In Part 2 Colleen and Willie bring us to the challenges of our current time with specific strategies for educating about systemic poverty. They show us an intersectional approach and offer tools for meeting people where they are. An engaged scholarship is at the root of their activist work. They end on a note of hope, as encouragement and challenge to engage in the work of social change.
At the fiftieth anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, the Poor People’s Movement, and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I invited two activist-scholars involved in the New Poor People’s Movement to talk about popular education and movement building for social change. In Part 1, Willie and Colleen talk about the legacy of the sanitation workers’ strike and the Poor People’s Movement, and how they defined leadership and power and “found a way out of no way” in a politically charged 1968.
From the Kairos Center website:
“Willie Baptist is a formerly homeless father of three who came out of the Watts uprisings and the Black Student Movement. He has 50 years of experience educating and organizing amongst the poor and dispossessed including working as a lead organizer with the United Steelworkers, as an educator and organizer with the National Union of the Homeless and its educational arm, the Annie Smart Leadership Development Institute, as the Education Director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union for 10 years, and as a lead organizer and educator for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, as well as many other networks. He is a Board member of the National Welfare Rights Union, the United Workers of Maryland, Picture the Homeless in New York and on the Advisory Committee for the Wildfire Project. Willie is the author of numerous books, articles, and pamphlets including Pedagogy of the Poor, A New and Unsettling Force: Re-Igniting Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, It’s Not Enough to Be Angry, Lessons from the Poor Organizing the Poor: 5 Main Ingredients and the 6 Panther P’s. Willie presently serves as the Poverty Initiative Scholar-in-Residence and Co-Coordinator of Poverty Scholarship and Leadership Development for the Kairos Center.”
“Colleen Wessel-McCoy has been involved with the Poverty Initiative since 2004 and currently works as Co-Coordinator of Poverty Scholarship and Leadership Development, with Willie Baptist. Originally from Marietta, Georgia, Colleen received her undergraduate degree in religion and social justice from Agnes Scott College. She was part of the inaugural year of the Interfaith Service House and worked for several years as a tenant organizer in Chicago. She and John Wessel-McCoy have two children, Myles and Josephine. She has a MDiv from Union Theological Seminary and earned her Ph.D. in May 2017 in Christian Social Ethics with a dissertation on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision for the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and its lessons for building a social movement to end poverty today.” Colleen also helped develop the Religion and Social Justice major at Agnes Scott College, along with being the first major in this program.
In Part 1 Willie and Colleen tell the story of the work of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Part of the mission statement of the Center, based on the Greek word for “the right and opportune time,” is:
“We believe we are living in a kairos moment: A moment of great change and transition, where the old ways of doing things are breaking down, new ones are trying to emerge, and decisive action is demanded.”
This audio podcast is a concrete example of popular education for movement building and social change. As defined by the Highlander Research and Education Center: “Popular Education is a participatory process that combines people’s experiences to develop collective analysis and strategies for action for positive social change.”
This campaign has been “a long haul”, and we are continuing to “make the road while walking” (Myles Horton’s terms). The struggle for a true living wage is complex. For example, our dining hall staff are divided into Agnes Scott employees (Laborer’s International Union, with Facilities staff) and Aramark (four years unionized with SEIU). Aramark staff have four months a year with no work or pay as seasonal school employees in Georgia. For another example, our outsourced landscaping staff have zero sick days and greatly reduced vacation time with the new company. So there is a continued urgency to do this justice work. In addition to working on undoing structural oppression, the campaign has over the past 25 years founded an employee emergency fund and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses. Hourly staff and students are the core leaders of the movement, and any significant change is from their coalition work, along with support from community partners.
How do we educate at an institution that has as its mission statement: “AGNES SCOTT COLLEGE educates women to think deeply, live honorably and engage the intellectual and social challenges of their times”? We in the living wage campaign take this mission seriously and stand with our colleagues to work for a just campus. In the words of one custodian: “I choose to stand and make a difference.”
On Feb. 16, 2018 (Founders’ Day at Agnes Scott) the Agnes Scott College Living Wage Campaign held an Economic Justice Teach-In to raise awareness, educate, and movement build. The Living Wage Campaign has three major focus points: just wages, institutional respect, and democratic workplace. We are a coalition of hourly staff, students, a few salaried staff and faculty, and fabulous community partners (Atlanta Jobs with Justice, the Teamsters, WRFG (Radio Free Georgia) Labor Forum, Project South, Atlanta 9-to-5, Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, and Faculty Forward).
Alumna and former ASC living wage campaign organizer Jillian Wells (2010) served as emcee for the hour and a half event. Another alumna activist, Helen Cox (2010), joined us and offered historical perspective. Dr. Nathan Grigsby, music director for the Joyful Noise Gospel Choir at ASC, brought two soloists to add music to our event. Zion Martin sang “You Are Good Medley” by Todd Galberth, and Victoria Wallace sang, “Rise Up” by Audra Day. Neil Sardana of Atlanta Jobs with Justice spoke, as well as Anne Olson (Human Rights Atlanta), student activists Emma Fischer and Kristina Kimball, and hourly staff.
For the full video of the teach-in click here:
At the event we celebrated the work of past activists: Della Spurley-Bell and Carrie Wells, co-founders of the first and oldest unionized facilities staff in the U.S. South. Hear the story of the union founding here (retired custodians Della Spurley-Bell and Maggie Ivy):
The first Living Wage video was made in 2007 by ASC alumna Mia Mingus, who worked at the time at SPARK: Reproductive Justice Now:
A few days before the teach-in, Della Spurley-Bell and Tina Pippin appeared on the WRFG Labor Forum and were interviewed by Diane Mathiowetz and Paul McLannan. A summary of the history and issues of the campaign are here:
Videos from our alumnae, faculty, and community supporters are here:
Donald Hirsch and Laura Valadez-Martinez, The Living Wage. Agenda, 2017.
