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Poverty Initiative Mission:

The Poverty Initiative is dedicated to raising up generations of religious and community leaders committed to building a social movement to end poverty, led by the poor. The Poverty Initiative is the core program of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice.

History of the Poverty Initiative:

Drawing on the legacies of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Union Theological Seminary as well as on four decades of organizing poor communities, the Poverty Initiative was founded in 2004 by a group of Union students in collaboration with seminary faculty, staff and community leaders—charged to research and reshape public and theological debate, ministry and social action on poverty so as to address its root causes. The Poverty Initiative’s work is aimed at transforming the structures responsible for perpetuating poverty and hunger through leadership development, and the advancement of effective anti-poverty organizing and ministry models in New York City, in the United States and globally.

Major Accomplishments:

Through three national poverty truth commissions, two leadership schools, eleven poverty immersion courses, ten faculty-sponsored semester long courses, sixteen one-day seminars, four books and numerous religious and theological resources, nine strategic dialogues, six intensive study programs and numerous events, symposia, and exchanges with global grassroots and religious leaders, the Poverty Initiative has established a wide and deep network of community and religious leaders, spanning thirty states and seventeen countries. The network includes groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers of Southwest Florida, Vermont Workers Center, United Workers of Maryland, Domestic Workers United of NYC, Abahlali baseMjondolo (the South African Shackdwellers Movement), Movimento Sem Terra (Brazilian Landless Workers Movement), the Church of Scotland Priority Areas Project, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, Media Mobilizing Project of Philadelphia, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, the United Methodist Church Ministry with the Poor Program, and hundreds of congregations, denominations, community based organizations and regional and national efforts to address poverty.

With the publication of our fourth book titled Pedagogy of the Poor: Building the Movement to End Poverty edited by Willie Baptist and Jan Rehmann, the Poverty Initiative launched a national outreach and education tour in 2011. The tour identified congregations, communities, and colleges in the American Midwest and South as strategic priorities for outreach so as to deepen our network in these critical areas of the US poverty landscape. To date, the leaders of the Poverty Initiative have personally witnessed the breadth and depth of this network by connecting with the heroes and heroines fighting on the frontlines of the struggle to end poverty.

With its Poverty Scholars Program, the Poverty Initiative has trained over 500 multi-racial, inter-generational, and multi-faith, low-income leaders of over 250 community organizations to participate in a yearlong series of high-level leadership development and training opportunities that aim to combine an engaged scholarship with strategic practice. Similarly, the Poverty Initiative has established strong relationships and worked closely with a broad cross-section of congregations, faith-based institutions and community organizations around the country. Through its work of providing biblical and religious analysis, training, and faith-based strategy development, the Poverty Initiative has initiated a process to engage those who are inspired by their faith to make social change, while also leveraging much-needed support from local faith communities to partner organizations.

Further, the Poverty Initiative has been recognized for its work in establishing Union as the premiere seminary with a systematic program addressing poverty and economic crisis, contributing to Master’s and PhD level student recruitment, and in general continuing in the line of Union’s distinctive social justice legacy. The Poverty Initiative has an established track record of engaged scholarly work with Union faculty and seminarians from which to grow the work of the Kairos Center. The Poverty Initiative has a core curriculum designed for day- and semester-long courses, seminarian Fellows training and immersion experiences together with domestic and international grassroots movement partners and religious institutions. The Poverty Initiative also serves as an online and offline resource center and communication hub for community and religious leaders by collecting and distributing printed and online materials, training curricula and modules, films and images from our community partners.

Poverty Initiative Principles:

The Poverty Initiative is guided by the following strategic concepts. First, successful social change has most often been led by those most affected by the problems they are working to resolve. Second, committed, competent and clear leaders do not spontaneously emerge. Just as other sectors of society rely on universities and leadership training programs to hone technical skills, capacity for analysis, outreach and organizing, we must invest in intellectual exchange, debate, joint study, and strategizing for community leaders dedicated to social change. Third, we must build bridges to religious communities and craft outreach strategies that build support for the organizing and advocacy efforts of grassroots anti-poverty groups. Fourth, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of uniting the poor across color lines and issue areas, we develop highly skilled leaders who will be successful in multi-racial, interfaith, multi-issue networks of grassroots organizations.

We are living in a time when suffering and injustice continue to grow and deepen around the world. In the United States the percentage of people living below the official poverty line has climbed to a 50 year high; inequality is at the highest level since just before the depression of 1929 with wages stagnant or declining for most Americans. More than half of Americans will spend at least one year in or near poverty. Beyond the growing income gap, recent research shows the growing gulf in the life expectancy of the poor is less than the rich, “poverty not only diminishes a person’s life chances, it steals years from one’s life.”1 No statistics can fully capture the desire manifested in so many struggles – from Occupy to Moral Mondays to Fergeson – for a radically different, just, and moral society and world. To build a movement large enough, broad enough, and deep enough to change the policies and structures that create such injustice and suffering requires boldly applying what we have learned over the past decade to the dynamic challenges we face today.

We are, therefore, launching a new phase of our work by joining forces with the newly established Center at Union Theological Seminary – Kairos: the Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice. Kairos is an ancient Greek word (καιρός) for a time that calls for opportune and decisive action and a biblical term for a moment when the eternal breaks into history. A Kairos time is marked not only by the breakdown of unjust structures and systems, but by the breaking through of new movements and awakenings that point in a radical new direction.

The Poverty Initiative is the Kairos Center’s cornerstone program. This will increase the capacity of the Poverty Initiative to address fully the key elements that, as we have learned from Dr. King and others and as experienced over the past decade, are critical in giving people what they need to build a movement capable of ending poverty.