The strength of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is in its locally-based leaders and struggles. As the Fundamental Principles of the Campaign state, “The movement is not from above but below.” One of our aims at the Kairos Center is to amplify the voices of these leaders and struggles to show how they are uniting to form a powerful movement.
Rev. Emily McNeill and Joe Paparone are two Campaign leaders from the Labor-Religion Coalition of NYS, based in Albany, New York. Emily and Joe have been working for years in New York to build up the power of poor people. They have taken a central role in organizing the Poor People’s Campaign in New York State. In this interview with Nic Laccetti and Adam Barnes of the Kairos Center, we learn more about their background and work, their insights on the Campaign, and their reflections on the role of spirituality and theology in the movement.
Nic Laccetti: We are in the midst of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival right now, but before it was launched you all in New York State were very active, traveling around the state doing a series of Truth Commissions to learn more about the conditions of poverty and grassroots leadership in New York. Can you describe that process a little more?
Rev. Emily McNeill: I became familiar with the truth commission process about eight years ago while I was a student at Union Theological Seminary and working with the Kairos Center, or what was known then as the Poverty Initiative. That is where I met and studied with folks from the network of grassroots leaders that Kairos has built up all over the U.S. At the core of the truth commission process is the idea that the people impacted by social problems have not only their experiences to share, but also deep insights about the causes of these problems and a vision for how to resolve them.
Nic: When did you start doing truth commissions in New York?
Emily: About a year and a half ago. We always wanted to connect them to the activity of the Poor People’s Campaign, but from our work in New York State it became really clear that truth commissions would just be really important to address some of the challenges that we found in doing state organizing.
We started last summer in Cuba, New York. Cuba is down in the southwestern part of the state, which is a very rural area. In July we held one in the Capitol Region, near Albany. Then in September we held a commission on Long Island. We chose to hold the truth commissions in these places because they represented diverse kinds of communities in New York State: rural (Cuba), urban (Albany), and suburban (Long Island). Also, because there’s already a lot of organizing infrastructure in New York City, so we wanted to start outside of the City.
When people told their stories we saw that there were certainly diverse experiences and struggles across the State, but we could also see how they were all strongly connected. The first truth commissions were important for helping build organization across the state between groups and places that haven’t traditionally been working together.
Nic: How were the commissions organized?
Emily: We had four primary goals in organizing the commissions. First, we wanted folks to be able to tell the truth about the things we are facing on the ground. Second, we wanted to tell the truth about the values that we share and how the system we face does not align with the values we want our communities to have. Third, we wanted to show that those directly impacted are already taking leadership and organizing a response. And finally, to talk about how the resources to end these conditions exist in our state.
People shared a wide variety of perspectives on what was happening and what we could do about it, but one of the main conclusions was that we are facing a lot of the same issues and we identified a lot of places where our efforts could overlap.
Nic: Part of what was amazing about this process was that you pulled together all of the testimonies into an in-depth report that you released online. What were some of the insights that you would highlight from this report?
Joe Paparone: We were already familiar with a lot of the issues facing NY State, but by taking the time to go deeper and listen closely to people, the depth of the crisis became clearer and much more visceral. We can imagine poverty in the abstract, but when someone is describing how they walk through their daily life encountering hurdle after hurdle, at every office, at the schools, in the transportation system, etc., these concrete details really help to broaden and sharpen the analysis. It allowed us to be clearer about the kind of change we actually need to improve life for people.
Another important insight for me was seeing how at first a lot of organizers were very skeptical about the truth commission process. They didn’t believe that you could just pull people together to share their stories and that somehow something would grow out of that. I think it seemed impractical to them, which I can understand—but, of course, after we held the hearings these same organizers could clearly see how valuable the commissions were. On the other hand, the testifiers trusted right away that there was value in sharing the truth of what they were encountering and they left these events feeling strengthened and connected to something bigger.
The testifiers trusted right away that there was value in sharing the truth of what they were encountering and they left these events feeling strengthened and connected to something bigger.
Emily: When we started we didn’t really know how the commissions would look or how we would publish the report. Through the process of talking to people we identified three major myths that were discredited at all of the different commissions. With the report we wanted to develop a larger analysis of where we are as a state and not just come up with a list of policy recommendations.
One of the myths that came up again and again was that state benefits are adequate. There is a perception that New York is really progressive and the safety net covers everyone, which is just absurd. Another myth, which was kind of the opposite side of the first myth, was that anti-poverty programs don’t work and that we’re just wasting our money trying to help the poor. This was clearly disproven by just listening to people’s stories. Lastly, there was this strong myth that education and job training were the way to end poverty. When jobs don’t exist and education is inadequate and underfunded, that obviously isn’t the answer.
