Humble Beginnings (Wilkes-Barre, again)

by Shay O’Reilly

First Presbyterian Church in Wilkes-Barre, our “home base” for the first part of this week — and the meeting location for Put People First PA.

“It’s up to us to recognize that we need a movement of people in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, nationwide, and globally to deal with this,” Frank Sindaco told us Sunday. “We don’t have the resources that RAND corporation or the Brookings Institute have, we only have each other. That means we have to be even smarter, clearer, more committed, and we have to insure that we’re building something for ourselves that can provide a counterbalance to the system that is imbalanced and is getting moreso.”

The title of this blog, “A New and Unsettling Force,” comes from remarks by Martin Luther King Jr. in which he describes an organization of poor people across lines of both color and geography. In Pennsylvania the lines are strict between black and white, city and country. This separation “is good news for the people who make policy,” Put People First PA’s Nijmie Dzurinko said Monday at a meeting to honor King’s legacy through building the movement for which he sacrificed his life.

The meeting, held at First Presbyterian in Wilkes-Barre, drew about 20 community members, young and old, black and white. It was a recruitment event and a training event for Put People First PA, although the Poverty Initiative also presented a brief background on King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

Gwen of Union Theological Seminary leads a prayer before the meeting begins.

A survey facilitated by PPFPA’s Mitch revealed that the vast majority of people in attendance — including people on our trip — fought to make enough money to scrape by, find healthcare or dental care, and feed their families. Only two of the attendees were unconcerned about having their basic needs met; even these two had loved ones battling poverty.

Here is a collection of quotes from Wilkes-Barre’s struggling:

  • “We have a right to vote but we put people in office who say they’re with us though they aren’t really with us… it makes one mad at politicians because they’re not doing anything to help poor people, low-income people.”
  • “They made us think like we were guilty of a crime, that it’s our fault for being poor… they’ve destroyed our belief system. It’s up to us to restore our belief system, and then to take action.”
  • “It seems like the only way to have a voice is to have a lobbyist or a tragedy.”

Without a lobbyist or a tragedy (at least one more gripping than the gradual erosion of people’s lives for the sake of profit), what can people do in the face of budget cuts and increasing austerity measures?

Nijmie, Frank, and Mitch find inspiration in the Vermont Workers’ Center, which launched a successful state-wide campaign to guarantee universal healthcare. By creating a power base across the state, regardless of racial and geographic prejudice, Put People First PA aims to “expand the realm of the possible” in state politics and force an end to the systems that keep people poor. Organizers are conscious of the implications of following the Vermont model: Igniting a state-by-state fight to reclaim government for the suffering people.

At the Poverty Initiative we like to point out that the elites of society are smart and — as the old labor line went — organized as a class. Poverty Scholars Program leader Willie Baptist is fond of saying that “never in history has a dumb force defeated a smart force.” In order to end the poverty that exists as part of a deliberately created economic order, the disenfranchised must organize and work smart.

“The struggle for rights has always been a struggle for power,” Put People First PA told the gathering yesterday. The struggle for economic and human rights, for the means by which people can survive and thrive, will necessarily put the poor in conflict with existing power structures. The struggle to redefine the future of Wilkes-Barre and all the other post-industrial cities in the United States means necessarily taking power from development groups and large corporations, and placing it back with the people. As with all people power, it begins humbly: with the forging of human connections that overcome artificial barriers.

Frank Sindaco presents Put People First PA’s model for leadership development.


“We have the solutions,” Nijmie said. “We already know the answers. All we need is a space to say them.”

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