Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 103rd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you conversations with Rev. Emily McNeill, director of the Labor Religion Coalition in New York State and member of the Coordinating Committee for the New York State Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. McNeill discusses why the Poor People’s Campaign is taking up the fight Martin Luther King Jr. began 50 years ago, and coming actions in 2018 that center poor people in the political conversation.
Sarah Jaffe: The national Poor People’s Campaign launch was December 4. Tell us about what is going on and why now.
Rev. Emily McNeill: It is a really, really exciting development. There are a couple of reasons why it is happening now. The most important is that we are at a crisis point in a lot of ways in our country — certainly in New York State, as well — in terms of how a large portion of our population is being impacted by poverty, by racism and other forms of discrimination, by militarism and an economy that revolves around war in a lot of ways, and also, ecological devastation. We are really seeing a point at which if we don’t really mobilize and organize in a new way that builds power in a new way and connects people in a new way … we are in trouble.
Also, the reason that the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is taking up activity now is because we are at the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and others led starting in 1968. That anniversary gives us an opportunity to look back at what has happened over the last 50 years to see that, unfortunately, a lot of the things that Dr. King and his colleagues were talking about then were, in many cases, even worse today. The vision that they had and the strategy and analysis that they had really resonates. If you read a lot of the things that he was saying in 1967 and 1968, it is just so resonant with what we are facing today. So, a lot of folks are excited about picking up this baton and trying to accomplish what they weren’t able to.
Talk a little bit about what the national campaign is going to look like and what that means for your organization on the ground.
The Poor People’s Campaign is being imagined, definitely, as a multiyear campaign. We are talking about a first phase of organizing over this coming year and that is building toward a period of 40 days of coordinated action around the country starting around Mother’s Day … and going through June 21. I think one of the unique things about this campaign is, even though it is a national campaign, it is really relying on grassroots organization around states all over the country. The actions are going to take place not only in Washington, DC, but also state capitals — at least 25 — but it is looking like it will be over 30 or more states that will participate.
A big focus is on pulling together folks in these states that cross different lines of divisions. So, groups that work on different issues that may not always work together — having a focus on organizing not just in cities, but also in suburban and rural areas — which obviously also leads to multiracial organizing, which is a real priority of the campaign. And, especially, making sure that we are prioritizing organizations of directly impacted folks and listing out the stories of folks who are really experiencing all these issues and putting that message first and foremost, as well as engaging faith leaders and talking about the moral issues.
This campaign is being led by Rev. William Barber, among others, and starting with his work with the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, there has been a real push to reclaim the framework of moral values for something other than being anti-abortion and anti-gay. Especially after the results of [the] election in Alabama, what have we learned about moral values and what that means in political action?
I think it matters. I think that there is this tendency in progressive circles … to be kind of wonky about why a certain policy is right from a factual perspective. That just doesn’t move people in the same way that talking about deep values and beliefs moves people.
What we are facing with folks living in poverty: I don’t know if you saw the article about the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty in Lowndes County, Alabama, seeing folks living with no sewage system, just living amidst raw sewage and folks are suffering from tropical diseases because of this…. If you can’t feel something when you hear those stories and if it doesn’t trigger some question about the values of human life and how we take care of each other, then I think you are really missing the point.
The policy issues that we want to talk about are responding to real suffering. That is an issue about values and more moral and emotional issues, not just policy in this kind of detached factual way. I think part of it is definitely responding [to] the Christian right and pushing back on that narrative is important. But even if they weren’t trying to highjack values, I think these issues are about what we believe about what it means to be human, and how we live together, and that regardless of whether people have a religious faith or no faith or what that faith is — that is something really deep that we all can relate to, and we need to think about these things in that frame.
One of the things that people assume about Americans, in particular, is that we don’t like to think of ourselves as anything other than temporarily depressed millionaires or something. People tend to identify upward and don’t want to say, “We are poor people.” What does it do to say, “We are going to have a campaign that is going to be led by and organized by poor people in this ongoing ideological framework that says ‘We don’t want to think of that. We don’t want to admit that?'”
I think that is a really important aspect of the campaign and it is intentional: to be pushing back on this myth that we all could raise ourselves up by our bootstraps and just continue to accumulate and become rich. It has obviously never been a reality in the history of the United States. But there is also this history of people [at] the bottom, in all sorts of ways, coming together and organizing and claiming their identity.
One of the explicit goals of this phase of the campaign is about changing the moral narrative of all these issues — around racism and poverty and militarism and ecological devastation. Part of the narrative that the campaign wants to shift is that being poor is something to be ashamed of, and instead to say, “No, poverty is something that our society should be ashamed of. We have nothing to be ashamed of if we are not making ends meet because there are structural reasons for that, and people are getting rich off the fact that we are poor.” To claim that … is a big part of the messaging that we want to get through to people.
That is what comes across in the testimonies that the campaign has already been putting out from directly impacted folks from around the country….
That is really powerful. Multiracial organizing, as you mentioned, is a really important part of this, but can you talk about what that looks like in real time in the work that you have been doing? How do you bring people together who might otherwise not encounter each other and really challenge people’s beliefs?