Ultimately the recommendations were about arguing that we need a movement, that we need the Poor People’s Campaign. The findings affirmed that if we are going to truly end these conditions we need an approach that is led by the people directly impacted, that will bring people together across divides. This means building a social movement and not just a lobbying campaign focused on a single issue.
The findings affirmed that if we are going to truly end these conditions we need an approach that is led by the people directly impacted, that will bring people together across divides.
Nic: The end of the truth commission process was combined with a Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival Mass Meeting in Binghamton, NY. Can you talk a little about this coming together of your work in New York and the national Campaign?
Joe: The Mass Meeting was incredible. We were closely involved in organizing it and did a lot of the logistics to pull it off. We were very busy in the weeks before making sure that all the pieces were lined up. We anticipated a great event, but in the end it went far beyond our expectations. We packed the house with almost 700 people. I’m pretty sure that the Church where we held it has never had that many people in it at one time. It was a very powerful experience and definitely felt like we were connecting to something very big and strong in this country.
There are also a couple of specific things about the Campaign that I felt really resonated with people in New York State. The first is the leadership of Rev. Barber. It is not just that he speaks so powerfully and eloquently, but the way that he does it invites everyone in to be part of this Campaign and movement. When people hear him they are moved on a deeply moral level.
As important as his speaking is the other incredible part of the Mass Meeting was the prominence of folks giving testimony from the various truth commissions. These are directly impacted leaders: Liz James from Schenectady who works with the Fight for 15, Jackie Bogart from the Food Bank of the Southern Tier Speakers Bureau, Matt Howard with About Face: Veterans Against the War, and Bobby Black who does a lot to fight against the criminalization of the poor.
Emily: We also did a day-long conference after the Mass Meeting, which gave us a really good opportunity to reflect on the truth commission report in the wider context of the Poor People’s Campaign. I think we could all see how the national Campaign was really grounded in local struggles like those in New York and that the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival really was building its strength from what was going on in the states at the grassroots level.
Nic: Religion and spirituality are clearly central to this work. Emily, you are an ordained minister and Joe, you’re in an ordination process. Can you tell us a little more about what brought you into this work and how it is informed by your religious and spiritual beliefs and practices?
Emily: I grew up in the Church and my understanding of Christianity and the Gospel was always very much connected to justice and care for the poor and marginalized. From an early age my faith was important to me and fighting for justice was how I lived it out. However, growing up in a white, somewhat liberal, Protestant Church, justice work was always framed as charity. I had a social justice analysis, but the way it was usually presented was in terms of how we got institutions of power to help the people who have been disempowered.
This started to change by being more engaged with people who did this kind of work. An important moment for me was in college when I spent a couple summers in Palestine and saw evil in a new way. I saw it in institutions that I had trusted to respond in a meaningful and compassionate way. Once I had that experience I began to read the Bible differently. On the one hand you have stories about how powerful people try to consolidate resources and wealth at the expense of the poor and at the same time the Bible tells stories about the poor themselves putting forth a different vision and organizing against those oppressive powers. Going to seminary at Union and working with Kairos really solidified that understanding through study and by getting to know some of the people in this country that are leaders in the movement.
Now as a leader with the New York Labor-Religion Coalition and through our effort to help build the Poor People’s Campaign I continue to understand what I’m doing as my Christian ministry. It is what the Gospel calls me to do.
The Bible tells stories about the poor themselves putting forth a different vision and organizing against those oppressive powers.
Nic: Joe, can you share some of your experience?
Joe: Sure. My formative faith experiences were actually in a conservative Evangelical context. Being a part of this community helped me have deep, spiritual experiences, which led me to make dramatic changes in my life. I also saw how many others around me had similar experiences. In its healthiest form these spiritual experiences were this process whereby people honestly searched for their deepest beliefs and values and then aggressively sought to live them out in the world. I was in college when I was going through this and it started me thinking about how the Church, as a community that helped create and nurture these experiences, could be an effective and positive location for broader change in society. This understanding evolved over time. At first it focused on individual transformation, but eventually I came to see the connection of individual transformation with social change.
An important turning point in my journey came when I was in Cambodia as part of my training to become a minister. While I was there I met this amazing missionary doctor who was pretty conservative theologically and politically, but it was him who actually opened my eyes to the evils of capitalism.
