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Activist shares story of poverty

Kristen Durbin | Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Author, activist and scholar Willie Baptist highlighted the serious challenges America faces in the fight against poverty and homelessness when he shared his personal experiences with poverty during a Monday discussion.

The Higgins Labor Studies Program sponsored the talk, which was held in Geddes Hall.

In his introduction of Baptist, John Wessel-McCoy, an organizer for the Poverty Initiative and Poverty Scholars program at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, said the program’s mission “came out of the great history of organizing what Willie Baptist embodies.”

“[The Poverty Initiative] is dedicated to raising up generations of religious and community leaders committed to building a social movement to end poverty led by the poor,” Wessel-McCoy said. “We don’t want to make it kinder, gentler or slightly better. We want to end it.”

Wessel-McCoy said mobilizing the poor to fight systemic causes of poverty is crucial to American social progress and the elimination of the growing wealth gap.

“We have the productive capacity and means to … lift the load of poverty, and the fact that we have growing ranks of poor in America is what we feel is the defining issue of our time,” he said. “We must build a network of leaders who are organizing, working in congregations as religious leaders and engaging the plight and fight of the poor.”

In a short film promoting his book “Pedagogy of the Poor,” Baptist, a formerly homeless father who now serves as the scholar-in-residence of the Poverty Initiative, said the poverty organizing movement must address root causes of American poverty to find a solution.

“We have to look at the root structure of what produced the problem … The polarity of wealth and poverty in America means that the people most affected by it need to organize and be educated to solve problems,” he said. “Poverty scholarship is an understanding of the complexity and globalized character of poverty.”

According to the film, the polarity in wealth distribution has led to a situation of “abandonment alongside abundance,” in which the top five percent of American earners have enjoyed unprecedented gains in wealth in recent years, while 46 million Americans live below the poverty line and one-third of the population lives on incomes just above that threshold.

Baptist said this and several other contradictions characterize the reality of American poverty.

“Every year, 46 billion pounds of food are thrown away in America, when it only takes 4 billion pounds to feed everyone in the country for a year,” he said. “California is capable of producing enough food for everyone in the world, but people go hungry in our own country. These are the antagonisms that we face today and that each and every one of you confronts on your watch.”

Baptist used the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence to highlight these unjust contradictions and urge his audience to take action to eliminate them.

“Everyone is created equal … We all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But how can you have the right to life if you don’t have a home or a decent job?” he said. “This immoral, irreligious contradiction we face challenges us to take a stand to do something like others in American history.”

Baptist said his book, co-written with Union philosophy professor Jan Rehmann, challenges readers to consider their role in the fight against poverty.

“What do you see is right or wrong? How will you live out your life?” Baptist said. “[The book] challenges us to take up Martin Luther King, Jr.’s manner and become real scholars through engaged scholarship, theology and intellectualism because poverty is a complex, globalized problem due to the current technological revolution that renders people superfluous to production worldwide.”

Baptist said his experience as an organizer for the United Steelworkers laid the foundation for his efforts to organize the poor and homeless, especially in his work with the National Union of the Homeless.

“When I organized with the [National] Union of the Homeless, we were working with 25 local unions in 25 states at its height,” Baptist said. “Union members were becoming homeless union members, and homeless people were organizing homeless people.”

The public perception of homelessness as a self-inflicted condition has presented an obstacle to fighting the issue because it overlooks the knowledge and talents of homeless people, Baptist said.

“Despite the public opinion of homeless people as those who can’t fight for themselves, there’s a rich reservoir of geniuses having to manipulate with meager means how to get from one day to another, but we allow that to lay waste in considering the consequences of poverty,” he said.

Baptist, an African-American male who was once homeless, shared an anecdote about an encounter with a middle-aged Caucasian woman in Philadelphia in which his presence inflicted “the most God-awful fear in her eyes.” He said such encounters impede progress in American social relations.

“Dr. King suggested that we have to somehow overcome the miseducation and stereotypes that exist that keep me from knowing the story of that lady and her knowing what my story is,” he said. “This is the challenge before us to keep our nation moving forward.”