On March 15, 2018, the Capital Region of New York State organized a Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival launch event in Troy, New York focused on how racism, poverty, militarism, and environmental devastation affect the lives of women. The program also focused on the ways that women are organizing to fight these injustices.
Women are disproportionately affected by the four evils we speak about in the Campaign. For example, in 2015 women were 35 percent more likely to live in poverty than men. The repercussions of pollution, such as the lack of clean water in Hoosick Falls, New York and in Flint, Michigan, fall heavily upon the shoulders of women because they are usually the main caregivers in their families.
The organizers of this event believed that uplifting the stories and struggles of women was an excellent way to connect the whole community to the message of the Poor People’s Campaign. To provide context, there was a brief presentation about the history of women in the Civil Rights struggle which also made connections to current Poor People’s Campaign organizing. The central section of the program was a panel discussion featuring a diverse group of women who shared their experiences with the four evils and the steps they are taking to challenge them. The organizers made sure to include members of the LGBTQ community.
The Troy launch was well attended and successfully moved Poor People’s Campaign organizing forward in the region and around the state. It drew in new people who may previously have thought that issues of gender, sexuality, and gender expression were not being considered in the Campaign. “Women in Poverty, Women in Leadership” was a great example of the “big tent” that is the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. An edited transcript of the event follows the video.
Rev. Emily McNeill: Welcome to this conversation about women in poverty and women in leadership. We’re going to get right into the program.
Barbara Smith: I have the impossible task of talking to you about women activists and the Civil Rights Movement in 15 minutes. It’s crazy.
I have some women to introduce you to, but first I want to say something about these books. First, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, by Jeanne Theoharis. It just so happens that Jeanne Theoharis is the sister of Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, who is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. I can’t imagine growing up in a family with such wonderful people.
Everybody needs to read this book. There is a chapter in this book, “The Great Man View of History, Part 2 – Where are the women?” I’ve learned a lot from reading that. Although I was actually in the Civil Rights Movement, and I was a woman in it, though young, it’s always the details. OK, next book, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts of Women in SNCC. It’s phenomenal. SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) is my ideal organization. I was never in SNCC, I was a little bit too young, but that’s an organization I would have been in had everything aligned. These are first person narratives of dozens and dozens of women who were in the Civil Rights Movement. Next, this is, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, by Barbara Ransby. Everybody needs to read this book. It’s like a manual. As far as I’m concerned the Jeanne Theoharis book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History, and this one by Barbara Ransby are the manuals for the Poor People’s Campaign. If you read these two books then you will know the way forward.
This is a picture of Georgia Theresa Gilmore. She was involved in Civil Rights and she was a philanthropist. She was born in 1920 and she died in 1990. She was a fantastic cook. She lived in Montgomery, Alabama and she would sell dinners, a tradition in the Black Church, at Civil Rights meetings. Martin Luther King, who of course was there, really loved her food. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott they indicted Civil Rights leaders and there was a trial and she testified at the trial because she had reacted when a white bus driver put her off the bus for not moving to the back and she said this, “When you pay your fare and they count the money they don’t know the Negro money from white money.”
Georgia worked at a place called the National Lunch Company where she was a cook. After the trial she no longer had that job. It’s not clear whether she was fired or whether she quit because she knew she would be fired. But Martin Luther King said to her, “Why don’t you start your own business?” and he helped her to start an informal restaurant in her house that became a meeting place and a club for the Civil Rights struggle and the food, of course, was to die for.
As the movement continued they had to set up an alternative transportation system in Montgomery for all those days of the strike. One of the things I learned from reading Jeanne Theoharis’ book is that they bought at one time 15 new station wagons. That’s the level of fundraising they were doing. Georgia decided that she would continue to sell food, but that she would give the proceeds to the movement. And she started this club that was called the “Club from Nowhere” and other black women joined her in this effort making poundcake, sweet potato pies, fried chicken, pork chops, etc. She was a philanthropist.
It’s well-known that the less money you have the more you give. When you look at the statistics about who gives the most proportionately, it’s always those of us who have the least. When those big philanthropists with their billions of dollars give 2 million, that’s pocket change for them. When we give $10 that’s sometimes a sacrifice. That’s what Georgia was doing. She died on the day that they were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march. She was actually cooking and she died that day. Her children served the food that she had been preparing as people came to the house.
