But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:16)
“Isn’t that kind of like, I dunno, a poverty safari?”
That’s what Elizabeth, one of our interns, asked when I suggested she help with the New York State part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival’s National Emergency Truth and Poverty Tour.
And I thought, “Hmm. Poverty Safari? That’s not okay.”
So we got some coffee and I tried to unpack how these tours are a strategy to organize poor folks to build a social movement. And how, at a deep level, it’s all about building relationships and manifesting hope in the midst of horror. Which is always worth doing.
My own bus tour story starts a million years ago in 1998. I was 27 and part of an organization of poor folks, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union — moms on welfare, homeless folks, teenagers, college students, artists, social workers, ministers and so on. We were based in Philadelphia and we were all ages, all races, and all poor. We’d spent a couple years collecting stories about how economic human rights were being violated in Philly and Pennsylvania — and we knew that the suffering was national (international) and the movement needed to be, too. So it was time to take it on the road.
If you’re a Poor People’s Campaigner, our theory about how to create large-scale, lasting social change at KWRU should sound familiar. We knew we needed to unite people with a shared morality — particularly folks most impacted by poverty — to craft and catch a big, powerful social movement because structural poverty keeps getting worse. We sought to build up enough power so we could do what Dr. King said and “make the power structure of this nation say ‘yes’ when they may be desirous to say ‘no.’” What did (do) they need to say ‘yes’ to? Ending the evils — poverty, systemic racism, militarism, ecological devastation, and a distorted moral narrative. That’s all.
So I was 27 in June 1998 and with about 50 other poor folks when we set off on an organizing tour called the “New Freedom Bus Tour.” We wanted freedom from unemployment, hunger and homelessness. We were insane to stop in 33 towns in 30 days, but we wanted to cover as much ground and connect with as many people as possible. So we did. Kairos director Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and our education co-coordinator Willie Baptist were also on that tour. It’s part of how we know each other.
At each stop we hooked up with poor folks who were organizing for clean water, food for their families, decent housing, healthcare, jobs at a living wage — the most basic package that makes life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness possible. We visited the gorgeous mountains of West Virginia and stopped in Welch where new technology for extracting coal had caused 95% unemployment. Let that sink in. Who and what survives with 95% unemployment?
In Chicago we walked through desperately poor and dense public housing projects like those in Jonathan Kozol’s books. In Columbia, MS we met with a small, ragtag organization called Jesus People Against Pollution. They certainly needed to be a Jesus people and they certainly needed to be against pollution. Their homes were next to a Superfund site and they were literally all getting cancer. I have never — before or since — tasted air so toxic as on that 100-degree day walking around that circle of dilapidated houses. It tasted like fear and suffering everywhere. And my heart broke again and again.
We made it to the West Coast and to Silicon Valley. I can still see one mom and her two daughters in pink dresses at the microphone. Her family made $40,000 a year (remember, it’s 1998), but the housing prices there were ridiculous and they couldn’t figure out both an apartment and transportation to get to work. But that’s where the jobs were. She was terrified to tell her story because someone might hear about their homelessness and remove her daughters under the guise of protecting them. A horrific, but not unfounded, fear. She handed us a binder of stories and dedicated it to people she knew who had committed suicide because they couldn’t escape their poverty.
We heard about people taking their medication three times a week to make their prescriptions last longer; people freezing because they chose food over heat; parents leaving young kids home alone if their childcare fell through because they couldn’t afford to lose their job; people getting way sicker from little things because the local hospital shut down and they couldn’t get a ride. It didn’t matter whether we were in Lorrain, OH where the steel mills had closed or El Paso, TX where immigrants were under attack even way back then, or rural Waycross, GA or Washington, D.C. or Flint, MI or anywhere else.
The scale and scope of poverty washed over us. It was hard to listen to these stories day after day — but they were gifts, both for the tellers and the listeners. Telling the truth about your life and hearing the truth about others’ lives has power. It’s a foundation for connection.
Telling the truth about your life and hearing the truth about others’ lives has power. It’s a foundation for connection.
At each stop, there was a powerful exchange. We listened to the local stories and shared what we had heard along the road. And our visit brought hope to folks who had been struggling — and would continue to struggle. Folks who needed a successful social movement to end poverty. We brought a few core messages:
- YOUR POVERTY IS NOT YOUR FAULT. You are not lazy or crazy or stupid. The economy is changing. This is a structural problem, not an individual problem, and we must solve it that way.
