people in this country. Gentrification and renting and redlining, these kinds of issues are really important to me, and I don’t think they’re getting as much coverage.

What’s the biggest issue locally that you’re working on or that you wish got more attention?
I’m coming from Clemson University and one of the issues that I want to work on locally is like the “town-gown relations” because that’s kind of falling short. It used to be kind of a model town for that, and community interests are getting more and more pushed to the side for the kind of corporate interests of what is becoming university corporatism.

What are you looking to take away from this year’s Congress?
I’m excited because up until now, my local community has been like in Columbia and that’s a couple hours commute, but I’m finding out there’s more people that are in Greenville, which is closer and more connected to local issues that I can work with. I want to learn more skills, especially from the workshops and to see where the discourse is with activists that are currently working much more actively than I have.

Is there anything you’ve heard from any of the candidates that’s inspired you, changed your mind, brought you to their team?
It’s still too early. I’m still on the Elizabeth Warren [team]. She’s amazing, she has such great things to say. She’s got really solid policy work, good plans. I’m excited to see where that goes. I’m not seeing as much pandering as I thought I would, but the hairs on the back of my neck keep going up a couple of times, or it’s just like, oh, that feels “urky,” but yeah, let’s just say it hasn’t been as disappointing as I expected.

That’s OK. That’s a positive thing. For politics in 2019, let’s just take what we can get.
Exactly! I hate that it’s gotten there, but… (laughs).

Bernard Patterson From Charlotte, North Carolina

What brought you out to the Congress this year?
Just being interested in helping make a change, being an asset to the community and being an American citizen. I was just curious about just listening and hearing them. Having an open heart and an open ear.

Are there any specific candidates you’re looking forward to hearing from today?
Oh, I was, I was excited to see all of them. Anybody who has a passion to lead a whole nation or want to even help out, [or] has that much love in their heart. I love to hear anybody that wants to make a change for society as a whole and also try to do something for the whole world.

What first attracted you to the People’s Movement?
I was homeless, in a homeless shelter. They came by and allowed me to speak about the different things I was going through. I met them and realized you didn’t have to throw your towel in, you can continue to be someone instead of just giving up. I met them and it gave me a different view and it lightened my day. I don’t have to just give up. Maybe I can give it a try, I’m at my lowest now. This is only temporary, this will change one day. They gave me hope to realize that it can change and to continue to have hope. For a lot of people that are homeless, that’s the worst thing that can happen to a person in this world—to not have a home to go to. Not being able to take care of their family, that’s serious.

Have you heard any of the candidates talking about homelessness, either today or in the race generally?
They did address it when they addressed poverty. Each one addressed it when they spoke about poverty because homelessness is a form of poverty. I didn’t choose homelessness, homelessness chose me. There were different options I could have took, but I didn’t want to go down that road. I picked that route—instead of getting up and fighting.

What’s some of the work you’ve done locally with the Poor People’s Campaign?
I helped clean up Charlotte. Walked around the community and cleaned up garbage off the street. I helped an old lady move her house for free. Different small things you can do. I’ve given different items I’ve had to people that didn’t have much, clothes, shoes, to somebody that needed it more than me. I also offer words of happiness to different people and encouragement, to let them know it doesn’t have to be that bad. You don’t have to believe in God or something, but just believe in yourself. Self-empowerment is something that we all need to have these days.

What are you hoping to get out of these three days?
Hopefully, I can go back home with excitement and tell everybody to continue to be happy no matter what you go through. Just continue to believe in yourself and be an asset in your community. If you see somebody down, pick them up. Do the simple stuff, southern hospitality.

Brian Mallory From Cleveland, Ohio

How did you get involved the Poor People’s Movement?
I’m with Organize Ohio. I also work with Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. Needless to say, poor people’s issues are something I’m interested in professionally as well as privately.

Are there any specific candidates you’re looking forward to hearing from today?
I was excited to see Mr. [Andrew] Yang. I have heard him online and seen him on TV. He’s more impressive in person. He’s got a very elegant idea, it’s simple, everybody gets it. We know this will work.

What’s one issue that you’re not hearing addressed in the national debate? It seems like at this event the candidates are being forced to address rent, homelessness, etc.
Let me just tell you a little about my self. My father was an MD. My sister and my brother are ministers, they have a tremendous outreach in the Miami area. My mother was a pastor for many, many years. She’s the one that fueled my idea of social justice. Particularly issues around food, food security. I’ve come to this through a lifetime of being lead, pushed and prodded, and also through my own experience. I was briefly homeless myself. Until it happened to me, I did not understand how fragile the fabric of American society can be. Even someone who has work skills, [an] education, can still end up being part of the working poor. When that happened to me, it felt incumbent on me to spread the word and let everybody know that I’m not unique. It can happen to anybody, everybody. Those people are your people. They are us, we are them.

What are you hoping to get out of these three days?
To meet some like-minded people around the United States. I live in Ohio now, I’ve lived in Florida, Alabama, Georgia. I grew up in Maryland. I’ve traveled all over the 50 states and internationally. There is one thing I’ve learned in my lifetime: poor people all over the world have the same concerns and issues. Middle-class people, the same. Wealthy, the same. The biggest impediment is that we don’t recognize the common humanity. I’m here to up my quotient of understanding and compassion. To network, make some friends and get some ideas on how to work where I live. Everybody’s trying to do the best in the corner that they find themselves.

What’s one issue locally that you’re working on?
In the community where I reside, we have seen a 30 percent increase in family homelessness in the last two years. Talking to colleagues of mine in other localities, this is not uncommon. The largest growing group of homeless people are families. By extension, that means minor children. This is unacceptable to me as an America. It’s unacceptable to me morally, ethically. We can all recognize that that should not happen in our country and we should do a better job.

Jeanette Murdoch From Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

What brought you out to the Congress this year?
I wanna make sure people get affordable housing. I wanna make sure people get off the streets, they have Medicare and they have a safe shelter to stay in. So, I’m out here today to see what I can do to get things on the ball.

Are there any specific candidates you’re looking forward to hearing from today?
The only one I’m really excited about is Elizabeth [Warren] and [Bernie] Sanders, those are the only two. I’ve worked with Sanders before, and I know he works for us, with us, and what he says he’s going to do, he does. I know Elizabeth is a new candidate, but I know she is one person that will live up to what she says.

What’s the most important issue to you?
Homelessness. In Philly, there’s a lot of people living on the street, and I think because all the houses and stuff that they are building, they are not making it affordable for them to live. And the houses that we do have that are empty and vacant, they can fix those up for other people to live in. I’ve been homeless for 12 years and I got my voucher after 12 years. So I know what it was like to be on the streets and I know how it hurts not being able to take a shower, not being able to eat right… transportation and all that. So it’s not a joke to be homeless.

Link to original article from The Observer






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