Activist delivers lecture on world inequalities
Serena Zacharias | Thursday, March 7, 2019
As Ben Phillips, co-founder of the Fight Inequality Alliance and a Hewlett Fellow of Public Policy at the Kellogg Institute, listened to Nelson Mandela speak at a rally in South Africa just four years after apartheid ended, Phillips said he realized two things.
“The first was that I was in the presence of a hero, but the more important thing is that I realized I was in the presence of thousands of heroes,” he said. “History had not been made by one man. History had been made when so many people organized together.”
Phillips brought his passion against global inequality to a lecture in the Hesburgh Center on Wednesday evening titled, “Winning the Fight Against Inequality (And Why It Needs You).”
After high school, Phillips moved to South Africa to work as a teacher in a black township. It was there where he first became involved in social activism.
“After that year in South Africa, I felt like it physically rewired me, and I therefore couldn’t do anything else other than work in social justice,” Phillips said.
Over the course of his life working across the globe in campaign teams and social movements, Phillips said he learned the most important change is never done by professionals.
“The key step for achieving change that makes society more equal is for ordinary people to regain their voice, regain their power … they do that by forming groups,” he said.
Phillips covered a number of damaging effects inequality causes. In addition to hurting the most vulnerable members of society, Phillips said inequality also causes people who are well off to suffer.
“Unequal societies are more violent, less trusting, have less economic growth and potential, harm the environment more, respect human rights less, generate more anger and intolerance and start to fragment and start to not operate as a democracy,” Phillips said.
Phillips said cities all over the world live with a stark divide between the rich and the poor, and in many of these cities, the divide is growing.
“Seven out of 10 people live in countries where the gap between the rich and poor is worse than it was 30 years ago. One percent of Indians own 50 percent of India,” he said. “In the U.S., the richest 10 percent of the population captured more than all the gains made since the recession. The other 90 percent went backwards.”
Phillips said the rich not only hold the majority of the nation’s wealth, but they have power in multiple facets of society.
“The problem we face is the problem of political capture,” he said. “Political capture means some people have so much money, they don’t just buy boats, they buy elections. The new golden rule is that the people with the gold make the rules.”
In order to combat inequality, Phillips said change will require groups of ordinary, yet diverse people.
“A successful movement that establishes a decent, equal society needs doctors and people struggling for peace work in order to take on the 0.1 percent, so I think an inclusive movement is key,” he said.
While people may think social movements today are too divisive, Phillips said pushing against authority is essential in creating change.
“In the 1960s, if you look at Gallup polls, most whites thought that Dr. King was divisive. There were newspaper articles about how the March on Washington was reckless, and people ask about Black Lives Matter, why can’t they be like Dr. King? They’re exactly like Dr. King,” Phillips said. “They are highlighting a new issue, and people need to hear it.“
Phillips said the battle to create a lasting revolution requires a significant amount of time and dedication because combating inequality requires several fights to be won.
“When you look at these groups that are making a difference, you see them on the news when they’re out on the streets with placards, but that’s about one percent of what they do,“ he said. “The key word is a series of planning, of building trust, of working with with communities. It’s many, many days of meetings in drafty church basements. It’s endless, and it’s that that brings real change.”
Urging students to join the fight against inequality, Phillips said Notre Dame students can benefit from three lessons.
“Today when we demolish deference, when we build collective power, when we build a new story, we can be in influence,” Phillips said. “It is not inevitable anywhere, but it is not impossible anywhere.”