This is Barbara Deming, Civil Rights, Peace, Women’s Rights and Lesbian Feminist activist. I met Barbara Deming for the first time when I was in college in the mid 1960s. Her book Prison Notes had just come out and I went and got the book and I devoured it. She had been in jail in Albany, Georgia for two months because of her Civil Rights activism. She was committed to nonviolence. She said, “All prisons that have existed in our society to date put people away as no human beings should ever be put away.” Doesn’t that sound familiar? The following is from American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea by Ira Chernus:
Barbara Deming was born in 1917 and died in 1984. She is probably the least known of all the great theorists of nonviolence in U.S. history. She certainly deserves to be better known because she holds a very important place in the history of the idea of nonviolence. She is the most influential thinker who developed a systematic argument for nonviolence with no religious basis. More than anyone else, Deming made it intellectually plausible and even respectable for non-religious people to commit themselves to nonviolence. So she helped make a place in the nonviolence movement for many people who might otherwise have been unsure whether they could embrace nonviolence.1Quotation excerpted from Ira Chernus, American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea, Orbis Books, 2004.
She got a 100-word obituary in The New York Times, because that’s how people who are really doing the work get treated.
This is Gloria Richardson, she was a Civil Rights activist with SNCC. Richardson lived in Cambridge, Maryland and her teenage daughter got involved with SNCC. Cambridge was very segregated had high unemployment and many other problems. She got involved through her daughter. She was militant. She did not subscribe to nonviolence, nor did the people in the organization that they formed, the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee.
In this image, if you can imagine right next to her there are five huge white police officers, with weapons, that she’s facing off. Because they did not subscribe to nonviolence the demonstrations in Cambridge often were more confrontational than in other places. The governor of Maryland sent in the Maryland National Guard and they stayed there for a year. So essentially the town was under martial law.
This is Fannie Lou Hamer, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights leader. She was born in 1917 and died in 1977. I met Fannie Lou Hamer when I was involved in the Civil Rights movement in the mid 1960s in Cleveland, Ohio. One of the things that Jeanne Theoharis documents is that there was a very robust Civil Rights movement in the North. I knew I was involved in the Civil Rights movement in Cleveland as a teenager, but I did not know about what was going on in New York or what was going on in Boston. All of these places were very far away from the Mason-Dixon line.
Because of my involvement in the Civil Rights movement and CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality specifically, one magical night my sister and I got to meet Fannie Lou Hamer. To me she was the heart of the Civil Rights movement. She was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was the 20th of 20 children. She was brutalized by the police state in Mississippi for trying to register to vote and for other infractions of activism. She was beaten almost to death and she never recovered from the injuries from a particular beating that she got when she was arrested and two black male prisoners were instructed to beat her almost to death. She was valiant. She was courageous. She’s the person who gave us, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Besides being involved in the Civil Rights struggle, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, she also was committed to women’s issues. She helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus in the early 1970s and she talked about reproductive rights because she had been sterilized against her will when she was in her mid-40s. She was also a song leader and you’ve never heard anybody sing unless you hear Fannie Lou Hamer sing. She was remarkable.
At the 1964 Democratic Convention an all-white delegation was seated from Mississippi and black people challenged that. This is the speech in which Fannie Lou Hamer asked over and over again in a refrain, “Is this America? Is this America?”
I’m going to read you something from Jeanne Theoharis’ book about something that happened when they arrested Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Alabama. I’m going to conclude with this:
Many female black domestic workers recounted confronting their employers when the people they worked for began to attack King. These women could deal with the slurs of the boycott, but when white people started making stuff up about King, this was a bridge too far. When the city indicted King and other boycott leaders people were determined they would not feel alone. A crowd grew outside the police station. Black women with bandanas on wearing men’s hats with their dresses rolled up. From the alleys they came. Reverend Sims recalled, one of the police hollered, “All right you women get back.” These great big ole women with their dresses rolled up told him, and I will never forget their language, “Us ain’t going nowhere. You don’t arrest us. You done arrested us preacher. We ain’t moving.”
I think that should be sufficient to get you involved.
Rev. Emily McNeill: We are now going to move into the next section of our program. Before that though, I have to say it is such an honor to be part of a program with such amazing women including Barbara Smith and now these folks up here on this panel who we will hear from now.
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is about the interconnected evils that are destroying our communities and our society. It is looking at poverty, systemic racism, militarism and ecological devastation.
