Taking Action Together

Interview with Emily McNeill and Claudia de la Cruz

The following interview was conducted by Alicia Swords of the University of the Poor Journal with Emily McNeill of the Labor-Religion Coalition and Claudia de la Cruz of the Popular Education Project. Emily and Claudia were co-chairs of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign Coordinating Committee during the Campaign’s launch in 2018. Currently, the NYS Campaign is working to cultivate leadership and strengthen regional committees following the National Emergency Freedom School Bus Tour in April 2019. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alicia: One of the goals of our movement is to develop the leadership of the poor as a social force.  What is the significance of the Poor People’s Campaign: a National Call for Moral Revival (PPC) in developing the leadership of the poor as a social force?

 Emily: There are not many movements or organizations that explicitly name the poor at all, nor are they specific about the need to organize the poor as a social force. So just introducing that framework is an important intervention in the movement landscape. As well, we shift from the common community organizing model of identifying local, winnable issues and instead start with an analysis of multiple systems and work to build a movement with broad goals and a shared analysis. That shared analysis enables the poor to be organized as a social force.

 Claudia: The significance of the PPC is in developing the leadership and uplifting the leadership and organization of the poor. The leadership of the poor is highly important in a context where no one speaks about poor people, and where there’s lack of space and visibility for the leadership of the poor. Although the poor are the most disorganized of the sectors in society, there is leadership that has been surviving for as long as capitalism has been around. The PPC reaffirms that we are capable—that we may not have the economic means, but we have the skills and intellect to build a movement, that our experience matters in building that movement. It’s important to connect that historical, political and social context with the experiences we carry, to build bridges amongst the divisions that have existed, with race, gender, and other issues that have been part of a liberal agenda of identity politics. The Campaign has done a good job at bringing folks to the table to talk about sensitive issues, about the significance of what poverty does to poor people.  It affirms that poverty is not our fault. We start looking at who is the culprit. We start identifying that there’s a system in place that has created poverty. [It becomes] easier to identify our enemy.  The PPC has done that with people not only through the state of New York but throughout the United States, so we are able to see each other and affirm each other. Our condition of poverty is not our fault; it has been created for us and we can deconstruct it.

(L to R) Chantilly Mers, Claudia de la Cruz, Peter Kinoy, Joe Paparone and Emily McNeil of the New York State Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival during the 40 Days of Action in 2018

(L to R) Chantilly Mers, Claudia de la Cruz, Peter Kinoy, Joe Paparone and Emily McNeil of the New York State Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival during the 40 Days of Action in 2018

 Alicia: How has the PPC in New York State bridged the upstate / NYC divide?

 Emily:  In the development of the Campaign, Labor Religion and our upstate partners understood the importance of bridging the upstate-downstate divide. NYC already has a number of organizations with a significant base of the poor and dispossessed, although those groups end up being very fragmented and isolated from one another. Upstate in comparison has very few organizations of the poor and dispossessed. Those communities that are unorganized are important places for us to devote time and energy. We've started to bridge that divide, first by putting together a coordinating committee that represented every region of the state, as well as being diverse in other areas. As we started organizing, we were thinking of the state in 11 different regions, which were arbitrary in some ways, but we tried to think, are we covering all these parts of the state? We hit the vast majority of the regions in terms of having some kind of point people and people who participated in the initial 40 Days of Action [that kicked off the PPC]. 

We’ve started to put people from New York City and from other parts of the state in touch with each other and to really develop relationships and understand and care about each other's struggles.  The ways that happened most were through the Coordinating Committee, a small group from different parts of the state. At our gathering in April in Rochester we also had 30 or 40 people from different parts of the state. Together, we went to a press conference organized by the Rochester Homeless Union where homeless folks were speaking up about the injustice of closing down the Cadillac Hotel [a hotel where historically poor have gone as their last resort before having to live on the street].  For the people who weren’t from Rochester, it really brought home and made obvious connections with what’s happening all over the state.

