Guest columnist Vijay Prashad: Arise and the fight for the rights of the poor

  • The office of Arise for Social Justice in Springfield. GOOGLE MAPS

Published: 12/11/2018 8:22:35 AM

When Michaelann Bewsee was 17 years old, she was in Cambridge flipping pancakes for the breakfast program of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Raised in a working-class family in Springfield, Michaelann understood implicitly the deep poverty that crushed the soul of ordinary people even in a country as affluent as the United States. Not content with the sadness of poverty, Michaelann found answers in the practical activity of the Black Panthers. Feed the people, surely, but also go to the root of starvation. Flip pancakes, yes, but find out why children in Massachusetts had so little access to food and change the conditions of their hunger. It was this spirit that led Michaelann and her close friends to create Arise for Social Justice in her hometown of Springfield 33 years ago.

I arrive at the Arise office in Springfield on a cold Friday morning. “Fridays are quiet,” Michaelann says, though she knows another crisis might easily descend on the small staff in their small but comfortable office. Everything is familiar here. The walls are covered with posters and pictures from past protests; pamphlets and leaflets that point the way towards activism and state support clutter the tables and shelves. A mother and child talk to one of the Arise staff members about housing rights, while two interns work on a survey of gaps in support for the homeless population. Arise’s office is down the road from the new MGM Springfield casino, a cathedral of money. There is something unseemly about the casino’s gigantism and the modesty of the Arise office.

To fight for the rights of the poor in the United States is not easy. There is such a sharp disregard for the poor, the sensibility that the poor deserve their situation because of some personal flaw. It is an embarrassment to be poor, humiliation to not have a home. Moral and commercial arguments are used to disparage the poor — either they don’t behave well or they do not have the acumen to be entrepreneurs. Those who campaign for the poor are seen as naïve or saintly. There is little expectation that the conditions of poverty can be changed, that the poor can lead dignified lives. A few handouts here and there are seen to be enough.

Michaelann and her friends — especially Marsha Burnett — as well as organizations across the state (Coalition for Basic Needs and Sisters Together Ending Poverty) struggled to change this attitude. “A right to thrive, not barely survive” was the motto of their statewide campaign. They did not want perpetually to provide charity to the poor. They wanted to find a way to organize the poor to become advocates for themselves, to build a movement that would challenge the roots of poverty. Why are people poor? Not because they are failures, but because society has failed, the economic system has failed. To make that intellectual leap, the founders of Arise believed, would allow a movement of the poor to fight against the conditions of their poverty.

Such was the attitude of the Poor People’s Campaign of the 1960s, the Welfare Rights Movement of the 1970s and the 1980s and the revived Poor People’s Campaign of our times. The co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign — Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis — say, “We know our nation has a heart problem when our elected leaders would rather fight a war on the poor than a war on poverty.”

Confidence.

Michaelann can never retire. She is worried now about climate change. But she has turned over leadership of Arise to Tanisha Arena. Michaelann, Tanisha and I go to eat lunch at the café attached to the Springfield Museum. They tell me their life stories, and we talk about their sense of these difficult times. Tanisha comes to Arise from her crucial work building up the confidence of young people of color, particularly queer youth. She is interested in building confident communities. Towards the end of our lunch, Michaelann leans over to Tanisha and says, “I’m so glad you’re thinking that way.”

At True Colors and at Community Action, Tanisha worked with young people who did not always believe in themselves. She knew what this is like, to be disparaged for how people see you rather than be appreciated for who you are and what you can become. Generations are lost to this disregard. Tanisha’s work to build the confidence of young people has now become a central part of her work at Arise. How can the poor lead a movement if they do not believe in themselves, if they continue to see the world through the eyes of those who hate their existence?

For those who live with privileges of one kind or another, slogans such as I believe you and I hear you sound hollow. But, as Tanisha says, if one has been broken and held down by the cruelties in society, these are the first steps to dignity. The poor live their lives being told that they are lying or that they are wrong. At government offices and at private businesses, their visible poverty makes them easy to dismiss. Constant dismissal of them leads to frustration and to raised voices, which reinforces the stereotypes of the poor as unbalanced. It is a terrible cycle. Both Tanisha and Michaelann agree that this dismissal is precisely what groups like Arise raise from a personal problem to a political one. Instead of one person going to an office and being angry about the loss of benefits, wouldn’t it be better if 20 of them went there and held a protest?

“Who am I to have an expectation of something better?” That, Tanisha says, is the attitude of the poor. It is precisely what she would like to change. It is precisely what has to change.

Vijay Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He recently edited “Strongmen,” with essays by Eve Ensler, Danish Husain, Burhan Sönmez, Lara Vapnyar and Ninotchka Rosca. He lives in Northampton.


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