In this conversation we’re going to talk a little bit more about how women are particularly impacted as well as how women always have been and still are leaders in these movements.
The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is about the interconnected evils that are destroying our communities and our society. It is looking at poverty, systemic racism, militarism and ecological devastation.
I’m going to introduce to you this panel that we have here briefly and then we’ll get right into it.
Michelle O’Leary is with us. She is the co-founder of The New York Water Project, which is an organization of women from Hoosick Falls, NY who have been working to advocate for their community and to raise awareness about the impact of toxic water pollution in New York and all over the country.
Tanya Grant is from Troy and is an organizer with 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East and also a leader in the capital region committee of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign. In her work she fights for health care workers in nursing homes and hospitals from all the way up in Fort Edwards all the way down to Poughkeepsie.
Brittany DeBarros is a member of About Face: Veterans Against the War and also a member of the New York State Coordinating Committee of the Poor People’s Campaign. She’s based in New York City. She’s an Army combat vet, an activist, and an entrepreneur striving for justice and opportunity for all.
Finally we have Kymlee Dorsey. Kym is a leader in the Capital Region Community. As a transgender woman of color who has learned how to effectively tell her story and organize in her community she is in a unique position to pass that along to other women, and she does. She runs a support group for trans women of color, appears publicly and leads events like the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is a celebration of trans lives that takes place every year in November.
I want to start by asking you each to reflect a little bit on what I just mentioned, that because of patriarchy and misogyny we know that women are disproportionately impacted by these structures of oppression. How have each of you seen women being particularly impacted by these evils in your life and organizing work?
Michelle O’Leary: From my personal experience, as far as trying to be a woman in a small rural community and organizing and trying to get the community aware of situations, to get people active, I was met with a lot of walls. I even had a local cop try to talk me into not really causing a stir, ruffling feathers, and basically I started out as just wanting to deliver water to the community because we couldn’t drink our water. I even had someone from the village board message me warning me not to ruffle any feathers and anytime I questioned anything, I was told “This is how we’ve always done it” — just let it slide, and that’s not how I work. I can say prior to moving to Hoosick Falls I was kind of quiet and stayed to myself. Hoosick Falls kind of lit a fire under my butt and I really started being more active and being more aware what was going on in my community and in my surroundings. I was angry, very very angry and I wasn’t going to take it lightly. It really opened me up out of my shell. If somebody told me I couldn’t do something that gave me all the more motivation to do it.
Rev. Emily McNeill: I think a lot of folks here are familiar with what happened in Hoosick Falls, but for those who might not be can you just summarize briefly what was going on?
Michelle O’Leary: In late 2015 I had just purchased a house. A month later, after the closing, Judith Anke with the EPA announced that we had toxic contaminants in our water. This was after the New York State Department of Health had said our water’s fine, just use it sparingly. Judith was adamant, “Do you not drink your water. Limit your showers. Do anything you can to avoid this water.”
And being a rural community with a lot of elderly people my first task was how are people going to function without water. Within those first few days I realized how much I interact with water, how much water is a necessity of life and knowing that I had transportation and I was able to go and get water just made me worry about those who weren’t in that position. That’s when I actually set up my first meeting to call for volunteers and try to get a plan in action to get water throughout the community. We spent about a year and a half living on bottled water. The Health Department came back after some testing and filtration was finally put in, which is a whole separate battle with New York State. The Health Department swore that we could still drink our water. Many of us still did not believe them, because the same department that told us the toxic water was fine in the beginning is now telling us your water is safe and fine. We weren’t falling for it. That’s how I started. By doing the water deliveries I met more people in the community and we decided that we were going to start taking things to the state. We visited the state capitol last year and presented people that were coming out of their meetings with polluted water. None of them would accept it. A few were actually very rude to us. Many were understanding and helpful. A few even told us, kind of on the sidelines, to keep going, keep pushing and do what you gotta do.
The infrastructure and water throughout the United States is horrific ... this shouldn't be something that we have to fight for all the time. It's water.
