The Kairos Center’s Shailly Gupta Barnes is the Tri-Chair, with Rev. Dr. James Forbes and Dr. Tim Tyson, of The Souls of Poor Folk Audit Committee of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She represents the Audit on the National Steering Committee of the Campaign, which, in the words of Rev. Dr. Forbes, “will give us the opportunity to be clear about the deficit in our democratic attainments and inform our resolve to set forth an agenda for the kind of nation we want to be.”
Read this interview with Shailly to learn more about her diagnosis of the kairos moment in which we find ourselves today, the ongoing Audit process, and the powerful moral movement that is emerging out of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
What kind of movement is the Poor People’s Campaign?
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is part of an emerging moral movement. We are at a point in the history of this country where the crises of systemic racism, poverty, and the war economy decimating communities here and abroad have not only become worse over the past 50 years, but are clearly interlinked, and also leading to and connected to crises of ecological devastation. Unless we get to the root causes of these evils and build the power of the people most impacted, we’re not going to be able to resolve them.
What is the moment we are in today?
Kairos means that there’s a break in chronos, in chronological time, bringing about a kairos moment where there are tremendous challenges and also opportunities. If you are religious, it is a moment when God breaks through into the world. To understand this moment, we look at other moments like this in history that have come and gone.
1968 was one of those moments and, at that time, this country was still in the middle of a period of economic growth. This is no longer the case. The myth of the American Dream is that in this bountiful country anything is possible if you work hard enough and find some luck along the way. Yet what we are seeing today is that, although there is plenty of wealth, water, food, and more empty homes than we have homeless families, 43.5% of households in this country are poor or low-income, a quarter of our children are hungry and 40% are living in food insecure households, and homelessness is on the rise. We’re not meeting these needs, even though we have the means to do so.
We’re also seeing a retraction in rights that generations before us fought and died for. In particular, voter suppression is on the rise, with at least 23 states passing voter suppression laws since 2010 and more being debated in state legislatures. In the 2016 election there were over 800 fewer voter registration sites — mainly in the Southern states — and that meant that thousands of people weren’t able to vote. In its decision on North Carolina’s attempt to restrict the right to vote, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that these attacks were made with “surgical precision” on black communities. The Supreme Court confirmed the lower court’s decision, in effect saying that racism is being used to deny the right to vote.
These attacks come alongside attacks on the poor, on the social safety net, and a shift in how we spend our resources to more law enforcement, including a heavily militarized presence in poor communities. Border security is one example of this. In the past 20 years, the narrative around the border has changed from one around border patrol — monitoring who crosses our borders, in particular the U.S.-Mexico border — to one around the war on drugs and drug trafficking, to human trafficking, and now to national security. This has translated into the number of border patrol agents growing nearly five times since 1992, to nearly 20,000 border patrol agents in 2016. This means that the threat of detention, arrest, and deportation are isolating our border communities and families are being broken up.
This threat to families is especially dire in poor communities. Children are being taken away from their families all across the country, from rural Washington to Detroit to upstate New York. In Detroit, more than 80,000 homes have had their water shut off for lack of payment. This makes them uninhabitable for children, which means that, because people were unable to pay for their water, they lost their children.
This kind of systemic dispossession and abandonment is on a massive scale that’s difficult to comprehend. We need to question why this is happening: why is it that we can’t afford water even though we are, as a country, wealthier than we’ve ever been? Why are our families being torn apart? Why these attacks on the right to vote, our most fundamental democratic principle that we’ve waged war over in other parts of the world? Who or what is this for?
How has the current political climate in the United States effected your understanding of this moment? Did the election of 2016 change anything about the movement’s analysis of this point in history?
Trump isn’t a new phenomenon, this much is clear. The white nationalists and extremists who are hearing his call have been around for some time, and in different eras of U.S. history have been empowered or disempowered based on who’s holding political office. Some of these influences have been present regardless of which political party is in power. The rising economic inequality, militarization of the police and in drone warfare overseas, increasing numbers of deportations — all of this was happening well before Trump.