I remember when I was leaving Cambodia he was driving us to the border telling us about how, when he returns to the U.S. to share his experience with different churches, the audience was always most interested in the perceived contention between Christianity and Buddhism, or Christianity and the Animist religions of Cambodia. In his opinion these differences were not at all what were causing people to suffer so much in Cambodia. It was capitalism. The wealthy nations that surrounded Cambodia ruthlessly exploited its resources and its people, in some cases literally stealing its children.
That experience really started me thinking much more systemically and structurally about how the Church and people of faith are called to change the world. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but when I returned and continued my training for the ministry I knew what I really wanted to do was community organizing. I feel like I ended up in a pretty perfect place with the work that we’re doing today at New York Labor-Religion Coalition and the Poor People’s Campaign.
That experience really started me thinking much more systemically and structurally about how the Church and people of faith are called to change the world.
Nic: It’s really helpful to hear your stories. In my experience there are a lot of people who want to combine religious ministry and the fight for justice, but often don’t have that many positive models.
How have you seen theology and spirituality empower or in some cases possibly harm the work that you all are part of in New York State? Did spirituality and religion come out in any of the truth commissions? Is there an emerging spirituality and theology that this work for justice is helping to discover, similar to the way that the liberation struggles in Latin America in the ’70s and ’80s helped to produce a theology of liberation?
Emily: That is a very exciting question! I can’t recall any specific examples of testimonies where people spoke directly about spirituality or theology. However, I would say that I remember very strongly getting the sense during the arts and culture portion of the truth commissions that people were feeling and expressing something religious or spiritual. For example, in Schenectady, Charon Hribar [of the Kairos Center] led us in a couple of songs and this just gave the whole gathering a different feel. I think many in the room have had some experience of being in church or part of some kind of worship space and our collective singing at the end of the truth commission evoked that in people. Having that feeling emerge in the context of these sincere and insightful testimonies of what is going on in this state and society was very powerful.
I definitely felt this kind of spirituality at the Mass Meeting in Binghamton. It was much more explicitly religious with a liturgy and preaching and all, but the way it was done, as Joe pointed out, really invited everyone in. No matter how people identified with religion, it felt like this Campaign was for all of us, and the door was wide open for us to engage and bring our whole self—emotionally, spiritually, and politically.
Finally, I would add that in my experience, whether or not people ascribe to a particular faith, you can definitely tell when someone really believes in the struggle and believes that change is possible. That difference is a kind of spiritual power in my opinion. You can just see and feel the difference between someone who truly believes change is right and possible from someone who may hold the same values but does not really believe it’s possible. I’ve picked up on this a lot in our work.
You can definitely tell when someone really believes in the struggle and believes that change is possible. That difference is a kind of spiritual power in my opinion.
Nic: When I was at the Binghamton meeting the strong religious nature of things was striking. Like Joe said, for a lot of the churches that are holding these meetings they haven’t been filled to capacity in a long time. I think it’s really notable, both that this Campaign is bringing people together in churches and through a justice-centered liturgy.
Adam Barnes: In my experience helping to organize with this Campaign, there are a lot of questions about this idea of the leadership of the poor. Some of the more traditional liberal-minded folks see the leadership of the poor as putting poor people into positions of leadership out of sympathy or pity. Then you have others who have trouble with the idea because it seems to exclude people who aren’t poor from being leaders in the Campaign. For me, looking at it theologically can help to clarify. What are your thoughts about this? How have you communicated this idea to folks or seen it demonstrated in your work?
Joe: What leadership of the poor makes me think of is the word ‘solidarity’, which I guess is traditionally a union or labor movement word. For me solidarity really encapsulates what I feel like we all are striving for and grasping for in the struggle for justice regardless of our social location. When you’re wealthy or middle class and give to others out of charity there is a feeling of being disconnected from people. At the same time, those who are on the receiving end of charity feel disconnected, as if they are part of some kind of impersonal transaction.
I think solidarity has deep theological implications. If I were back in seminary I would try to write on the theology of solidarity because I think it would really contribute to how we think about collective liberation—how we are all bound up with each other and with God.
I think solidarity has deep theological implications . . . we are all bound up with each other and with God.
Emily: In my experience it has been difficult to get the kind of traditional liberal crowd, activists, non-profit staff, etc., to truly believe that poor people are capable of leadership. However, this is one of the things that has been amazing about the truth commission process and the broader Campaign. At these events we have been able to create spaces for people to just see that the poor are leaders. When it happens right in front of you it’s harder to deny.
For the truth commissions we really didn’t do that much work to prepare folks with their testimony. Most people just signed up and showed up. I’ve seen situations where paid organizers write the statements for workers because they clearly feel that the worker couldn’t do it without help.
