Reader’s Forum–Harriet Hoffman

TERRIBLE VIRTUE

A Novel by Ellen Feldman

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Harriet Hoffman at an informational picket protesting the privatization and undermining of public housing in NYC.

Margaret Sanger was not just a fighter for access to birth control and the founder of Planned Parenthood.  She was a political maverick who defied all kinds of cultural norms at great personal cost and was attacked as much for her personal lifestyle decisions as for the courageous campaign she led to provide birth control information for poor women.  As a political activist and mother of two children, I deeply felt the emotional pain and the social cost of her refusal to abide by the rules of the time, especially her decision to reject the expectations of traditional motherhood.

Actually universal access to birth control information took a very long time to be accepted in the U.S.  Before the sexual revolution in the mid-1960s there was little talk about birth control.  Those of us who were adolescents in the late fifties and early sixties can certainly remember what that was like.  “Nice” girls didn’t have sex and certainly didn’t tell anyone if they did; abortions were illegal until 1973 when Roe vs. Wade was decided; and you usually had to either get married or put your child up for adoption if you got pregnant.  In fact sex education in schools was practically nonexistent until about 20 years ago.

Sadly, this is a very timely book.  It is one hundred years since Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, and Fania Mindell opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY, and today Planned Parenthood is under serious attack. Sanger chose Brownsville for her clinic because it was home to poor women whose lives and health were being negatively impacted by their lack of knowledge and access to birth control. While the attacks on Planned Parenthood today are focused on abortion, most people are unaware that Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of low cost health care and birth control in the U.S.  An estimated one in five women in the U.S. today has visited a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life.  Without Planned Parenthood it is young and low income women and men who will likely be the ones to lose needed health services.

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is the coordinator of the popular monthly independent volunteer gathering, Talkin’ Independence, a program of IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

 

 

Highlights of P4P’s Conversation with Ellen Feldman

 

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On Sunday, Janaury 22nd, the Politics for the People book club spent an hour talking with Ellen Feldman about her book, Terrible Virtue which is a fictional biography of Margaret Sanger.  I am sharing a few highlights of our conversation below and you can listen to the entire recording at the end of this post.

(Note: if the audio links do not appear in the email version of this post, just click on the email to come to the blog.)

Our first audio clip includes my introduction of Ellen, a look at what drew her to the story of Margaret Sanger, a discussion of the controversy surrounding Margaret’s pioneering activism, and discussion of the increased scrutiny Ellen came under when news of her novel’s movie deal went public. Take a listen:

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In this next clip Dr. Jessie Fields shares her fascination with the ways by which we access history.  Why is it that Ellen chose this format, a fictional novel that is firmly routed in fact, to explore the inner workings of a historical figure like Margaret Sanger?    Here Ellen’s explanation below:

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Independent activist Richard Ronner juxtaposed his impressions from the novel that “to be a visionary or make profound change, to be driven in such a way as to spend all of one’s life doing it, is ultimately a lonely and isolating experience” with his own experiences, sharing that what allows him to remain engaged and active is being part of building community. Give a listen:

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Kerry Malloy, an actor and member of the IndependentVoting.org national team, asked Ellen to talk about the experience of selling the rights to the novel to a become a movie. Give a listen to their exchange:

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Juliette Leak spoke with Ellen about the history of contraception being illegal in the US in the clip below:

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Attorney and Independent activist Harry Kresky touched on the ferocity of opposition to contraception, and how long it took for it to be legal for anybody. Was that a religious issue or was that the result of American puritanical attitudes towards sex? Ellen thinks it is both:

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Activist and P4P member Juliana Francisco struggled to understand why margaret got married – more than once no less – given her apparent aversion to the institution, and was intrigued by Sanger’s relationship to the suffragettes at the time.  In giving voice to suffragette opposition to Sanger and her outspoken approach to female sexuality, Ellen said they wanted to avoid being painted as morally questionable, “we don’t want to dirty our skirts with that, the vote is all that counts.” You can listen to their exchange here:

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As we neared the end of the call I asked Ellen to touch on Sanger’s relationship with the African American community, as we talked about her work with under represented female communities.

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You can listen to the entirety of our fascinating call with Ellen Feldman below. It was a timely treat to explore Margaret Sanger’s life and work with all of you.

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Stay Tuned

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Politics for the People

We will be hosting a lively exchange of our favorite political poems and some original poetry by our members as well.

NEXT SELECTION

 RATF**KED:

The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy 

By David Daley.

We will be kicking off this selection in April and our conference call with the author will be on Sunday, June 4th at 7 pm EST.