Claudia: New York City, as “small” as it is, in comparison with the rest of the United States of America, has historically occupied a lot of space in politics.  It’s the heart of capitalism, the financial district and Wall Street. It affects how things move in politics. In the PPC in New York State, we’ve been really intentional about uplifting the voices of the regions that are hardly ever heard or acknowledged, at least by those coming from NYC.  New York City is pretty ignorant to the rest of the state and pretty arrogant.  We have been taught through the Campaign and the way we organize in the state that there are lots of folks outside of NYC. I remember going with Willie Baptist to the Southern Tier. Listening to the women from the Food Bank of the Southern Tier was similar to listening to women in the Bronx, who have historically organized themselves to be able to eat.  Food is a basic need, but it is treated as a commodity in this country. Being able to see each other, touch each other, struggle together, organize together, celebrate together, hear reports from different regions, meet up every Monday in Albany, march with each other, listen to each other’s plight, seeing how we’ve survived -- it’s very important.  

Alicia: In October, 2018, the PPC held a People’s Assembly in Stony Point, NY.  What has changed since then?

Emily: Now because Phase 2 [of the NYS Campaign] will be focused on building these regional committees, that structure is designed to evaluate our success based on how statewide we are.

Recently Joe [Paparone from Labor-Religion Coalition] was in the North Country for a report-back (after the People’s Assembly). It was a very rural area with a lot of poverty. There’s a military base up at Fort Drum, there’s immigrants and refugees who have been trying to cross the border from New York State into Canada, and there’s lots of issues there that are important to address. What remains to be seen is how well we’re able to get the regional committees to think locally, statewide, and nationally.   

I felt good about the statewide representation that was at Stony Point.  Roughly a third of the people there were from NYC. I don’t know how to evaluate that, but I think that’s good!  They’re a little under-represented in terms of population, but to have two-thirds not be from NYC was good.

Alicia: Tell us about the leadership in the state.  What has this phase of organizing achieved?

Emily: We started planting seeds in 2015, trying to figure out who our leaders are who might be willing to work on this process. In the summer of 2016 I sketched out this organizing plan.  We’d been doing “Moral Mondays” in Albany, trying to think toward a movement in New York State that looked like what North Carolina was doing. We invited Larry Cox from the Kairos Center to our Labor-Religion Coalition Conference in 2016.  Roz Pelles from Repairers of the Breach had been there in 2015. We definitely made progress, and it’s been really slow. People step up and then they fall away for various reasons. We had a really strong coordinating committee to get to and get through the 40 Days. Like a lot of states, people have had life things or other commitments and leadership has kind of ebbed a little bit. One of the lessons is identifying and developing leaders isn’t a linear process. People come in and out.

We’ve made some significant achievements in terms of developing and identifying leaders.  [At the People’s Assembly at Stony Point] it was really encouraging to hear people reflect on the experience of the 40 Days and how it was a transformative experience.  People felt empowered personally, and developed a different political analysis of the time we’re in, and felt connected to other people through sharing stories and recognizing each other their stories.  Even if we stopped here, what we’ve done already has had some transformative impacts on people's understanding of their place in the world, what they have a right to and have a right to demand.  It seems like there are people who are ready to step up and take on some pieces of work.  As people’s lives shift, there are other people who are emerging to take on responsibility, both in NYC and upstate, which is what we have to do since we’re a volunteer movement.

It was a real mix of a dozen or 20 who were at the Binghamton conference in October 2017 and have been involved in the organizing for a year now, and other people who have just gotten involved in the spring and some who are almost brand new. Particularly among the folks who have been around for a while, you can see how people are internalizing the messages, songs, strategies of the movement… that more and more people can teach about the Campaign because we’ve been in it for a while now.

It’s clear there’s a long way to go in terms of leadership development.  Among folks who have been involved for a while, there's a solid grasp of the concepts and the principles of the Campaign, but we still need a lot more clarity in how that translates into doing things in our communities.  What does that mean in terms of what kinds of activities we organize? How do we relate to other organizations? We still have a lot of learning to do, through trying things out.

Claudia: One of the biggest achievements has been putting together people at the table that wouldn’t have been able to come together, a very diverse group of folks not only with regards to race, but also in regards to issues and struggles different communities are dealing with.  We have been able to, through the differences, go through 40 Days of organizing. We had a lot of political alignment as a state.

Alicia: How did NYS use political education and art and culture?

