Readers’ Forum: Jeff Aron and Michelle McCleary

Jeff Aron

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Jeff Aron, the Director of External Affairs at Fountain House with Dr. Shekhar Saxena and Dr. Tarun Dua, the heads of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the World Health Organization in Geneva.

Evicted is an important book that moved me deeply. I have known and worked with people like those about whom Matthew Desmond writes for much of my life. He has shared (as they have shared with him) struggles, hard work, failures, pain and so much more. Through a variety of research efforts, both ethnographic and with the very detailed MARS, he powerfully demonstrates the economic and political forces that are arrayed against them and the rot and responsibility that we all share.

This book is both part of and brilliantly carries on a tradition of writers and activists including Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, Lewis Hine, Michael Harrington and Upton Sinclair who exposed injustice and illuminated the lives of poor and homeless people. As I read Evicted, I found myself thinking about: 1) scenes from Les Miserables (in which Jean Valjean was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread); and, 2) the conditions that led to the making of the French revolution (and others).

I also thought about my early adulthood, when I was an anthropologist searching for alternatives to the racism and poverty which I witnessed in America – and my decision to leave academia to become a community organizer and activist.  I remembered how inspired I was when I discovered a movement that brought together people from different class, race and educational backgrounds in a shared commitment to engage poverty and to build new and independent organizations that were unconstrained by traditional and, to my mind, failed efforts.  We came from communities that didn’t ordinarily talk or work together,  and whose respective communities not only wondered what we were doing but opposed us being in each other’s neigborhoods and lives.

This was seen as illegitimate and we came to be seen as illegitimate. For example, we organized a union of welfare recipients, which was led by welfare recipients and organized with support from middle class women.  Leadership included a woman who did not know how to read, a mother of 14 children, and a former public school teacher. People of color and whites worked together to organize demonstrations, picket welfare centers, and mobilize welfare recipients in alliance with people from diverse communities and histories.  We organized for power rather than merely for benefits; we organized new political alliances independent of the established parties. Although we explored tenant and other forms of constituency organizing, we also had intense conversations about what kinds of organizations needed to be built. For nearly 40 years we have continued having these conversations and experimenting with new forms of organizing.

In particular, it continues with Lenora Fulani and the residents in NYCHA Housing; in the Development School for Youth, All Stars Talent Show Network and UX where young people and adults talk openly about being poor, the humiliation they feel and becoming powerful.

I strongly support Desmond’s prescription for a universal housing voucher and am very interested in his thoughts about the political and cultural transformations we might need in this country to have it become national policy. For example:

  • The relationship between what we need to do at the grass roots to create the conditions for legislation or executive action from the top down?
  • What kind of national conversation would we need to have in this country?
  • What changes in our political processes, e.g. can he envision the Democratic and Republican Parties coming to an agreement to implement this?

It seems unlikely to me that the voucher policy, as well as other progressive responses to poverty and homelessness, can be achieved without an opening of the electoral process to all those who, for a variety of reasons, have rejected the two party control of political decision making.

One of the reasons that I appreciate the Politics for the People Book Club so much is that it is both a part of and an exemplar of the kind of political and cultural activity that we need to engage in.

I deeply appreciate and respect the work that Matthew Desmond is doing as a writer, researcher, a leader in academia and as an activist who is in the struggle to reshape policy.

Jeff Aron has been active in independent political efforts in New York City and nationally since the late ’70’s. He is a passionate supporter of IndependentVoting.org.

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Michelle McCleary

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I recently traveled to New Orleans, LA to attend a conference.  As the airport shuttle traveled through the streets, it was clear that New Orleans had yet to fully recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.  The Sheraton, Marriot and other beautiful hotels stood proudly in the midst of grimy, run down streets and impoverished people. I was saddened, but unfortunately not surprised by what I saw.  I wondered to myself for the ten thousandth time, WHY, gotdammit!  Why do we as a country allow this deep poverty and abandonment to continue?  When will we take our country back and demand fairness and equality for all?  I, of course, already know the answer:  People are afraid.  History has shown us that when we take a stand, more often than not we lose everything: our livelihood, our family and sometimes even our lives.    The shame that poor people are made to feel is even more powerful than the aforementioned fear.  Of course, it’s your fault that you don’t have enough to eat.  Of course it’s your fault that you don’t have a stable place to live. Why else would you not have what you need?   America is a meritocracy.  We reward hard work! No free rides here! Blah, blah, blah.

I really appreciated Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in The American City.  The author provides an emotional and riveting look into the chaotic lives of people whose unstable and often non-existent housing leaves them living on the edge.  As I read ‘Evicted’, I couldn’t help but think of how much human capital is wasted in America.  The amount of talent that is never developed or even seen because segments of our population are considered disposable is staggering.  In 2007, I began teaching at a not-for profit in Harlem.  My job was to help ‘vulnerable youth’ (court involved, foster care and young adults living in homeless shelters) improve their reading, writing and math.  Ninety-five percent of the participants had never met their parents. Ever.  These young adults – ages 16-23 – felt the pain of their abandonment deeply.   Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I could help these young people because quite frankly, they could be mean and vicious.  One young man told me “bitch, I’ll get you fired”!! I knew that if I was going to be successful at his job I would have to bring out my ‘take no crap persona.’  I was also going to have to be as giving as possible because I simply refused to be yet another person who failed these young adults.  After a series of near show downs in the classroom (LOL!) I began to earn the program participants’ respect.  I began to introduce them to the power of performance i.e. pretend to be who you are not. I urged these young adults to read like they were me – a nerd who preferred a good book over a new pair of shoes! During early morning skits that we wrote together I watched as some of the young men (some of them I KNOW were in gangs) pretend to be ballerinas.  What a hoot!! As we went through this process together, they began to change and to let me and the other teachers see more of who they were:  talented writers and singers; great at math and science; and deeply caring toward some of their mentally challenged classmates.  I saw the reading scores of some of the program participants soar: 4th grade reading levels to 12th grade in SIX months!!!

I worked with this population – vulnerable youth – for seven years.  It was one of the hardest jobs I have ever held.  The most heart breaking aspect of this experience was that no matter how talented these young adults were, the chaos of their lives – shuttled from shelter to shelter or foster care parent – pretty much guaranteed that they would never get a chance to be fully seen or heard in our society.

I look forward to the day when we as Americans decide that our desire for justice and decency far outweighs our fears or our judgements.

Michelle McCleary is a long-time independent and the President of the Metro NY Chapter of the National Black MBA Association.

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Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

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