Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Poverty Tour

Along with about a dozen friends I sat in St. Sabina church on Chicago's south side listening to radio personality Tavis Smiley and Princeton University professor Cornell West and Minister Louis Farrakhan talking about poverty. The church was filled with about a thousand people. The stained glass windows were beautiful, as was the wood carving adorning the walls. The audience included not only the African Americans who regularly worship there, but also people of other national origins. There were Muslims and Christians and Jews, and probably some who follow other religious teachings, or none at all. There were young people and old people, men and women. It was the kind of audience every liberal likes to be part of.

But as diverse as the crowd was, there was a glaring absence among the speakers: none of them was poor. That didn't detract from what they were saying. Each of them had a perspective on poverty and may have even experienced hard times at some point in their past. Each had obviously encountered poor people, and had important things to say about what poverty does, what causes it, and what they believed should be done about it. But their speeches, strong and impassioned as they were, lacked the element of credibility that could only have been supplied by poor people telling their own stories of poverty in today's world.

From a political standpoint, the lack of a poor person's voice will hamper the roadshow that these personalities are taking around the country. I recall the Poor People's Campaign organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the photos of sharecroppers in overalls. The dignity of ordinary folks marching arm in arm with an internationally recognized leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The unspoken affirmation that all people were entitled to a share of the wealth that was concentrated among a very small portion of the populace. That was missing from the presentation at St. Sabina.

I do not point out this shortcoming in order to criticize the effort that is being made to bring attention to poverty. The organizers of the tour are to be commended for courageously trying to call attention to an issue that has been almost entirely absent from the public consciousness for many years. Their task is daunting. Their goals is worthwhile. I make my observation in the hope that it will prompt some change in the way the tour is presented to the public in other cities. Reducing poverty will required a movement, not just a lecture series. A movement cannot successfully be waged on behalf of people who do not participate in the movement. If poor people deserve our help, they deserve our respect, and their voices should be included. They should be on stage, not just in the audience as they were at St. Sabina.

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