Revolution, Survival and Poor People’s Human Rights: An Interview With Cheri Honkala

Cheri Honkala is the founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), a Philadelphia poor people’s organization that is widely known for its uncompromising civil-disobedience tactics—including housing takeovers, tent cities, and marches. KWRU was instrumental in forming the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC), a national coalition of more than 100 organizations whose mission is to unite the poor and build a broad-based movement to end poverty. In spring 2010, PPEHRC led the March to Fulfill the Dream, a caravan of poor activists and allies who traveled from New Orleans to Detroit (culminating at the U.S. Social Forum) to demand health care and housing for everyone in the United States. I sat down with Cheri during the march, on one of her returns to Philly to be with her eight-year-old son, Guillermo, and organize with KWRU.

TB: How did KWRU get started?

CH: I started the Kensington Welfare Rights Union [in 1991] as a homeless single mother. I learned how to take over abandoned city-owned houses in order not to freeze to death when I was homeless in the Twin Cities, and when I moved to Philadelphia and got a divorce, I lost 70 percent of my resources and needed somewhere to live with Mark [Webber, Cheri’s older son], who was about ten at the time. As a poor single mother, you need other people to survive, so I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was organize. KWRU began with me and five other women in a little, poor church. We pulled together our various resources and started passing out flyers, and every day more people would come with their problems, and we’d get more sophisticated at figuring out how to deal with those problems—we’d be each other’s references for housing, watch each other’s kids, learn how to work the system and help more people.

We started doing more housing takeovers, helping people resist eviction, things like that. And [after] the Quaker Lace factory on 4th and Lehigh burned down [in 1994], we were able to take advantage of that empty land to form our first tent city [in 1995]. That was incredibly difficult, because I had no idea what I was doing. I knew about housing takeovers but I didn’t know how to stay with people on an empty lot through rain and all of that. Most days it just felt like, why am I doing this? But it ended up getting us in the New York Times; it ended up helping us feed large numbers of people, just by being visible and doing food distribution at the tent city. It helped us reach people.

As we grew we were able to implement a way for students to get involved. They would watch our kids so we could get more work done.

KWRU and PPEHRC have always had a strong relationship with college students, right?

Yes. And that’s been helpful but incredibly hard. Working with students requires a lot more maintenance than working with other poor families. A lot of poor families understand the culture of our organizing, the way that we’re all dealing with our own crises and don’t always have time for formalities. Students often need to be watered and nurtured, or you lose them. It’s very easy to put your foot in your mouth and totally offend a student, and then have them be gone forever. But the students who stick with us contribute fantastic and important work—we need students, so we work hard to keep them in the movement.

What do you think have been some of the most effective ways of doing cross-class work?

KWRU used to have a student house in West Philadelphia called Jubilee. It was part of a local land trust, so the rent was cheap, and students would live there and work full-time with KWRU. Having students live together in that house was crucial. They would cook dinner once a week, and we would come over and eat with them. It was a space where students could ask further questions about our organizing work, have conversations in a relaxed space. And if we had an emergency homeless family here or there, they would stay at Jubilee as well. That house was around for about ten years, and hundreds of students passed through.

How did PPEHRC form?

As KWRU, we felt we had to find other organizations that were doing similar work. So we set out on a bus trip around the entire country in 1998, and we found other similar groups that didn’t come in traditional forms of 501(c)(3) organizations, who were organizing large numbers of poor folks without any resources. They were small organizations, or just groups of people, who were fighting for economic human rights. They weren’t driven by a paycheck, and they were going to keep doing that work whether they had money or not. We saw the necessity of connecting all these different groups so that all of our work would be stronger.
What do you think are some of the crucial strategies for building a mass movement to end poverty?

Number one, it has to be led by poor people. If your life isn’t consumed with basic economic issues, you lose perspective.