Emily: We had coordinating committee meetings every week and almost always would start with some article we had all read or video we had discussed.  Then the steering committee, which met twice a month, and would start with something the coordinating committee had read.  We encouraged regional groups to do that too. I don’t know how many of them did that.  We did a lot of events before the 40 Days around the state.  We did public events to introduce the Campaign. Typically we introduced the original Campaign, went over the four evils and the principles, and people gave personal testimony about one or more of the four evils.  We also did the truth commissions, which were about political education, as well as other things.

For arts and culture, we almost always at those events had some kind of singing.  Whether or not we had a talented person to lead singing, we tried to do that anyway. That was a big part of the 40 Days. We had a small team of people, including Lilly Laccetti who thought about the visuals for each week.  A few song leaders, banners, and armbands… but also making sure that the action was visually interesting. The first week, we chalked that big message in the intersection, which said, “We won’t be silent anymore” in six-foot-high letters.  We were trying to think of the aesthetics of the overall action, in addition to having banners for people.

We were really lucky to have Peter Kinoy spearheading a team of documentarians, as well as Richard Barber.  They were able to make two- or three-minute videos of each action.  Those were posted on social media and got a lot of views and shares. That meant lots of people who weren’t in Albany got a sense of the energy and purpose of each of the demonstrations.  At the People’s Assembly, people really loved the videos.  It showed up on evaluations multiple times.  They communicated the significance of what we’ve done. They showed the actions in a very powerful light where people felt, “wow, we did something pretty special together.”

Claudia: Political education and culture were never an accessory of the work we were doing. They were always at the heart of it. Every action we did was filled with culture, from direct action to Teaching Tuesdays, the culture nights, the NYS People’s Assembly, we intentionally made time for both political education and culture. We understand that education happens everywhere, so creating spaces for folks to talk with each other, ways to create together, whether screen printing or a skit, reading together, reflecting together; all of these are political education as well. Education takes different forms; it’s the content that makes it political. 

Alicia: What are some of challenges and potential pitfalls ahead and how do we move to outmaneuver them?

Claudia: That’s a huge question. The task of the unity of the poor is a huge task.  Let’s start there. Unity doesn’t necessarily mean convening people and getting people together. It’s more how we understand the world collectively, what our analysis of the world is and how we relate to it.  It’s a sort of conceptual unity that needs to be gained. That’s the biggest challenge. Willie Baptist would say there's more than one way to skin a cat, but sometimes we just want it to be our way of skinning a cat. We don't want to listen, acknowledge or value any other ways and that's a huge hurdle in movement building, thinking that our way is the right way and there’s no other way to do the movement work. Lacking a larger strategy, understanding that there's different tactics within a strategy but lacking the collective vision of where we're going could be a big hurdle, a big challenge. I do think that the way in which things are shaping up in the Campaign, which is attempting to build a movement from the bottom up where states and local communities are represented in every level of the Campaign, is a good way of overcoming some of those hurdles. Reverend Barber has said it many times: the messenger is as important as the message.  So being able to maintain the integrity of that, being able to maintain the integrity of collective spaces, and seeking political alignment and conceptual collectivity are like the ejes, like the guiding star for us.  If we’re able to maintain those, we’re able to overcome the challenges that come from lacking a larger strategy and collective vision. Those are the ingredients for us to move forward collectively within our differences.

Emily:  There are so many challenges and pitfalls. One is capacity.  We need more people able to devote more time and energy to make a genuinely state-wide, bottom-up movement.  Things will move faster the more capacity we have.  Even with little capacity, we’ll keep going, but it’ll go much slower.

We need to be organizing many more directly impacted people. There aren’t that many organizations in New York State that organize a base of the poor or working class.  There are in New York City, but north of Westchester County, there are fewer of those organizations and they have very limited resources. So ideally, the PPC would be bringing together a bunch of organizations who have an organized base of the poor and working class. That hasn’t happened in New York State and seems unlikely because the biggest and most well resourced are based in NYC and don’t have an incentive to devote energy and resources to the PPC.  They don’t see it as helping their organizations because they’re focused on particular issue campaigns that they’re funded for.

Maybe we can do a better job of building relationships with the organizations upstate that do have a base of the poor and working class. We’re trying to make time to participate in the campaigns they’re part of.  Again, it takes redirecting resources from the particular legislative campaigns they’re working on. But the vast majority of poor and working class people are not part of an organization. We have to figure out how to organize the unorganized and connect with the organized.