- YOU ARE NOT ALONE — WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER. Politicians might want you to be invisible. The media might want you to be invisible. Your neighbors on the other side of town might want you to be invisible. But you are not invisible. We see you and we see what you’re facing. And it’s not okay. You matter.
- KEEP ORGANIZING and KEEP FIGHTING FOR YOUR LIVES. TOGETHER, WE ARE BUILDING A MOVEMENT. Right now, it may be small and raggedy, but one day it can be big and powerful IF we all stay faithful to the vision and IF we unite across the lines that divide us and IF we keep organizing and educating and experimenting and learning lessons and building organization and power.
And these bus stops were certainly not all horror and darkness — they were also hope. We heard tale after tale about creativity, organizing, uniting, analyzing, winning, sharing, and faithfulness. Every ingredient necessary to build a big movement showed itself on that trip and we formed fast and deep relationships quickly whether we were at a stop or with each other on the bus. So as our hearts were broken, we were also healed and strengthened. And as our minds were overwhelmed by the bigness of the problem, we were also emboldened with a sense of the possible. We became tired from all we saw and heard and we could never unsee it or unhear it — but as our sense of individual powerlessness grew, our faith in the collective power of people was restored.
As our sense of individual powerlessness grew, our faith in the collective power of people was restored.
Back in 2019, my coffee was cold and Elizabeth looked a little done. “So that’s kind of what the bus tours are about,” I said. “Does that help? Because the Poor People’s Campaign is not about a poverty safari.”
“Um, yeah,” she laughed. “But how do you make sure it’s like that?”
Well. I guess partly it won’t always be like that — it’s never perfect. But there’s a few things:
- Actually seeing the problem with your own eyes — it matters. Seeing it, smelling it, tasting it. Even if you know your own poverty, in order to address the system we need to know how it works in different places and how the evils all interlock. We need a solid diagnosis of the problem and our hearts need to be forged with both the suffering and the hope.
- There can’t be a division between the folks on the bus and the folks at the bus stops. We’re all part of the Poor People’s Campaign. So everything on a bus tour is organizing each other — there’s no gawking. We’re building relationships and inspiring each other to be expansive, smart, committed, and united.
- We have to tend to the narrative. People need to see themselves so there needs to be a diverse crew telling stories. And we can’t compete for “the worst poverty prize.” Making a distinction between working class, low-income, working poor, really poor, poor and really oppressed? It’s just not helpful. And “othering” the poor isn’t helpful, either. If you need to work and get a paycheck to survive, you’re on our team. And if you’ve got great wealth and still want to end poverty, fantastic, you’re on our team too. This is an “everybody in” kind of project.
- And there should be down-time. Having breakfast together matters. Hanging out in the church basement together matters. People need space to be themselves — normal, charming, flawed, funny. We’re gonna be building together for a long time so we need to know each other and we need a little respite from the intensity. There’s gold in the down-time.
- Oh, and there has to be singing to give us the feeling of being connected. Somehow singing helps process all the emotions and call forth a real spirit. We actually wrote that Poor People’s Campaign song “Rich Man’s House” on the New Freedom Bus Tour in 1998.
- And finally, you have to work out the logistics, which can be a real bitch. There are a lot of moving parts and it won’t be perfectly smooth — and early on sometimes a few people have way too many tasks. But it’s still totally doable and we’ll keep getting better at it.
And then, mostly, you just trust the process and learn from everything. Just like the mass meetings, revivals, truth commissions, projects of survival, rallies, civil disobedience, social media, one-on-one conversations — these tours are just another part of our organizing model to get good at. Just another thing we can do to win hearts & minds and build for the long-haul.
“Sign me up,” she said. And so Elizabeth is coordinating a bunch of logistics and she’ll be in a van to Buffalo on April 4th when the New York State tour starts. With so many of us, she’ll be continuing Dr. King’s work on the anniversary of his assassination.
P.S. — Elizabeth turns 21 during this bus tour. Reminds me of Sweet Honey in the Rock and “Ella’s Song“: “The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on, / Is when the reins are in the hand of the young, who dare to run against the storm.” If you happen to see her this weekend, wish her a happy birthday!