That’s when The New York Water Project formed. We wanted to have ourselves taken more seriously and really let them know that we’re not backing down, we’re not stopping. It is a right for us to have access to clean, safe water and we’re not going to just go along and lay down and take it lightly. We got an emergent contaminants bill started in New York City. There is now a water quality group that meets every few months and their main goal is to discuss New York State’s Water Quality and how they can make improvements. There was also an issue with communities under a certain number of people who didn’t have their water tested as often as larger communities and we pushed for them to make it a normal thing for everyone throughout New York State, not just for large communities. Being in a rural community we kind of felt forgotten and so we basically just kept pushing to let Cuomo know, we’re still here, we’re still here and we’re not going anywhere. Through those efforts we’ve connected with people in Flint and people in other states that have PFOA and other contamination as well as other stuff. It’s not just a New York thing. We’ve really ventured out and connected to people all over.
The infrastructure and water throughout the United States is horrific. And like the lady in the video said, we’re in the United States and this shouldn’t be something that we have to fight for all the time. It’s water.
Rev. Emily McNeill: Thank you so much Michelle. Tanya, can you share some of your experience?
Tanya Grant: My job is to go out and represent healthcare workers on a daily basis. A lot of them are low-income healthcare workers. The majority of my workers happen to be female. In healthcare the majority of our CNA’s, our LPN’s, our housekeepers, our dietary department, are women. They provide the care to some of our most fragile community members, our elderly, they help our sick, they help our children, they help our babies. It is difficult to sit back and watch this demographic, females, struggle day-to-day on how they’re going to get their bills paid. The majority of CNA’s I represent especially in the Capital Area are African-American or Latino females. In the nursing homes, taking care of your grandmothers, taking care of your wives, taking care of your cousins, your sisters, your aunts. And a lot of them struggle to make ends meet. They work two or three jobs and we have employers, the administration, which is a predominantly Caucasian male demographic, putting in rules and regulations on how much we’re going to pay them. How much their health insurance is going to cost. What time off they’re going to get to spend with their families. How many hours they have to work. We have a lot of CNA’s and nurses that have Forced Mandation, where I want to go home to be with my family after I’ve worked an eight hour shift, but I can’t go home because I’m mandated to stay here. This is what happens. But guess what? Administration goes home at 5:00 sharp.
On a personal note, as a woman of color the people that I talk to are lawyers, administrators — I’m not. I’m an LPN. I don’t have a degree in law. I don’t know anything about negotiating properly, but I do know that nobody should have to work two jobs to get a bill paid. Nobody should have to make a decision about who’s going to take care of their kids because they’re stuck and mandated to work. Nobody should give up a vacation day because they can’t afford it. That’s what I work with. Those are the demographics that I represent. In my job I will go in and tell their Caucasian male administer, “absolutely not, you are going to give them a decent raise — You absolutely are going to give them some time off — No you are not going to just fire them because you felt like it. There are rules and regulations that have to be followed. On top of that you are going to provide adequate staff so that the residents that are in these nursing homes and the patients that are in these hospitals have the support they need to be taken care of.”
So, that’s what I do. That’s my personal experience and what I see on a day to day basis.
I don't know anything about negotiating properly, but I do know that nobody should have to work two jobs to get a bill paid.
Rev. Emily McNeill: Thank you Tanya. Kym, can we hear from you next?
Kymlee Dorsey: Good evening everyone and thank you for coming out. When asked to come here I was really hesitant because I wasn’t sure where my voice would be heard, but then I sat and listened to Barbara’s introduction and I spoke to the gentleman next to me who helped me understand the reason why we are here. Then I started realizing I am part of the Poor People’s Campaign.
I developed a program called STYLE. It stands for Self Turn Around of Your Living Environment. Everyone likes style. Everyone has style. Everyone looks to achieve style. It is something that I saw we all had in common. I was raised by my Native American grandmother and African-American grandfather who taught me that God don’t make mistakes and you’re here for a purpose. I started thinking to myself, “What is my purpose?” Am I supposed to just go along and live somewhat of a privileged life, because I came from a family that was celebrating me, that lifted me up more so then tore me down? I did walk in somewhat of a privileged situation. I thought to myself, well what could I do with that? How can I galvanize my community so I can give them the love that I was given at home? When I walk out my doors I knew I was part of this tapestry we call America. That’s what started my journey.
Now that I sit in this room here I think to myself, how can I get my community to understand that they are women? That they are needed? That they are a part of this group that we sit in front of right now? As I look around I see a lot of privileged faces, but then I think to myself you are just dis-privileged as well. In having privilege you lack the ability or the sympathy to see others and their lack of privilege. I applaud everyone that came today because I believe that from this group we all will go out and become these little ripples that will start to unite our world. To start to change our thought patterns, to begin to let people know that we are all the same. Thank you.