There is, however, always a time where these changes add up to a different historical moment and that’s what we’re seeing today. For example, the vast scale of the budget crises that local and state governments are facing are compelling them to implement austerity measures, including the privatization of public resources like water, where more and more households simply cannot afford basic utilities anymore.
What does it do to a country over time when the general welfare is no longer being provided for by the government? While this break in accountability between the State and its people is not new — many communities have been facing these kind of ruptures for many years — the scale of it is something new and now it’s being done with more and more impunity, with less and less accountability. We’re being conditioned to not expect very much from our public officials and institutions.
This is not about right and left, this is about right and wrong.
This is part of the reason why the Poor People’s Campaign does not engage in partisan politics. This is not about right and left, this is about right and wrong. We understand that building the power of the people most impacted by these measures — and this is an increasing number of people — is the only way we will ever change the conditions that have brought us to this point.
We also need to remember that in response to these conditions, communities aren’t just giving up the struggle. There’s this fury emerging as people are hitting their breaking points, and they’re willing to stand up, especially when they realize they’re not alone. As Valerie Jean, a mom from Detroit has said, it’s one thing to have your family’s water shut off. But when you see that happening to your whole block, and then multiple blocks, you start to see the broader, systemic nature of the problem. As the Poor People’s Campaign has traveled across the country, we’ve seen that thousands of people are responding to the need to call out the wrongs and abuses of our society and there is a real demand emerging for a moral vision around which we can organize.
How will The Souls of Poor Folk Audit help us develop this moral vision?
We launched the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival exactly fifty years after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. It’s interesting to think about these two eras and what’s happened in between. We are working with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., developing an assessment of what’s happened since 1968 on the four themes of the Campaign — systemic racism, poverty, militarism/the war economy, and ecological devastation. Called The Souls of Poor Folk, it is an historical and empirical look at these four evils in the past 50 years.
This will be a data-driven analysis that is informed by interviews, testimony and hearings with impacted people coming together with scholarly research. Our hypothesis is that not only do these four themes intersect, there are knots that tie them together. If we can identify these knots and start to undo them, to see the relationship between these four evils, then we can start to articulate demands that would move our society in a different direction, toward building the power of poor people and pressing on these questions of accountability and democracy.
A Preliminary Report for the Audit was released at the December 4, 2017, launch of the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. — you can read a brief summary of our findings in a recent article for The Nation — and the more complete Audit will be released in April. As Rev. Barber often says, we don’t want to be loud and wrong, so this research is very important to our next steps.
How will the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival create change around the moral vision that develops through the audit and the struggles of communities across the U.S.?
What the Campaign is raising is this question of what is right and what is wrong. We’re not saying anything all that radical — just that people’s basic needs should be fulfilled. Everyone should have water. This is not controversial, but it’s been made into an issue because water is becoming too expensive for people to afford. This is wrong. It’s very clear that we are not equipped as a country right now to answer or even ask these questions the right way. The Campaign is an effort to move us towards asking these questions.
Over the next few months, we are organizing across the country and building towards 40 days of coordinated actions in at least 25 states and Washington, D.C. in 2018. We will go to the state capitals and to Congress and make the moral agenda and demands that are emerging out of this Campaign heard.
The Campaign is grounded in state-based work, state-based leadership and in local communities. And the kind of leadership that is emerging includes people from all walks of life. During the Truth Commission process that the Kairos Center engaged in earlier this year, we had testifiers who were coming to this struggle as mothers and fathers, as millennials who had been in and out of jail, as Fight for $15 low-wage workers, as veterans and homeless people and social service providers, as documented and undocumented immigrants, as LGBTQI people and the wide spectrum of people who are facing untenable conditions. In New York, the Labor-Religion Coalition of NYS did a series of three Truth Commissions across New York State, and by reaching out to diverse communities — both geographically and in terms of the issues they’re facing — we began to break through urban-rural divides and other lines of division. That will only happen if you have robust state-based organizing that is rooted in communities.
