Poor People’s Organizing


On the weekend of April 3 to 5, 62 people representing more than 20 different poor
people’s organizations from across the country met in Philadelphia. This meeting,
sponsored by the National Welfare Rights Union and hosted by the Kensington Welfare Rights
Union, was an orientation to the Economic Human Rights Campaign and specifically to this
summer’s New Freedom Bus Tour. Though the schedules are still evolving, the New Freedom
Bus will travel, starting June 1, to dozens of cities and towns across the country. As it
goes, each community where it stops will be collecting documentation and holding tribunals
about Economic Human Rights violations from poor communities all across the country. The
tour will end on July 1 with a march on the UN, where the documentation will be presented
to the international community in a massive tribunal. While the short-term goal of the
Freedom Bus Tour is to collect this documentation and project the voice of poor people in
America, the longer term goal is one of organization–poor communities from across the
country will use the arrival of the bus as a focal point for their own organizing and to
link their local struggles to a growing national movement.


Economic Human Rights Campaign

In 1948, the United Nations drafted the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, a document signed by each member of the United Nations. This
document, and specifically articles 23, 25, and 26, guarantees each human being certain
economic human rights, particularly the right to housing, food, education, health care,
and a job at a living wage. Knowing this, we can understand such phenomena as poverty and
homelessness, as well as specific policies, like Clinton’s Welfare Reform bill, for what
they are: a violation of our basic rights as human beings.

The Economic Human Rights Campaign is sponsored by the National Welfare Rights Union
and spearheaded by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), a multi-racial group of
poor and homeless women and men organizing to meet their survival needs and to build a
national movement to end poverty. KWRU, as a local chapter of the National Welfare Rights
Union, has had an impressive past, utilizing such tactics as housing takeovers and Tent
Cities to meet the housing needs of its members. It organizes in welfare offices, conducts
regular food distribution, and has held protests on the local, state, and national levels.
Some highlights of its national organizing strategy are the two Marches For Our Lives, in
which poor families from various parts of the country have marched from Philadelphia to
Harrisburg (in 1996), and from Philadelphia to the United Nations in NYC (in 1997) to
raise the issues of Economic Human Rights violations. These accomplishments were brought
about by the organizing, thinking, and the leadership of poor people, with the support of
allies from all walks of life.

At the April meeting, I was struck by the sense that this campaign represents something
new under the American political sun. The women and men gathered in Philadelphia came from
a variety of racial backgrounds. This circumstance comes about by necessity; poverty
doesn’t discriminate. This diversity was geographical as well. Representatives came from
South Central L.A. and Knoxville, Tennessee, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Lorain,
Ohio. Particularly exciting was a strong representation from the South. This link is a
growing and hugely important relationship between poor people’s groups in the North and
the South, and has been nurtured by The North-South Dialog, a network of poor people’s
organizations and their allies. There was a real sense of solidarity across racial lines
brought abut by the necessity of survival of individuals and the movement.

The second striking point was the message of the campaign. There were three central
themes: (1) Welfare reform legislation is a violation of our economic human rights; (2)
The campaign is fighting for everyone to be guaranteed the right to a job at a living
wage; (3) This campaign is a freedom movement, fighting for freedom from unemployment,
hunger, and homelessness.

Finally, this campaign is significant for the type of movement it is trying to build,
and for those leading this movement. Poor people are organizing themselves, setting their
own agenda, thinking and strategizing, analyzing the political situation, and building the
beginnings of a movement the likes of which this country hasn’t seen before. Far from the
media stereotypes of poor people as lazy or crazy, these groups are capable of building
inspiring organization, especially considering that most start with literally no resources
at all. While these organizations enjoy support from their allies in the legal, student,
social work, and organized labor circles, this growing movement is based on the thinking
and leadership of poor people themselves, and their struggles to meet their basic needs in
a situation where these needs are being increasingly denied.

This campaign, and the growing network of poor people’s groups that is leading it, is a
campaign for the immediate needs not only of the poor and unemployed, but people
downsized, people holding two or three jobs just to make ends meet, people whose hard work
is no longer enough to feed and clothe their families. It is a campaign that aims to
ensure that no one in the richest country in the world needs to worry where their next
meal, their shelter, their health care, or their children’s education will come from. It
is a campaign that needs the help and support of people from all walks of life.

Patrick Grugan lives and works in Philadelphia. For more information, contact the
Kensington Welfare Rights Union at (215) 203-1945, Fax: (215) 203-1950; WRU
libertynet.org; www.libertynet.org/~kwru.