 

 

Readers’ Forum–Steve Richardson & Lou Hinman

STEVE RICHARDSON

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I finished the book last night.  Honestly, it was not my type of book.  I rarely read novels and found the quasi-biography and this author’s style awkward.  I could not even remember who Sanger was, so I did learn some ugly truths about the history of contraception.  I could have learned more from a brief article, but this book was written for people who already knew her public story.  I may be reading too much into the story but should get an interesting reaction from Ms. Feldman, either way.

Terrible Virtue is an intriguing title that isn’t really explained in the quote of Margaret Sanger or by the author.  Most readers, myself included, are probably grateful for the deeds that ultimately led to reproductive freedom for women in the U.S. and wondered what was terrible about them.  The answer comes in the form of letters/testimonials by Sanger’s family and friends.  They paid the price by loving someone who could not love them the way they wanted and probably deserved to be loved.  Over and over, Margaret made the choices that contraception would make possible for all women.  It did not paint a pretty picture; it made her appear selfish.  But it did keep her from falling into the traps that had kept virtually all women in misery until she made rebellion her singular goal.

Sanger indulged what ambitious men learned long ago – that great achievements require indifference to expectations, especially those of loved ones.  History is not made by people who cling to comfort and sentiment.  Anyone moved by friends’ ordinary concerns cannot hope to withstand extraordinary challenges from enemies.  This does not mean there are no feelings; it means there are many choices to be made and those choices have consequences.  Margaret Sanger was willing to endure the judgment and disappointment of those she loved to pursue a worthy objective.  Feldman’s book reminds us that heroes are not always seen that way by those who were sacrificed on their journey.        

 

Steve Richardson is a founding member of the Virginia Independent Voters Association and serves on IndependentVoting.org’s national Election Reform Committee.

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LOU HINMAN

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Terrible Virtue, by Ellen Feldman, is the story of Margaret Sanger, and her pivotal role in the long struggle to make birth control accessible and legal in the United States.

I remember that Lisa McGirr’s book The War on Alcohol (a Politics for the People selection two years ago) exposed how Prohibition was aimed at denying alcohol consumption to poor people, and the rapid influx of working class “foreigners” into American cities.  At the same time, the discriminatory enforcement of the Volstead Act allowed the well-to-do to go on consuming alcohol.  McGirr showed how the 18th Amendment was only possible because the development of democracy was subverted and held back at a time of rapid social change and economic growth, and how it’s overthrow was made possible by the rapid enfranchisement of new working-class voters during the 1920’s and the building of a new electoral coalition.

The struggle for reproductive rights (although not over even now) overlapped the struggle against Prohibition, and involved the same underlying issue.  The rich and the well-to-do had access to birth control, but poor people did not.  Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in American in 1916.  In 1921 (the year after the Prohibition became law) she founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

One of the virtues of Feldman’s book is its account of the appalling oppression of poor and working class women without access to birth control.  I have to confess that as a political activist who came of age at about the time that Margaret Sander passed away in 1966, I never thought much about this.

Another important virtue is Feldman’s moving account of Margaret Sanger’s development as a rebel.  Her rebellion was rooted, not in ideology, but in her hatred of oppression, and her fellowship with other working-class women – her sisters.  As she developed as an agitator and organizer, and as support for her work grew, she came to know many wealthy and influential people.  But she never let herself be deflected from her goal, and used her privileged social location to broaden the base of support for her cause.

Another virtue of Ms. Feldman’s book is that she depicts the personal conflicts and sacrifices Margaret Sanger endured in becoming a leader.

Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

A Review of Terrible Virtue

NY JOURNAL OF BOOKS: TERRIBLE VIRTUE

BY: JANET LEVINE

March 29, 2016

“The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography.”

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman is fictional autobiography (told almost exclusively in an imagined first-person narrative voice) of 20th century feminist icon and birth control advocate and activist American, Margaret Sanger.

But is this the autobiography Margaret Sanger would have written if she had chosen to do so toward the end of her life?

The title stems from a Margaret Sanger quote from 1914: “It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue.” She adds: “A woman’s duty: To look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in her eyes, to have an ideal, to speak and act in defiance of convention.”

With these words, Sanger, as Feldman notes, found her mission.

What is also “terrible” in this novel perhaps is the toll Sanger’s lifelong activism imposed on her two husbands, three children and many lovers. Among other questions, Sanger’s crusading raises the dilemma of whether activists living for a cause, can also be married or even raise children. Of course the “virtue” resides in the remarkable effectiveness of the activism Sanger espoused.

