Poverty Scholar Summer Residencies (1 of 4) – Dan Jones

Poverty Initiative Fellows Summer Residencies

As part of the work to raise up religious and community leaders dedicated to building a movement to end poverty, the Poverty Initiative developed the Fellows Program in 2010. This effort builds the leadership capacity, skills and community partnerships of emerging religious leaders interested in moving beyond charity toward social justice. The program involves Masters-level students in a year-long intensive program that provides training, space for theological reflection and practical community organizing experience. After graduating, our Fellows have been placed in leadership positions in denominational bodies, congregations, academia and non-profits.  These leaders are carrying out Union’s historic legacy as they seek to understand, and change the course of, growing poverty while responding to urgent community needs.

Seeking to simultaneously support the work of Poverty Scholar organizations and further develop the leadership skills of Poverty Initiative Fellows, this past summer we launched a program of Fellows Summer Residencies for three of our Fellows.

In a series of blog posts, we will share reflections from each of our Fellows on their residency program experience including: Daniel Jones (an NYU student who spent 8 weeks with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement–MST), Lenora Knowles (who spent 2 months with the United Workers in Baltimore, MD and Jennifer Wilder (who spent 2 months in Central America with the Christian Base Communities, on the Texas/Mexico border, and with the MST in Brazil). We will also post reflections from PI’s Crystal Hall on her work with Poverty Scholars partners in VT and the United Workers in Baltimore.



This Summer I had the opportunity to participate in an organizational exchange between the Poverty Scholars Program and the Brazilian Landless Workers movement (MST: Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra do Brasil). I got to spend 9 weeks on MST encampments (more on what that means later), in meetings, conferences, and days of action, and at movement leadership development programs and schools. I spent most of time in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco, and in the “Capital do Agreste,” Caruara, where the movement’s state secretariat is housed. I also got to accompany the Pernambuco delegation to Rio+20 Cupula dos Povos in Rio de Janeiro, and to spend some time at the movement-built and -operated Florestan Fernandez National School in Guararema, Sao Paulo. My task as a part of the exchange was to get a sense of what has enabled the MST to build the leadership, capacity, and power they currently wield, and to further my understanding of how we can develop a new and more powerful theory and practice of human rights in our own organizing work.

Starting from that framework, it’s important, when we talk about human rights, to be clear about exactly what we mean. It’s important to be clear about what human rights are and about how we’re going to realize them. It’s a question of who leads, who defines, and who acts.

It’s easy to start from a viewpoint that’s critical of what we can call “traditional” human rights thinking and practice, and much more difficult to build an alternative, especially considering the huge breadth and depth of the academic and organizational human rights establishment. Still, we who are interested in re-defining and re-shaping human rights have a history to look to and learn from, a literature to study, and an impressive range of contemporary activity to work with and build on.

Through my own study and practice of human rights work, including my time with the MST, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only effective and sustainable means of guaranteeing the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of every person in every place must involve changes in the structures of who has power- economic power, political power, and the power to shape social narratives. Human rights are not a question of how governments can live up to a set of obligations, but a question of how we are going to reorganize some of the most basic structures that govern our lives, and that kind of reorganization doesn’t happen without power. Our vision has to be a world where no one is denied their human rights, and our strategy has to involve building and taking power- the power to define and the power to act.

That kind of power isn’t some airy, abstract thing, but is always grounded in strong organizations. A big part of why we wanted to do in this exchange with the MST specifically lies in the fact that they’re an international leader in implementing and living out exactly that idea. They’re one of the best contemporary case studies we have for building out a new and popular human rights practice, grounded in the idea that power comes from sophisticated and deep organizational structures, forms and processes.

Founded in 1984, the MST has been organized for almost all of their history around three objectives- a luta pela terra (the struggle for land), reforma agraria (agrarian reform), and transformacoes sociais (social transformations). The first of these is organized through invasions and occupations of unproductive land with the goal of expropriating the land and turning it into an agrarian reform settlement for the (former) acampados. Through this process, the MST has organized and settled somewhere around 350,000 families. There are also well over a hundred thousand families currently engaged in the luta pela terra in movement encampments (acampamentos). Even after settlement, struggles continue around access to credit, technical assistance, etc. These kinds of immediate projects of survival are linked to the broader struggles for a “popular agrarian reform,” which includes not only the redistribution of land, but a complete overhaul of the political and economic system in Brasil, with a focus on rural areas and the production and distribution of food. Here’s my (rough) translation of the “objectives” section of the MST’s proposal for a popular agrarian reform (you can find the original, in Portuguese, here):

“This agrarian reform proposal is given as part of the wish of the Brazilian working class to build a new society: egalitarian, humanist, and ecologically sustainable. Thus, these proposals are part of a broad process of changes in our society and, fundamentally, of the alteration of the current structure of organization of production and of the relation between human beings and nature. This process, involving the entirety of rural development and organization, will lead to the elimination of exploitation, of political domination and of ideological alienation and ecological destruction. We are seeking to value and to guarantee work to everyone as a condition of human emancipation; the construction of dignity and equality between people; and the restoration of harmonious relations between human beings and nature.