I started realizing I am part of the Poor People's Campaign ... I believe that from this group we all will go out and become these little ripples that will start to unite our world.
Rev. Emily McNeill: Thank you. Brittany?
Brittany DeBarros: Good evening. I don’t have as deep of a history to talk about when it comes to my personal contribution to organizing because I’m pretty new to the game. I am an Army captain. I’m still in the military. I’m counting down my months that are left. I spent a year in Afghanistan a few years back. It’s still strange for me to think about myself as a directly impacted person as far as it relates to the Poor People’s Campaign’s efforts to follow the leadership of directly impacted people. The idea of leadership of directly impacted people was a little strange to me at first because when I think about directly impacted people I think about the countries that we’ve destabilized. I think about the fact that I spent a year in Afghanistan speaking with Afghan people who were trying to overcome the oppressive regime that we funded and expanded and that transformed the face of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan used to be a European tourist destination. I don’t think that’s the Afghanistan that a lot of people think about today because our narratives about what Islam is and about what the Middle East is and about terrorism have become so powerful. Afghanistan is a beautiful country with beautiful people and a beautiful long history. The United States has played a very important and instrumental role in the destruction that exists in Afghanistan. I think that it’s important first for us to start with that. It’s difficult for me to sit here and talk about myself as someone directly impacted because so often when we have these liberation discussions when we’re talking about poverty and racism and when we think about black lives and brown lives unintentionally our concern for those black and brown lives end at our borders. That nationalism and that nativism is another form of bigotry that, if we really want a revolutionary movement, cannot be a part of our movement.
The way that I was impacted is in all of the obvious ways that it’s difficult to be a female leader in the military. My experience coming back was so different than many of my colleagues. They came back and said they longed to deploy again because they missed the camaraderie and felt so out of place. I came back and I felt disconnected from everything about being a veteran. I felt uncomfortable on Veteran’s Day. I didn’t want to go to work because it felt so awkward. I rarely brought up the fact that I was a veteran. I was awkward when people said thank you for your service because everything about it for me felt like intense isolation and fighting your own people. We were supposed to be in this space of camaraderie and yet I felt like I spent most of my time fighting my own people for basic respect and humanity. I came back to a culture that glorified everything that I thought was not heroic at all about what we were doing.
I was awkward when people said thank you for your service because everything about it for me felt like intense isolation and fighting your own people.
I’m a little in my feelings tonight y’all so you’ll have to forgive me. I guess the point is that it’s important that this be a part of the conversation because fundamentally when you think about militarism it is the prioritization of violence and force to implement political ideology. I think when you step outside of our static understanding of the military and war if you think about immigration and if you think about what’s happening in our schools and all of these other things you can see the imprint of a culture of militarism across our society.
Rev. Emily McNeill: Thank you Brittany.
We’re going to do just one more question and then we’re going to open it up for you all to you ask some questions of our panel. Obviously, as we heard from Barbara, women’s leadership has always been really important to struggles for justice. I wonder if you could talk about how you’ve all seen that impact of women’s leadership in your contexts.
I think we’ll start with Kym.
Kymlee Dorsey: Women’s leadership? Well the time was up. I mean it is needed. I always felt that women were the powerful ones of the universe from day one. Their leadership was always there. We are nurturers. We are teachers. We are people who helped the world survive. I always saw the women as leaders. What I like now is that we’re getting our voice. We’re starting to not stand behind the man’s role and not be led by a man’s world. What I like to call “society trained” where we believed that it was a man’s world. From James Brown singing it was a man’s world in the 60s. What I like now in 2018 is that not only women’s voices are being heard, trans women’s voices are being heard, queer women’s voices are being heard. We’re allowing the whole voice of women to be heard. For me it just it empowers me so much. I remember being 5 and 6 and my grandfather always telling me just because they didn’t talk about you in the garden didn’t mean you wasn’t there. It was on you to tell your story. When I walked out of my house at 5 and 6 and entered kindergarten I went into school with that thought. What he didn’t tell me is there was going to be ninety nine thousand others who did not agree with you.
My need to be boisterous and strong became empowered by knowing that I mattered. Having women speak now is a joyful note to know that we matter. We are all now speaking our own voices, our own truths and we’re finding space for everybody’s voice to be heard.