What is the role of women in the Campaign and how does the Campaign relate to the struggle against patriarchy in our current political climate?
The women at the forefront of this Campaign are the women who need to be: poor and dispossessed women. This question of the leadership of poor women was also raised in 1968 when Dr. King was confronted by the leadership of poor women in the welfare rights movement who corrected him about the way he was going about organizing the Campaign. Because of their encounters and leadership, the Campaign shifted course. In fact, the 1968 Campaign started on Mother’s Day to honor and recognize the leadership of poor women and the historic militant leadership of Mother’s Day, which we don’t talk much about these days.
Today, also, poor women are present and in leadership roles throughout the organization and structure of the Poor People’s Campaign. This is grounded in the reality that poor women are leading the fights against racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological destruction. They must, therefore, be in the forefront of this Campaign.
What are your experiences of fusion movements to date, and how will the Poor People’s Campaign reinforce and enhance these efforts?
Building a broad and deep fusion movement is a difficult process that requires a great deal of work. As much as people are coming forward and want something bigger, there have been real dampers on our imagination that have been imposed over the past few decades, where we come up against our own limitations of what we think is possible. We’re struggling with the enormity of what the Campaign is and what is possible when you build a bridge and bring people together. It’s hard to grasp. It’s not because people can’t do it, but we’ve become limited by our understanding of how change happens.
To build this fusion movement, we need an organizing model with many different people from many different backgrounds leading it. It’s been amazing to see a process and strategy led by poor people, because we know it will lead to unimaginable outcomes. For example, in El Paso and along the border, the Border Network of Human Rights has organized more than 1000 families over two decades — all of whom are directly impacted by racist immigration policies and the poverty that they breed — to fight for family reunification. And after more than 20 years of organizing, instead of detaining and deporting undocumented community members, border patrol is bringing undocumented community members to the border to meet with their families from Mexico. This would not have been possible without the power of those most impacted organizing towards what they needed and wanted — to be with their families — and targeting their strength towards what is fundamentally an immoral system. This system cannot withstand the moral courage of these communities.
In Grays Harbor County, Washington, we are seeing something similar. This county has one of the highest rates of youth status offender incarceration in the country and the jails and prisons are fertile ground for recruitment into white supremacist prison gangs. This is easily done because the county is predominantly white, people with felony records have almost no access to legal employment when they get out of prison, and they face stark discrimination when looking for a place to live. A small ministry, Chaplains on the Harbor, has been organizing against these forces and last winter opened itself up as a sanctuary space. More than 20 members had been facing increasing attacks for being homeless and were brought into the church for 110 days. This brought the church under fire, almost literally. And yet, during those 110 days, there was a kind of miracle that happened. Young parents who had been homeless and other community members pooled their food stamp allowances and nobody went hungry. Nobody was left outside in the cold. A community began to take shape.
These are the conditions that are compelling people towards this Campaign. People all across the country are facing a profound sense of isolation: material, economic, political, social, and spiritual. The power of this Campaign is in part how it breaks through that isolation.
The Poor People’s Campaign is, therefore, a model of uniting the poor and dispossessed from the bottom up.
And people are eager to be brought together, across so many different fronts of struggle. Everyone is feeling the limitations of being where they are. When we visited the border wall, for example, it was clear when confronting a hundreds of miles-long physical structure that the 1,000 families organized there in resistance aren’t going to be able to change those conditions on their own. That’s one of the reasons they’re coming to the Poor People’s Campaign. We have heard the same thing from About Face: Veterans Against the War, a national organization of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan: they know that what they’ve been fighting for — an end to the wars and occupations, healthcare for veterans, reparations for the victims of war, etc. — they cannot win on their own.
The Poor People’s Campaign is, therefore, a model of uniting the poor and dispossessed from the bottom up. It is a response to all of the limitations we’re facing, an attempt to break through our differences, and to come together on a common basis to build the power we need to hold our government accountable, and ultimately to end poverty, systemic racism, the war economy, and ecological devastation. And together, we can.