Stephanie Luce, Fighting for a Living Wage. ILR Press, 2004.
Annelise Orleck, “We Are All Fast Food Workers Now.” The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages. Beacon, 2018.
Robert Pollin and Mark Brenner, A Measure of Fairness: The Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the U.S. Cornell University Press, 2008.
Robert Pollin and Stephanie Luce, The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy. New Press, 2000.
David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Vintage, 2005.
Melissa Snarr, All You That Labor: Religion and Ethics in the Living Wage Movement. NYU Press, 2011.
Donald R. Stabile, The Living Wage: Lessons from the History of Economic Thought. Edward Elgar, 2009.
Interfaith Worker Justice: http://www.iwj.org/
Jobs with Justice: http://www.jwj.org/
United for a Fair Economy: http://www.faireconomy.org/
UFE’s Campus Living Wage Manual: http://www.campusactivism.org/server-new/uploads/campuslivingwagemanual.pdf
United Students Against Sweatshops: http://usas.org/
Family Budget Calculators:
Economic Policy Institute: https://www.epi.org/resources/budget/
MIT Living Wage Calculator: http://livingwage.mit.edu/
Fact Sheet for Living Wage at Agnes Scott College:
A brief video on Highlanders’ popular education model:
Frank Adams with Myles Horton, Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander (Blair, 1975).
Katherine Charron, Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark (UNC Press, 2009).
Septima Poinsette Clark and Cynthia Stokes Brown, Ready from Within: A First Person Narrative (Red Sea Press, 1990).
John M. Glen, Highlander: No Ordinary School (University of Tennessee Press, 1996).
Faith S. Holsaert, et al., eds., Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (University of Illinois Press, 2012).
Patrisse-Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (St. Martins Press, 2018).
Grace Jordan McFadden, “Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights.” Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941-1965. Ed. Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1993), pp. 85–97.
Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830-1970 (Scribner, 2012).
Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (UNC Press, 2005).
Sweet Honey in the Rock: http://sweethoneyintherock.org/
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, ed., How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Haymarket Books, 2017).
Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele was recently in Atlanta and I met with him to learn about the plans for the new Septima Clark Learning Center that will be built at the Highlander Research Center in New Market, TN, where he works as co-director with Ash-Lee Woodward Henderson.
Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987) was an educator and civil rights activist, and served as director of workshops and the Citizenship Schools Program at Highlander. In 1961 the citizenship schools moved over to the SCLC and Septima became its director of education and teaching. Septima’s cousin, Bernice Robinson, attended a Highlander workshop in 1955 with Esau Jenkins and helped to start citizenship schools in Septima’s hometown of Charleston. Septima’s teaching philosophy was to teach people to teach other people, which forms the heart of popular education pedagogy at Highlander. The new learning center will honor her legacy by providing space, materials, and spirit for movement builders into the future.
Opening theme music is by Aviva and the Flying Penguins and performed by Aviva and Lance Erik Haugan. Music for the ending credits is “Rise Up” by Audra Day, performed by Agnes Scott College student Victoria Martin of the Joyful Noise Gospel Choir and accompanied by Dr. Nathan H. Grigsby, James T. and Ella Rather Kirk Artist Affiliate and Director of Joyful Noise, at the occasion of the Teach-In for Economic Justice at Agnes Scott on Feb. 16, 2018.
This interview took place at East Pole Coffee in Atlanta, GA: http://eastpole.coffee/
Chris Crass’ website has the list of his publications and other resources in popular education and organizing:
In Part Two of our conversation Chris Crass talks about what activist/popular education and movement building mean for higher education. Chris is a co-founder of the Catalyst Project: Anti-Racism for Collective Liberation (https://collectiveliberation.org/) that offers political education and organizing support. He also discusses his commitment to dismantling patriarchy and misogyny (see his essay: http://thefeministwire.com/2013/06/against-patriarchy-tools-for-men-to-further-feminist-revolution/). Systemic change brings personal transformation. In these times of attacks on equity and racial justice, Chris discusses how to find hope in resilience and resistance. First step: to educate ourselves and show up for racial and gender justice. Chris reminds us: We are the 99%.
Activist, organizer, writer and social change agent Chris Crass (http://www.chriscrass.org/) is committed to the long haul of justice work. In Part One of our conversation, Chris talks about his background, the many movement building mentors and the collective liberation of oppressed groups. He is the author of two books, Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy (PM Press, 2013) and Towards the “Other America”: Anti-Racist Resources for White People Taking Action for Black Lives Matter (Chalice Press, 2015). In his anti-racist work he begins with the historical and structural definition of racism from The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (http://pisab.org/): racism is individual race prejudice plus structural/institutional power. Chris works to build dynamic multiracial alliances, with an intersectional framework—“working class-based, feminist, multiracial movements for collective liberation.”
Freedom University Georgia: http://www.freedomuniversitygeorgia.com/
New Yorker Video on Freedom University Georgia: “The University That Won’t Be Stopped”:
Laura Emiko Soltis, “From Freedom Schools to Freedom University: Liberatory Education, Interracial and Intergenerational Dialogue, and the Undocumented Student Movement in the U.S. South,” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol. 17, Issue 1-2, June 2015:
Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance (GUYA):
Aviva Chomsky, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Beacon Press, 2014.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, 2012.
Coalition of Immokalee Workers: http://www.ciw-online.org/