Agrarian reform has as general objectives:

  • Eliminate poverty in the countryside
  • Combat the social inequality and the degradation of nature which have their roots in the structure of rural property and production
  • Guarantee work for everyone, along with the redistribution of income
  • Guarantee food sovereignty for the entire population of Brazil, producing quality foods and developing local markets
  • Guarantee conditions for equal participation of women who live in rural areas in every activity, especially in access to land, in production, and in the management of all activities, seeking to eliminate the historic oppression imposed on women, especially in the countryside
  • Preserve the vegetal, animal, and cultural biodiversity which exist in all the regions of Brazil, which form our biomass
  • Guarantee conditions for the betterment of live for all people and access to all opportunities of work, income, education, and leisure, encouraging people to remain in the countryside, especially youth”

These struggles for land and the struggle for agrarian reform are in turn linked to the struggle for “social transformations,” which, in my analysis of movement texts, can be understood as revolutionary changes in how national political and economic power is organized and wielded, including this question of “who leads?”. The necessity for this kind of social transformation is directly linked to the other two objectives outlined above: The MST understands that existing economic and political structures actually cannot meet the needs outlined in their agrarian reform proposal, that “agro-ecology” and “agribusiness” represent two models of rural life that cannot coexist, and that because of this, revolutionary transformations are required.

I think that a similar logic can very much apply to a different notion of human rights- a popular notion of human rights. Take education for example: The human right to education, traditionally understood, relies on demands for access to school. But what kind of school? What kind of education? Defined by and led by whom? In our current moment here in the US, the answer to that question is a mind-numbing, dependency-inducing, data-driven, test-crazy, unionless, privatized, isolated and unaccountable school, with methodologies and pedagogies provided by Bill Gates, the Walton Family (of Walmart fame), and California real estate gajillionaire Eli Broad (see this article for more). Just demanding access to that school is not enough, and a conception of human rights limited to that kind of access runs counter to the interests of the vast majority of people in this country. But if we apply human rights principles like those developed as a part of the Vermont Workers Center’s healthcare is a human right campaign, we can open up opportunities to demand not just access to a school but control over what kind of school that will be. A human right to education means a right to a liberatory education, an education embedded in community and built on the value and importance of community, an education devoted to doing away with the poverty-producing system that millions are suffering through in our country, an education dedicated to the promotion and fulfillment of human rights. However, we know that a poverty-producing system can’t coexist with that kind of education, can’t meet that demand. In this way, rights become revolutionary again, in the same way that the MST’s language of agrarian reform also becomes revolutionary.

Lastly, it’s important to note that this revolutionary-ness doesn’t just represent a revolution in rural relations of production and property, or in the education system, but for the entirety of society. For this reason, it’s absolutely critical to insist on the indivisibility, on the unity, of human rights; civil, political, economic, social, cultural. That is, “human rights” doesn’t just represent a list of discrete obligations to be fulfilled by governments, but rather a concrete, coherent, comprehensive, and integral vision for another world, along with a set of practices which will bring about that transformation. It’s a project of articulating new priorities and basic assumptions- a “revolution of values and other things,” as Dr. King put it, and organizing a social movement to realize that revolution in our economic and political structures. It’s impossible to maintain the integrity potential of that project, of the human rights project, with a fragmented and cloistered vision of its demands, horizons, and tasks. Human rights has to be understood and practiced as a totality. The MST provides an excellent model of how to connect immediate economic battles and needs to a struggle organized primarily around one (albeit multifaceted) front – a Popular Agrarian Reform – and one category of the poor – landless workers, and in turn to a broader vision and a broader practice. They’re a vision and a practice which recognize the entirety of the forces that we’re up against; which recognize them as a sophisticated totality. In doing so they seek to propose and actualize a deep and far reaching revolution- a revolution which represents one of the best hopes we have for the human rights project.

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