That is a great question and we are still trying to figure it out. But I do feel hopeful that this is going to be a platform that will bring people together in a new way. Here in New York State, one of the things that we did over the last few months was to organize a series of Truth Commissions on Poverty. We held three of them so far…. The idea was a pretty simple format. We had folks come and share their stories about how they are being impacted by these issues. Both folks living in poverty [that] are experiencing various kind of injustice and, also, advocates — policy expert kind of folks. Doing them in … three very different parts of the state — a very rural area, a very urban upstate area and the suburbs of Long Island — automatically was showing the multiracial face of all of these issues.
In the organizing structure at the state level now, we are trying to be really intentional about having representation from all these different kinds of communities so that we are including rural poverty and urban poverty and suburban poverty, as well as folks that are working on racism specifically. Especially focusing on highlighting people’s stories and testimony has been helpful in highlighting connections that are there. It is pretty obvious to see the similarities between the stories from a single mom in Cuba and a single mom on Long Island. The diversity of the communities make that look different in some ways, but there are so many commonalities between the experiences in different areas.
It is not easy in this society to do multiracial organizing always, but it is something that we have to work to be really intentional about.
It has been a long year. We are looking at the end of 2017 and I think most people are not going to be sorry to see it go. What are some takeaways that you have from this past year from the struggles you have been involved in? Let’s start with one thing that has been better than you thought it would be.
Well, people are definitely motivated. There is a sense of urgency among folks. Thinking back to the Women’s March — where so many people went out to a protest who hadn’t been to a protest either ever or in decades. I don’t know that the levels of engagement have stayed constant, but some folks have gotten energized and politicized and have stayed involved. That is encouraging.
I think other folks who have been doing this work for a long time, maybe we feel more of a sense of urgency. I mean, things have been bad for a long time, so I also hesitate to overstate like, “Oh, the world changed after the election!” But, definitely there is a shared sense of “We really have to figure some things out now.”
What have been the things that you have been seeing in your community that people have been struggling with the most?
I was having a conversation with somebody recently who referred back to [a "Saturday Night Live”] skit very shortly after the election, where a bunch of white folks were just shocked that this would happen and the people of color were like, “Yes, I am really upset, but I am not surprised.” I think among folks I know through my church community who are mostly white, there is still this sense of shock and disbelief that is hanging on. I think that conversation I was mentioning was in the context of somebody really looking anew at the reality of racism in our society and struggling with dealing with how bad that is and disturbing and upsetting and a sense of feeling guilty about it and not quite knowing what to do.
I know a lot of people who were shocked by the election, who are still trying to integrate what that meant and adjust to the new reality. Then, on the other side of things, what comes to mind immediately is the undocumented immigrant community which is just under siege and people are getting deported and detained. It is this onslaught of bad stuff every day and having to deal with that and just keep fighting. Also, just trying to organize, for example, against this tax bill. It seems like there is so much energy needed to try to keep something worse from happening that takes away from trying to imagine something better. How can we do this resistance, pushing back the bad stuff and also make space for trying to imagine? What are we for and how can we be working for stuff, not just constantly fighting back?
What are you looking forward to in 2018? We already talked about some of the actions, plans and things like that, but it is going to be an election year, a whole new kind of news cycle. What are you thinking about, going into the next year? What changes are you thinking we can expect?
I am hopeful about what will come out of the organizing with the Poor People’s Campaign toward the 40 days of action. I am excited about the potential of bringing groups together that haven’t necessarily worked together a lot — bringing together groups working on antiwar organizing and things like that, which Labor Religion Coalition, the organization that I direct, hasn’t been super active on in New York State. The Poor People’s Campaign is bringing together these different struggles under one umbrella. I am excited about what can come out of that cross-pollination.
I am hopeful about the response that we have had to events around the Poor People’s Campaign so far in New York. We just keep having more people show up to meetings and things than we had planned for or expected. It is showing that it is hitting a chord with at least some folks that I haven’t seen in the last years that I have been here. That is really exciting, and I hope that it is going to be in the air of the general public.
In our two-party system, neither party talks about the poor. It is all about the middle class. I am hopeful that in 2018, maybe people running for office are going to feel like they have to talk about poverty because people are talking about it. They are going to have to talk about militarism. That is what I am hoping for, that it really starts to get into the conversation in New York State and around the country that these issues can’t be swept under the rug.
How can people get in touch with the Poor People’s Campaign and how can people keep in touch with you and your organization?
The website for the Poor People’s Campaign is www.PoorPeoplesCampaign.org, and on the landing page, there is a form for folks to sign up and they can pledge to participate in actions and participate in civil disobedience, or just be part of spreading the word. If you sign up, you will get information from both the national level and then from the state that you are in.
Labor Religion Coalition’s website is www.LaborReligion.org. We are on Facebook: Labor Religion Coalition. The New York State Poor People’s Campaign has a Facebook page, too. So, all events that will be happening around the state as we are organizing toward the 40 days will be there, as well.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.