The Kairos Center, housed at Union Theological Seminary, is a national organization committed to building a movement to end poverty, led by the poor. Drawing on the power of religions and human rights, we are a center for movement strategy, coordination, and education among the poor across all lines of division. Among other projects, we co-anchor the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Kairos is an ancient Greek word, describing a time of great change, when the old ways of the world are dying and new ones are struggling to be born. It is clear we are living through exactly such a time today. This kairos moment is full of both grave danger and rare opportunity, and calls for bold and imaginative action from those who wish to break free from the intolerable conditions of poverty, systemic racism, militarism, ecological devastation, and more. It is in this context that new movements of poor and dispossessed people are emerging across the country and world.
Our theory of change is drawn from our study of history: the most transformative movements have always relied on generations of impacted leaders who are clear, committed, competent, and connected. These often unsung leaders, emerging out of poor and oppressed communities, have been the first to feel the pain of injustice and the first to strike out against it. Their broad movements have also brought together people from every walk of life and succeeded in awakening the conscience of society at large.
For the last two decades, Kairos has helped to develop these kinds of leaders from the ranks of the poor, connecting them in a wide network of grassroots and religious organizations and political efforts. We come together through organizing campaigns, mobilizations, convenings, educational programs, faith gatherings, arts and culture, research and scholarship, and more; we come together across historic lines of division like race, religion, age, and geography, in order to build up the unity and organization of the poor in this country.
Today, Kairos and its many leaders are responsible for groundbreaking work in 5 key program areas: the Poor People’s Campaign, Policy, Communications, Arts and Culture, and Religions. The result is a national network that reaches into thousands of communities, increasingly impacts the moral and political narrative, influences elected officials at every level of government, and anchors one of the most promising social movements of our time.
Drawing on the power of religions and human rights, the Kairos Center works to raise up generations of religious and community leaders committed to the unity and organization of the poor as the leading social force in the building of a broad transformative movement to end poverty. We are a center for movement strategy, coordination, and education among the poor across all lines of division.
The mission and work of Kairos is a product of an intellectual and organizational development that evolved from the struggles of the poor and homeless during the Homeless Union National Organizing Drive of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Poverty Initiative was formed at Union Theological Seminary in 2004. In 2013 it expanded to become the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice. Kairos is an Ancient Greek word meaning the right, critical or opportune moment. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a proper or opportune time for action.
In carrying out its mission, Kairos is committed to taking up the historic legacy left by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He stated on April 4, 1967 at New York’s Riverside Church,
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…”
He stated later that year in his important Massey Lectures before the launching of the Poor People’s Campaign in December, 1967:
“The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.
The only real revolutionary, people say, is a man who has nothing to lose. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.“
The Kairos Center, originally named the Poverty Initiative, was founded in 2004 by a group of students, organizers, educators, and community leaders at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. It was charged with the mission of raising up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to building a movement to end poverty, led by the poor, which remains its mission to this day.
The organization was born out of a number of remarkable and interconnected legacies, beginning with the 177-year heritage of Union, punctuated by leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Myles Horton, and others who helped to launch and sustain many of the major U.S. social movements of their time. The founders of the Poverty Initiative came to Union because of its long-term commitment to communities in the struggle for justice, and because of the liberatory power of their own faith traditions. They also brought with them long standing experience of grassroots organizing among the poor; leaders like Willie Baptist and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis came directly out of some of the most significant poor people’s led organizations of the 1980s and 1990s, including the National Welfare Rights Union and the National Union of the Homeless.
This first generation of leaders with the Poverty Initiative were students of history, and among the many examples of poor people taking action together in this country, they recognized the strategic and largely forgotten genius of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, the last political project in the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This had been an attempt to organize a powerful and multiracial movement of the poor, to force the country to move from what Dr. King called “an era of civil rights and reform to an era of human rights and revolution.” Leaders with PI saw that the conditions of 1968 had in many ways only worsened over the decades and that this history could help inform transformative organizing in their own day.
Over the 2000s, the Poverty Initiative built a wide network of grassroots and religious leaders and brought them together through organizing campaigns, immersion courses in different communities, truth commissions, and other activities. They helped build and support important poor people’s led organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, United for Respect, the Vermont Workers’ Center, Put People First! PA, and others. And in 2007, they launched the Poverty Scholars Program, dedicated to studying the root causes of poverty and economic inequality in a network of leaders that spanned over 25 states and 17 countries.
In November 2013, to meet the increasing needs of the political and economic moment, the Poverty Initiative was relaunched as the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice. The goal was to build on and expand the work of the Poverty Initiative, to strengthen the mutually reinforcing relationship between religions and the struggle for human rights. The following spring, Kairos brought a delegation of over 70 community and religious leaders from New York City to join the Forward Together Moral Movement in Raleigh, North Carolina for its Moral March, where an estimated 80,000 marched in the largest mass protest in the South since Selma, Alabama in 1965.
Building off this experience, leaders with Kairos forged relationships with leaders of the Moral Movement, including its chief architect, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II. They recognized a deep kinship in their experiences, analysis, and theory of change, and began to think seriously about a national effort to shift the moral narrative around poverty and build power among the poor. Over the next few years, through conversations, national tours, and other efforts, the groundwork was laid for what would become the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, launched on December 4, 2017 and now active in over 45 states.
Today, the Poor People’s Campaign is co-anchored by Kairos and Repairers of the Breach, founded by Rev. Barber, and its co-chairs are Rev. Theoharis and Rev. Barber. Kairos staff, fellows, and volunteers play key roles across the national teams of the Poor People’s Campaign, including policy, partnerships, arts and culture, communications, finance and fundraising, and administration, as well as in its state campaigns.
The Poor People’s Campaign is a major aspect of the work of Kairos today, and the relationship between the two is mutually reinforcing: the Poor People’s Campaign is an unprecedented vehicle to advance the long-term goal of Kairos — building a movement to end poverty — and Kairos is critical to the work of the Poor People’s Campaign. The launch and historic growth of the Poor People’s Campaign marked a new and important phase for Kairos, which over the next few years plans to become an even larger national center for movement strategy, coordination, and education among the poor.