Brittany DeBarros: I think that the amazing thing is that you cannot talk about militarism without the fact that half of our discretionary dollars go to the Department of Defense and to war, the fact that we — this September — will have been at war for 17 years and we will have youth enlisting in the military who were not born when the Iraq war was authorized for the first time. Isn’t that crazy?
Those things impact funding for social programs, for education, for all of these things. They impact the very fabric of our culture and the context in which our youth are growing up. You can’t talk about those things though, you can’t deconstruct militarism without talking about masculinity. Fundamentally, in modern times our understanding of masculinity is rooted in the use of aggression and force. Those have been discussed and picked apart as intertwined concepts by women, particularly black women feminists, who have shaped our modern understanding of the way that those concepts are interrelated. You don’t have a peace movement with any level of sophistication or understanding of intersectionality without women leaders and without understanding bell hooks and Audre Lorde and without having read all of these women who wrote beautiful and groundbreaking works about how the intersections of these different experiences and identities shaped the social fabric that are existing in.
[Militarism impacts] the very fabric of our culture and the context in which our youth are growing up.
The peace movement or the antiwar movement is particularly guilty of this. It talks about itself as if it’s a movement that only exists in the United States. It says we’re going to save people from our war making. This is important, but it almost replicates this very patronizing, very Western view of our placement in respect to the rest of the world. I say that because some of the most amazing activists I’ve seen are women in Afghanistan who have organized massive movements to reinstate schools, to police their communities and to create safety in their communities. It’s the same thing in Iraq. There are amazing women who are leading the charge to rebuild their communities and to uplift their communities outside of really harmful interpretations of social norms and of religious doctrine and things like that.
[S]ome of the most amazing activists I've seen are women in Afghanistan who have organized massive movements to reinstate schools, to police their communities and to create safety in their communities.
One of the most powerful things that I see in the movement is the opportunity for solidarity with women not just here, not just pushing for change and really complex and deep understanding of the ways that we have to pick apart militarism in our police forces, in our schools, in our economy, but in solidarity with women who are able to educate us and revolutionize our ability to see people around the world as empowered and powerful people that we should be working arm in arm with and working in support of and following when they tell us what empowerment looks like for them and what rebuilding looks like for them.
Rev. Emily McNeill: Thank you.
Tanya Grant: This is what I see. We have 535 people that sit in our government and out of that only 46 in our House are African-American. That’s a problem. Our voices are not being heard. There are only 34 that are Hispanic and there are only 15 that are Asian. In our Senate there are only three African-American, three Hispanic, and three Asian. Our voices are not being heard. I see the opposite. I see where our voices are not being heard. I see where we are not having the opportunity to speak out on our issues. I see opportunity for any one of us in this room to step up and shine and stand out and have your voice heard. Run for office. Run for a seat. Get some recognition because we need to be heard. We’re the mothers. We’re the nurturers. We’re the sisters. We’re the ones that push up and push forward those male activists. Martin Luther King had a soft shoulder to go home and do that pillow talk with. That was important. If you didn’t have that woman’s voice to say, “you know what it’s gonna be OK,” you might not have been able to go out there and do what you did. You had those mothers that were encouraging them, pushing their sons to go out there and stand on the front lines and get arrested, or get on that bus and boycott.
That’s our voice. We play a huge role. When you start looking at activists you’ll see a lot of women out there. We’re the backbone. We’re the backbone of the family. We’re the backbone of society. We’re the backbone of every major movement that you see. I think our voices need to be heard. We need to be home talking to our sons encouraging them. We need to be talking to our daughters and telling them that it’s OK. It’s OK that you stand up. It’s OK that you don’t take a subservient position. You can still be very feminine and stand up for what you believe in. You can do that. We need to encourage ourselves. Encourage our daughters. We need to talk to our sons and tell them that it’s OK to encourage their wife to go out and not have to stay home. It’s OK to encourage your daughter to take a dominant role. That’s where I feel our voice needs to be heard. In our union and healthcare system what I see is that they’ve given me that platform to do that. Maybe six years ago I wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation with anybody.
They’ve given me a platform where I can express my views and have a group of people like you actually listen to what I have to say.
When you start looking at activists you'll see a lot of women out there. We're the backbone. We're the backbone of the family. We're the backbone of society. We're the backbone of every major movement that you see. I think our voices need to be heard.
Rev. Emily McNeill: Michelle, how do you see the impact of women’s leadership in your context?