Second, constant education. I organize the people I go to the movies with, everyone I hang out with—whatever I’m doing, there’s always some educational aspect involved. You can take care of people’s concrete issues, but that’s only temporary, that doesn’t keep people in the movement. You have to give them an understanding of their personal role in history. With the deepest understanding and the deepest spiritual commitment, you can’t really leave this movement.

Could you talk more about marches and caravans as an organizing strategy?

We’ll have periods where we’re intensely in the office plotting things, but ultimately just being out there twenty-four hours every single day is incredibly important when you’re organizing large groups of poor folks. Increasingly, national organizing has been taking place online, and the digital divide is real. Not a lot of poor people are on the Internet and conference calls all the time, and so just being able to go out and talk with people, to have dinner with them, to hang out with them for two or three days—there’s nothing that can replace that kind of organizing. We’re developing relationships that will be cemented forever. You touch people to a point where no matter how low-income they are, they’re willing to drive up to Mississippi and drop off T-shirts or whatever. Because they’ve developed that kind of relationship.

And that happens locally too, in terms of helping out with people’s daily needs, doing food distribution—projects of survival are some of PPEHRC’s main organizing tools, right?

Projects of survival are absolutely necessary in maintaining membership and sustaining any kind of poor people’s organizing. Because if you can’t concretely help somebody who comes into the office and needs a place to sleep or a way to eat, or help them with a welfare problem or whatever, then they won’t come back. But if you help that one woman with her housing situation, she’ll tell the next seventy-five people that she runs into, and out of that process comes gold. That’s how we get our leaders, the people who stick with us forever.

What have you found to be some of the biggest challenges in building this campaign?

Number one would be the actual enemy—the state. State repression takes a lot of different forms—it can come in the form of the Department of Human Services and Child Protection, or covertly in the form of psychological attacks on leaders [or] just the amount of times that some of us have had to stand trial. When you’re constantly facing twenty-two years in prison for organizing a demonstration—that has a psychological impact.

The second big challenge is resources. This is less about funding and more about the impact that it has on people’s morale to constantly see poor folks sharing everything they got, and then other folks that come with more privilege never coming out of their pocket with ten dollars, or wanting reimbursement because they bought stamps. That kind of thing is really hard.

Thirdly, transportation—most people don’t have cars, and public transportation is bad in these neighborhoods, so it takes a lot of organizing to get people out to events and meetings. And also communication, because of the digital divide.

Lastly, health. We all live near these huge factories and toxic sites that they put in poor neighborhoods, so a lot of people are dealing with cancer. And the stress of poverty and state repression is huge—that’s why we have a lot of people with heart problems in this movement. Someday we’ll have regular aerobics and free gym programs in the center—one of my goals. We need more outlets to deal with stress.

How do you deal with stress? You’ve been doing this work for over twenty years, you get paid for it only occasionally, you work all day for PPEHRC and work at a club at night, and you’re a single parent. What renews you?

Geritol. Just kidding. I work very consciously on my mental health. There are certain days—well, maybe not days, but hours—when I take a sabbath. Like, I don’t care if the house is burning down or somebody’s dying, I’m taking care of Cheri right now.

Also, I spend gajillions of dollars on maintaining a good relationship with my little boy. To be a single mom in this movement, and to play the leadership role that I’m playing, that’s crucial. I’m working until three in the morning tonight, but that will make me happy, because then I’ll be able to fly Guillermo to Nashville to be with me on the march for Mother’s Day.

I’m very spiritually motivated. I just believe that we have a responsibility to community and to serve people and to care for them and treat them with humanity.

What have been some of your big successes?

We’ve laid the political groundwork for a huge amount of change, around affordable housing in particular. I think we’ve been responsible for having millions of dollars allocated to different housing budgets in different parts of the country. We pushed hard in Washington, D.C., around housing as a human right after Katrina. And we’re the pioneer poor people’s organization to start talking about human rights in the United States.

But I think our most important achievement is that we’ve put together a multiracial, incredibly diverse, intergenerational, national movement of poor people, led by the poor. And there’s nothing like it.