This past Summer Poverty Initiative fellows Shay O’Reilly, Dan Jones, and Lenora Knowles were learning and working with several different organizations from our network that are involved in important front-line struggles around poverty. Read more about their experiences below.
Shay O’Reilly at Vermont Workers Center in Vermont State
This summer I spent two and a half months organizing with the Vermont Workers’ Center, getting to know the territory, the organization, their strategy, and their tactics. They had me reaching out to faith communities in the field, but also attending the various events of the summer, from educational retreats to creative outreach health screening clinics.
The Vermont Workers’ Center is an organization going through a period of growth and challenges right now in its fight for human rights in the state. After winning a mandate for single-payer healthcare, its membership has ballooned — but a sober analysis reveals a great distance yet to travel. Vermont passes laws funding its new healthcare system in 2015, and the system kicks into effect in 2017; it’s the Workers’ Center’s main priority now to make sure that healthcare reform in Vermont meets people’s needs, using the human rights framework developed by the organization.
The growth in membership has also pushed the Workers’ Center to be strategic about its partnerships with other organizations, its membership structure, and its funding system. I witnessed firsthand the collaboration between Vermont Workers’ Center members and staff and the organizers at Rising Tide, an organization seeking to stop pipeline development within the state and turn towards a sustainable solution; through this partnership, both organizations gained a more complete understanding of the intersection between human rights and the environment. Similarly, through its partnership with Migrant Justice, the Workers’ Center has placed undocumented immigrants at the center of its work, seeing its concerns as inherently relevant to the fight for human rights.
Staying with the Workers’ Center’s staff member in charge of fundraising also gave me a greater appreciation for the challenges of funding movement organizations. There remain major questions in my mind about how best to fund the work that the world so desperately needs, in a way that is both sustainable (so that an organization does not have to scramble to survive from year to year) and avoids cooptation by large funding interests. Willie Baptist is fond of saying that “nobody’s gonna pay you to kick their ass” — so from where do we fund our work?
With these questions, and with my experiential knowledge of a community and of people of faith struggling with the new economic norms, I feel more grounded as I set about my studies. I am convicted to use my education at Union, and my work with the Poverty Initiative, to gain the tools necessary to build a church that preaches the good news of the Gospel: That the current darkness will pass, and that the armor of our faith will prevail against it.
Dan Jones at Put People First! – Pennsylvania (PPF!-PA) in Philadelphia, PA
This summer, I helped coordinate Put People First! PA’s grassroots fundraising efforts. PPF-PA is a new and quickly growing organization working to bring together Pennsylvanians from all over the the state to claim our fundamental human rights to the things we need to survive. That means uniting poor and working people across all the lines that normally keep us divided from, afraid of, and fighting against each other: racial lines, the urban-rural divide, differences in occupation, employment status, citizenship, age and gender. It means fighting to build our unity around the things that we have in common- the fact that we’re all struggling to meet our basic needs, that we’re worried about ourselves, our families, our communities, our state and our country. That work is moving forward through building local ‘organizing committees’ across the state, and uniting those committees in a state-wide campaign for our human rights.
Put People First! PA is committed to its vision, and that means not comprimising that vision by taking money with major strings attached, which requires a strong grassroots fundraising strategy. Over the course of July and August, core PPF-PA members reached out to our friends, family, neighbors and colleagues and told them about our work. We invited them to be a part of that work, and the response was really inspiring. People from across the state and beyond understood how necessary it is for us to be building unity and fighting for the things they need, and were happy to pitch in. We not only raised much-needed funds towards hiring a second field organizer to support the development of local organizing committees, but also built dozens of relationships and engaged new members in the work. Moving forward, we’re going to continue strengthening our grassroots fundraising strategy and figuring out how to align our fundraising work with our organizing goals.