At the People’s Assembly, there were two things that really stuck out.  One is, there’s this tension figuring out how much autonomy versus direction we give people as they’re getting involved in the Campaign, and even how we structured our time together.  There was a tension between some people thinking we needed to be more directive in terms of articulating the thinking of the Campaign on particular issues, versus trying to give a lot of space for people to bring their own ideas or ideologies, and what we should do next.  I think that will be an ongoing tension, especially as we’re trying to encourage folks to organize locally, take initiative, including folks who are pretty new to the Campaign. 

There is both a need to maintain integrity, follow the principles, have cohesion in terms of the messaging and activities we’re doing, but at the same time, if we’re going to grow and have people involved grow, we have to leave room for diversity and for people to try things that don’t work. That’s going to be a tension and figuring out the right balance will be an ongoing challenge.  One of the ways that came up was, there was tension around race at Stony Point, and definitely differences of opinion about the right way to build an anti-white-supremacist movement.  There’s definitely, in the progressive landscape, this idea that the appropriate role of white people is to support the leadership of people of color, which is not the approach of the PPC. The PPC is clear that we need multiracial leadership, both poor leaders of color and poor white leaders, in order to win. There were some people [at our Assembly] used to the white ally approach in terms of anti-racist organizing. That’s something we’re going to have to confront.  How do we talk about the anti-racist but multi-racial organizing we want to do? It’s tricky because we have to be actively anti-racist and help white people who haven't done much thinking about race and who haven’t worked in multiracial environments. We have to build a culture that gets people to confront their own racism and deal with it and be a good person, and we have to do that in a way that doesn’t turn into this subject-versus-ally dichotomy, where it’s just about organizing leadership among people of color. 

Alicia: What are the biggest obstacles, opponents, forces that get in the way of building this social force?

Claudia: Oh, there's a lot.  We are in a constant need to react to the state somehow, to respond to the state.  The state builds not only the conditions that force us to live in a certain way, but they also shape what our dissent is to a certain extent as well. That’s definitely something that may be an obstacle for the way in which we work. How we relate, how we’ve been taught to relate to movement as something that comes from the nonprofit industrial complex world. 

Another obstacle is the very nature of the capitalist system in which we live. We’ve been taught to understand relationships as being transactional. If I’m supporting the Campaign, then you need to support ten of the campaigns that I’m in, rather than thinking about it as a movement and not a campaign itself, as part of something larger.

Emily: In terms of potential allies, there is a lot of progressive organizing in New York State, and it doesn’t connect to the PPC because of how it’s all set up.  There is lots of energy that goes into specific, short-term single-issue campaigns. That’s work that needs to happen, but it could happen differently. The whole premise that we need to do some things together with a more long-term perspective… people don’t buy into that in New York.  Some people feel that if only we had a Democratic state senate, all these things would suddenly be able to happen, so that’s the best use of our energy. Even though, for example, the New York Health Act isn't going to pass through a Democratic state senate. Part of the obstacle is the belief that New York is pretty progressive and that the current system can just be nudged a little and things will get a lot better.  I don’t think that’s true, and history shows that’s not true, but that prevents some of the progressive organizations from being able to think more long-term and more independently from the establishment.

There is a lot of work that has to be done, and I do think we could use a couple more full time people to maintain what we’re trying to do right now, or a lot of volunteers who have a lot of capacity. 

We’re still at a phase where we don’t look very threatening to our opponents, because we’re pretty small and we don’t have a lot of capacity to take dramatic action together.We do have some of that capacity, and when we did take action, we were seen as a threat by the city, the governor and the District Attorney.We got four or five collection notices from the City of Albany from bills we were supposed to pay for police presence at our actions. The notices threaten legal action if we don’t pay them. The City’s response to our action was very unusual, given lots of examples of civil disobedience in the past, and this is supposedly a very progressive mayor. I think that’s a sign of what is to come, but I don’t know what it will be like when we have the capacity to take more serious action together. We have a little time until we reach that point, but the Democratic or Progressive establishment will not just line up behind us to support us. Some of them will be our opponents. Some will want to get behind the Campaign, but they won’t all do it … which is a good thing, but also a challenge.