By holding up the leadership of the poor as a core principle of this Campaign it shows that we have faith in people and we believe that no matter your circumstances people have incredible talents and insights. At the same time, I think it is important to recognize that we aren’t saying it is as simple as just making space for people to be leaders. Part of the idea of leadership of the poor is a focused effort on developing leaders and integrating rigorous education into the work of struggle.
Part of the idea of leadership of the poor is a focused effort on developing leaders and integrating rigorous education into the work of struggle.
Nic: Yeah, one of the things that struck me about the truth commissions was how people could just sign up at the event and testify that night. I know at the Long Island truth commission and the one in Schenectady you had an overflow of testimonies. The decision to do this seemed to support what you’re saying Emily. It was a decision made out of faith in people. In this work we often talk about the “Spirit of Struggle”—I feel like the way you all organized these truth commissions helped evoke that spirit.
Emily: Definitely. The truth is that there were several things that people submitted in writing that were totally at odds with our perspective, but we didn’t exclude those comments from our findings. They’re included along with everything else. We have to trust that when people look at the testimony as a whole they can pick out what resonates and see the larger truth the testimony is pointing toward.
Adam: I think a central part of why the leadership of the poor is hard for people to accept is that we have grown accustomed to a very narrow definition of poverty and a negative definition of the poor. Can you share a little about how you understand these terms, ‘the poor’ and ‘poverty’?
Joe: Yes, I agree there is a stigma with the word ‘poor’—poor people often don’t like to be called poor. However, I believe there is an organizing strength to using the term poor when it is understood in a broader sense, like when the Occupy movement used the “99%” slogan. This framing forced us all to think about which side we were on and how it happened that we have come to live in a society where a tiny slice of the population has control over the vast majority of wealth. I think it helped more people see how even if we are not cash-poor today most of us live in a position where we very well could be poor tomorrow—for example, if we get fired or have a major health crisis.
Emily: For Christians there is a pretty clear position on the poor and poverty. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.” Many of the world’s religious traditions have similar scriptures that say good things about the poor. For me, as a Christian, those who understand being poor as shameful are coming from a fundamentally different ideological perspective than that of faith. We shouldn’t concede and decide not to use the word ‘poor’ because it is somehow problematic. Most (if not all) of our faith traditions say that being poor is nothing to be ashamed of. To be clear, they don’t say that it’s good to be poor, but rather that God is with the poor and if there is anyone who should feel ashamed it is the society that is tolerating and creating poverty. There are a lot of very rich cultural and theological resources that back up this understanding of the poor and poverty and we need to be better about using them to our benefit. When we say “poor” we refer to an inherent power we should claim.
God is with the poor and if there is anyone who should feel ashamed it is the society that is tolerating and creating poverty.
Nic: This discussion of leadership raises the question of our existing political leadership. How does Labor-Religion Coalition approach the involvement of elected officials in its organizing work?
Emily: Our stance is that the way we make the change we need is through a social movement. Once we have changed the fundamental conditions in which officials are elected and serve then the election process can produce the policy and leaders we need. We are not at that point yet. Therefore, right now our focus has to be on building the movement and building that power from the people, so that one day, years from now, we will be in a position to influence the political process as a whole.
Joe: I agree, but also wouldn’t want to downplay the important work folks do around direct electoral organizing and lobbying. We need that fight, but we also need the type of organizing that we are doing at the Labor-Religion Coalition and with the Poor People’s Campaign.
Also, in our experience and from our particular vantage point in Albany, a lot of the legislative campaigns use faith leaders and communities in a purely functional way. They see faith communities as just another group of people that can be organized to help lobby particular issues. I understand the value of this tactic politically, but it really diminishes the unique contribution that faith and faith communities can make. In my opinion the social movement approach makes more sense for faith communities because it is about asserting a wholly different vision of society that upholds life.
Adam: We discussed your understanding of the word “poor” used in the name and vision of this Campaign. But the full title of the Campaign, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, also includes the equally controversial word “moral.” How do you understand this clear emphasis on morality?
Emily: I’ve heard Rev. Barber talk about how people living in this society are not just materially impacted, but “morally impacted.” I think this is a really powerful way to talk about how we are all fundamentally affected by the way this system treats life. The struggle for justice is absolutely about meeting material needs, but by emphasizing morality we can also assert a much bigger vision about who we are as people and the society we want—one where we don’t just survive, but thrive.
Thanks to Rev. Emily McNeill and Joe Paparone of the Labor-Religion Coalition of NYS and the NYS Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival for this interview. For more on the NYS Truth Commission and its findings, click here. And be sure to follow the NYS Campaign on Facebook and Twitter.