The novel takes the reader of a fascinating and compelling gallop through the surface of Sanger’s life as imagined by Feldman. The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography. Yet the novel does range over the highlights of Sanger’s life from a small town in upstate New York to a final home in Tucson, Arizona.

Sanger was born into poverty, a daughter of an alcoholic free thinker and town renegade and a haggard mother always exhausted by the bearing of and caring for 13 children. Due to the sacrifice of two older and devoted sisters Sanger was able to train as a nurse. Early on she championed several social justice causes, mingling with, learning from, and working with other progressives.

Ultimately she brought her leadership skills, powerful personality, and idealism (abetted by constant awareness of her mother’s childbearing suffering that caused her untimely death) into legalizing contraception. This struggle consumed her life and led often to violent conflict with puritanical, patronizing lawmakers, sentenced her several times to prison, and left her little option to further her work but to seek asylum in Edwardian England.

Sanger’s narrative is interrupted by short accounts from her children, husbands, sisters, and lovers that counterbalance and often confute Sanger’s telling of her life in which she gives short shrift to the great cost she exacted from those she loved and who loved her. Another fascinating element of the novel is the vignette appearances of the likes of Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, and other luminaries of progressive movements in the early to mid-20th century.

Among many other pioneering ventures, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 (illegal), founded Planned Parenthood in 1952, and in 1960 heralded Congress’s legal protection of “the Pill.”

This is a timely book. Since 2010 hundreds of new laws chip away at women’s choice, access to contraception, sexual education, and abortion—all passed by conservative lawmakers. Women’s rights are assailed today by the same puritanical zeitgeist that railed against Margaret Sanger in 1916. Sadly, Sanger’s work is not yet completely done.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Readers Forum–Susan Massad

Review of Terrible Virtue

1/1/17

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Dr. Susan Massad at a recent protest against efforts to privatize and undermine public housing in NYC.

Terrible Virtue is an extraordinarily apt title for this fictional account of the life of Margaret Sanger, rebel, feminist, founder of Planned Parenthood, and crusader for the right for all women to access effective birth control.  Thru diverse narrative voices, of Sanger’s children, her lovers, her sister and husband, the author, Ellen Feldman, gives us a way into the life of this very historically conflicted character.  Margaret Sanger was a  complicated and difficult woman. Called by some, even today, a eugenicist, racist, and quack.  And, for the many women whose cause she championed, Sanger was a hero.

I found myself alternately applauding her and judging her: Self sacrificing and self-centered; champion of the poor and seduced by the rich; passionate lover and manipulator of emotions; single issue cause and worldly vision; love of family and single-minded passion for the cause; rebel and conformist; blind to the individual and embracing the mass.   Many of these contradictions and conflicts that Feldman exposes in the life of this committed social/political activist are ones that I, as a long-time political activist, have experienced and could easily identify with.

In reading the book I realize how close we still are in 2016 to Sanger’s cause of providing effective measures for family planning for all woman. Planned parenthood is under attack, access to effective birth control information restricted, abortion rights greatly curtailed, and funding for research on more effective methods of contraception virtually halted.  America’s deeply religious and moral roots have been exposed as a woman’s right to choose becomes once again a question rather than a fact for millions of women all over the world.

In 1961 I was in my final year of medical school at the University of California in San Francisco when the “pill” was introduced into our world. As part of a routine lecture to our class of 100 students, ten of whom were woman, we were told that there was now a pill that woman could take that would prevent pregnancy.  This rather amazing scientific breakthrough was presented as yet another fact for us to put down in our notebooks–how the pill works, dosage schedules,  side-effects, cost, etc. The derisive comments and  sniggers scattered thru-out the room, and the handful of students who walked out of the lecture hall were not even worthy of comment. To most of us the pill was just one of the amazing contributions that medical science had made to our “can do” post-war society.  We were enamored by science. It was our great love.

At the time, so great was the distance between our science and our lives that I did not even make the connection between my own experiences and this extraordinary breakthrough in technology.  Both of my two sisters had experienced unplanned “out of wedlock” pregnancies.  In our middle class home the pregnancies were concealed from all but close family and friends, and the off-springs sent to a loving families for adoption. I was berated by our family doctor whose office I visited at the age of 21 to ask about being fitted for a diaphragm.  He wanted to know how I could even be thinking of having sex when my sisters had already shamed our family.  And then there were my many friends who had crossed the border to go through the ordeal of a Mexican abortion.  The “pill” like most other scientific breakthroughs, was not neutral. Terrible Virtue is a stark reminder of this fact.