Michelle O’Leary: From my experiences with the struggle around water and pollution I’ve connected with people around the globe. There are men involved, but a majority of the people that I’ve connected to are women. A lot of these same women were like me, stay-at-home moms, not really involved in social stuff. I guess it’s that Mama Bear syndrome where once your children are in danger you have to do something. A majority of the people that I do communicate with are women. They are leading the fight as far as water and pollution and fighting these corporations. They are moms who have had miscarriages, children with birth defects. The stories I’ve heard when I interact with people are horrific and heartbreaking, but there’s something to be said about a woman, once you get her angry you have to be prepared for the fallout.
Women seem to be leading the charge on so many things and I’m proud of that. I have an almost 16-year-old daughter at home and a 12-year-old son. I wish I was half the girl at 15 that she is. She is empowered. She’s vocal. She’s loud. She doesn’t put up with anybody’s crap. I’m absolutely thrilled that she’s my kid. When people meet her they know that’s my kid and I love it.
The stories I've heard when I interact with people are horrific and heartbreaking, but there's something to be said about a woman, once you get her angry you have to be prepared for the fallout.
Rev. Emily McNeill: Thank you. Now we’re going to give you all the opportunity to ask some questions of our panelists.
Audience Question: I really don’t know anything about this group. I want to know who you are and what’s the biggest aim? Are you working on changing the finances of women, or ending war finance?
Brittany DeBarros: To the question about why we are here and what are we working on and what can you do: from my perspective the big picture of what this work is about is seeing how during the Civil Rights movement we had a moment. That moment was about understanding the collective power of people rising up and changing something about our material understanding of how we relate to each other.
We can’t take on these oppressive systems as a whole and we can’t take them on only in the piecemeal individual ways that we can do at the local level. We have to build infrastructure to connect the dots between these things vertically and then we have to understand that we can’t grapple with militarism and the military industrial complex without grappling with gender issues and with the way that we’re teaching our boys to understand masculinity and the way that we’re teaching our girls to understand masculinity. We can’t grapple with that without understanding the disproportionate impacts of race and the way that race plays into everything in our foreign policy making decisions. It’s not an accident that we’re bombing eight countries and all of them are black and brown countries. That’s not an accident. It’s not an accident that we’re fighting tooth and nail to get Senators to take a position on whether or not we should be involved in an undeclared war in Yemen right now. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East.
Poverty, race, gender — we have to stop fighting these fights in isolation. That’s what this movement is about. That’s what the Poor People’s Campaign is about. We can’t have a Women’s Rights movement and an Antiwar Movement and a Black Lives Matter movement, because fundamentally all of our fates are connected to each other. We have to fight in our lane, but we have to fight alongside each other and we can’t allow these identities to be used against us. If we’re not fighting arm in arm then those identities get used against us to divide us.
Poverty, race, gender — we have to stop fighting these fights in isolation. That's what this movement is about. That's what the Poor People's Campaign is about.
Kymlee Dorsey: Yes! Speaking to the lady’s question about why we’re here, just for that purpose alone — to unify. What can we do? Unify. I mean it’s just as simple as the system versus the people. We are the people. We started out with, “We are the people.” That’s what we were born on and that’s what we were built on. We have to get back to that and stop letting the system and everything in the system speak for us.
Michelle O’Leary: My reason for being here? Like I said earlier, when I first started out I was quiet. I didn’t really get into much of anything. I spent about two weeks miserable and feeling defeated. I kept asking myself, “Who will do something?”, “Who’s going to do something about this?”, “Who’s going to act?” Finally one day I said, “Well no one else is stepping up to the plate. That person needs to be me.” That’s a huge point that I’ve tried to make numerous times. I’m not a big fan of public speaking, but whenever I do speak to people I try to emphasize that. Instead of wondering, Who? Who? Who? Make that person yourself. Nothing’s ever going to be done for you if you don’t start asking questions. If you don’t start pursuing things you’ll never have the answers to what you’re seeking. You have to work to achieve that goal.
Rev. Emily McNeill: How amazing are these women? Thank you all.
What can we do? Unify. I mean it's just as simple as the system versus the people. We are the people. We started out with, "We are the people." That's what we were born on and that's what we were built on. We have to get back to that and stop letting the system and everything in the system speak for us.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Quotation excerpted from Ira Chernus, American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea, Orbis Books, 2004.|