The Fellows Program at the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary has worked with students for over a decade. Its cohorts are drawn from a range of programs, including seminary field education and supervised ministries, undergraduate internships, field work terms, and year of service projects.
The program is central to our mission of raising up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to a movement to end poverty, led by the poor. Below, three recent fellows reflect on their time at Kairos and the contributions they have made to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
I intern at the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Founded in 2017, the Poor People’s Campaign builds on work by the Poverty Initiative to gather partners and allies to move toward a new Poor People’s Campaign coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the one begun by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967 and on which he was working when he was assassinated. The goal is to abolish poverty in the U.S while connecting with global movements for economic justice. I feel privileged to have been introduced to this program and to work with people from different walks of life who are coming together for a common cause which affects us all.
I immigrated to the United States because it was the only way I would have access to higher education. I have lived in this country for five years as a first-generation college student. While I may not be able to tell you about the history of this country, I believe in opening doors for knowledge and power. The Campaign works to give a voice to the voiceless. Before I started this internship, I never thought about how laws were passed and how greed influences policy decisions. This changed when I started this internship. First, I went to Albany to fight for housing and health care for all. We went to the state legislature to let them know our demands, and to hold them accountable for the decisions they have made. They were not there, but it felt good, because we left our demands, and they know we were there.
Seeing people of all shades and walks of life coming together for the greater good gives me overwhelming satisfaction. It has inspired me to want to do more. Even though I just started working with the Poor People’s Campaign, I feel connected and valued. I feel like I am doing something for other people. It feels like I am being selfless but advocating for myself as well. Everyone has a story and it is important to highlight each unique story. With this internship, I am learning more about what I love.
—Sueshana Brown, Social Work Major and Human Rights Minor, Class of 2020
Nearly a year ago I was accepted to the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship. The fellowship program trains and inspires new leaders in the movement to end hunger and poverty in the United States. Fellows gain vital first-hand experience through placements with community-based organizations across the country as well as policy-focused organizations in Washington, D.C. The program bridges gaps between local efforts and national public policy, as fellows support partner organizations with program development, research, evaluation, outreach, organizing, and advocacy projects. I came into this fellowship eager to learn as much as I could about grassroots efforts to address poverty in this country.
When I was placed with the Kairos Center, I felt rooted in history. I grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, only a few miles away from Marks, the city where the original Poor People’s Campaign began. Mississippi is my home. The roots my family struggled to lay there ground me in the work of this Campaign. Mississippi is also a nexus of continued Black disenfranchisement, poverty, and pain. Years ago, my grandparents were afraid of the voting booth. That fear continues to plague our community. During my time as a grassroots organizer in Mississippi, I saw firsthand the passion, wisdom, and grit my state holds. The Poor People’s Campaign uses that passion and history to continue to fight against the evils of poverty, greed, and disenfranchisement.
My policy work with the Kairos Center has given me a crucial look into systemic evils of this country. I’m a part of the policy team, and at the crux of my work is a study on this year’s presidential primary. Particularly, looking at what issues push low-income voters to the polls and what forces that have been constructed to keep them away from the polls. This research is being used by the Campaign to assist in building the capacity to address systemic issues present in this country.
The entire Campaign team is so committed to justice. Even during the pandemic I have noticed everyone’s genuine passion and understanding of the interconnectedness of oppressions. Everyone is given the space to grow and learn. All of us are fighting for the right to live. I’m proud to be contributing to the Poor People’s Campaign and look forward to keep fighting in the future.
—Jarvis Benson, Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow
As an intern at Kairos, one of my tasks has been live-tweeting the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival’s We Must Do MORE Tour, sometimes in person, physically present at the event, other times via a livestream. No matter where I am, however, the bulk of my tweets and quotes are from people who are directly impacted by the issues the Poor People’s Campaign seeks to address. Their voices are the center of each event, and the center of much of the other work I’ve done.
Similarly, the beginning of every single meeting, no matter how large, involves some level of check-in with all of the participants. On the biggest calls, check-ins can as simple as your name and state, but on smaller calls I’ve had check-ins that take the larger part of a meeting as co-workers and participants dive into the ways that people’s personal life relates to work and center their relationships. From long car rides and bus trips to We Must Do MORE Tour stops, to quick coffee breaks in the office, everyone at the Kairos Center is genuinely interested in building a relationship with and learning from me, other interns, volunteers, and each other. They have a strong sense of the relationship building that is necessary to bring people in and to keep people invested by valuing others and their perspectives.
While I have learned many lessons from my time so far at Kairos, the biggest take away has been an emphasis on the importance of listening and of centering people who are directly affected by the issues we discuss. Several of the other lessons that I have learned have come directly from these acts of listening and relationship building. As someone who has often focused on data and the bigger picture, centering stories and relationships have provided important context, ideas, and perspectives. Even though I’m not able to bring the Kairos Center with me to grad school in a new city, I will definitely carry these lessons with me into grad school and beyond.
—Anna Bintinger, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Young Adult Volunteer