Lenora Knowles at Congregations for Children at Moore Community House in Biloxi, Mississippi
This summer I spent two months living and working in Biloxi, Mississippi. Up until this past summer, I have never spent any sizeable amount of time in the South, except for maybe a few days in Miami, Florida, which most in the area will tell you is way different from Mississippi and the rest of Florida for that matter. The coastline and the bay area of Biloxi are quite beautiful despite the tens of casinos that tower along highway 90, like concrete sentinels with flashing lights. Biloxi and the surrounding towns have a rich history dating back to the 1600s when it was under the control of French colonists. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio it was surreal to think about Biloxi as a territory once under strong Confederate control. The first and only President of the Confederate, Jefferson Davis chose to retire on the beautiful beachfront property gifted to him by a wealthy friend. The home now makes up a dear historical landmark for many southerners. Since the French colonial and Confederate presence, Biloxi has been a home to many different communities over the decades including a sizable eastern European and Vietnamese population that were attracted by jobs in the once thriving fishing industry and now Latino migrant worker population brought into the area as a result of the post-Katrina construction. Of course, since emancipation there has been a sizeable black community that remained or came to Biloxi because of the fishing industry and the burgeoning railroad industry in the 1870s.
Back in 2005 and even until today, Hurricane Katrina has had a great impact on the local economy and local residents alike. Despite the lack of coverage from the national media companies, the hurricane hit Biloxi straight on. Driving or walking the streets of Biloxi one can see green open fields where homes once stood and people once lived. In the midst of east Biloxi, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Biloxi, sit the pale yellow buildings of Moore Community House. Moore Community House is a Methodist mission agency located a few blocks from Boom Town Casino, which floats on huge water barges just a few blocks to the north. Just a couple of blocks to the east are the local housing projects that have given many, including the elderly a place to live, after the great storm. To the West, just a distance is Keesler Air Force Base, which has dominated a great tract of land in the middle of the city since local officials made a deal with the U.S. Army Cops in 1941. The center, now headed by Rev. Carol Burnett, has been a positive force in the area since it was founded in 1924 to serve poor and low-income children of the community.
Moore currently runs two main programs. One of these programs includes a free early head start education program for kids from ages zero to three years. With all the funds going into rebuilding the coast after the hurricane, Moore decided to take advantage of the moment and began a unique program that offers skilled construction job training to low-income women. Such a program as offered competitive and quality job skills for good paying construction jobs on the coast. Burnett is also the executive directory of Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative (MLICI). While housed in the same building, MLICI takes a more policy-oriented approach to the issues of child poverty and poor families. This organization works to “improve quality, advocate for investments, and build grassroots support for a statewide network of early childhood education and development providers.”
Congregations for Children yet another conception of Burnett is a reemerging program of Moore Community House which more specifically seeks to garner and organize the support of people of faith to support and/or fight against various efforts and legislation that would have a real impact the important issues of childcare, healthcare, education, and employment for poor families—“issues” that translate to the survival and quality of life of so many poor families in Mississippi. While I got to know a little about all of the initiatives coming out of Moore Community House I spent majority of my time with Congregations for Children. With Congregations for Children I had the wonderful opportunity to study the rich history and current the social, political, and economic contexts and organizing strategies of Mississippi and the South more generally. I was particularly humbled by the opportunity to travel and meet with elders of the movement who have been fighting the good fight for black and poor communities across the state for decades. As Congregations for Children gears up now for the 2014 legislation season, I helped Congregations for Children with the tedious work of organizing a database in great need of some order. In addition, I got to meet with the leaders of ally organizations to get informed on the upcoming legislation and conspire about the possibilities for collaboration.
Just this summer alone, there was much to fight against, as the Republican governor and legislature voted down the health care expansion bill that would have offered Medicaid benefits to 300,000 Mississippians. In addition, those fighting for affordable quality childcare for poor families were met with the state’s push to finger scan parents who receive federal subsidies for their childcare services. The Department of Human Services made an over $13 million deal with the Xerox company in the effort to improve security, reduce error in the payrolls and more importantly for them to reduce supposed cases of fraud. Just after ending my time in Biloxi I joined grassroots leaders from across the south at the Highlander Center. With those conversations it was evident that there are other leaders with similar political, economic, and ideological challenges and histories who are thoughtfully and boldly taking on this work for real people and real communities, who matter. Likewise, through these conversations it is clear that there are many points of unity as we think through and work toward a national and even a transnational movement of poor people. All in all, I am more than grateful to have had such a thought provoking experience in Biloxi, Mississippi as it has expanded my consciousnesses to include the reality and challenges of yet another community fighting to survive and flourish