Feldman’s Margaret flirts with spirituality, eugenics and the temptations of an upper class life at the same time she champions the cause of masses of poor woman who did not have access to contraception. The book is bookended with the question, “If you could do it again, would you do it the same?”  In these early years of the 21st Century where a woman’s  right to access effective contraception is again under attack it is not even clear that one could do it the same. Sanger was unique for her time and, to me, her commitment to providing, against all odds, effective means of pregnancy prevention to poor woman is a legacy worth applauding.

Dr. Susan Massad is a retired physician. Dr Massad is on the faculty of the East Side Institute and an activist with the New York City Independence Clubs.

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Terrible Virtue–a movie in the making

 

Planned Parenthood Founder Margaret Sanger Getting Biopic Treatment From Black Bicycle & Justine Ciarrocchi

Deadline Hollywood

by

December 14, 2016 8:30am

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EXCLUSIVE: As the organization’s centennial year draws to a close, the story of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sander will be heading to the big screen as Black Bicycle Entertainment and producer Justine Ciarrocchi have partnered to acquire rights to author Ellen Feldman’s novel Terrible Virtue. Black Bicycle’s Erika Olde will develop and produce the film adaptation alongside Ciarrocchi.

Ciarrocchi is the producing partner of Jennifer Lawrence and is developing Zelda, which tells the story of Zelda Fitzgerald. Ron Howard is attached to direct the film with Lawrence in the title role. The Oscar-winning actress is not attached to the Sanger project.

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Published by HarperCollins in March, Terrible Virtue focuses on Sanger as the daughter of a hard-drinking, smooth-tongued free thinker and mother worn down by 13 children, who vowed her life would be different. Following Sanger’s training as a nurse, her work alongside labor organizers, anarchists, socialists and other progressives and eventually her devotion to the cause of legalizing contraception, the film examines the risks she took and the impact she had that lasts to the present day.

One of the most groundbreaking and controversial figures in American history, Sanger emerged from the labor movement as the pre-eminent American voice for women’s sexual health and legalization of contraception. Credited with coining the term “birth control,” she established the first American birth control clinic in 1916, devoting her life to making contraception legal and along the way facing arrest and exile.

Sanger remains an icon and hero to progressives and feminists but a greatly reviled figure to the anti-abortion movement, which frequently has taken comments by Sanger about overpopulation out of context to imply racist intent. Work on bringing her story to the big screen begins just as abortion and birth control opponents look to make significant gains with the election of Donald Trump.

“Margaret’s story as an advocate who led the battle for birth control and eventually founding Planned Parenthood is so relevant given our recent election and today’s climate as we are once again forced to deal with basic human rights,” said Olde. “I share a mutual passion of the subject with Justine and look forward to bringing this topic and heroic individual to the forefront.”

Said Ciarrocchi: “The scope of Sanger’s complexity, both as a revolutionary and human being, is extraordinary. I blew through Feldman’s novel with such urgency, struck by the nuance, transparency and daring of her portrait. Her story explores the often brutal nature of activism and, most audaciously, the plight of the female soul. I’m thrilled to have found such passionate partners in Erika and BBE.”

Black Bicycle Entertainment is in production on Home Again, starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer; Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead, starring Jessica Chastain, which just wrapped principal photography; and Whitney Cummings’ The Female Brain.

The acquisition of Terrible Virtue was negotiated by CAA, which represents Black Bicycle, Ciarrocchi and Feldman. Feldman is repped for publishing by the Emma Sweeney Agency.

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Readers’ Forum–Harriet Hoffman and Natesha Oliver

Harriet Hoffman

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Harriet Hoffman (r) with Edith Bargoma (c) and June Hirsh at the Anti-Corruption Awards this month.

As I began reading Evicted my first thought was – Wow, I didn’t realize that evictions are part of a growing industry, that there is money to be made from evicting people from their homes.  I appreciated that the Matthew Desmond didn’t assign blame either to the families or the individual landlords or those who are paid to dump the belongings onto the sidewalks (who are in some cases evictees themselves), or those who operate the storage units (where there are exorbitant fees to be paid when someone wants to reclaim their belongings).  I was shocked to read that in Milwaukee the difference between the rent for a poorly maintained apartment in a low income neighborhood and the rent paid for a “nice” apartment in a middle class neighborhood, is only a couple of hundred dollars a month.  Except that the poor don’t have access to those nicer apartments.  And, I am in awe of the fortitude of the families depicted so compassionately in this book, who ask for so little, starting over again and again, moving from hope to hopelessness, from housing court to eviction, homeless shelter to apartment, and back around again.

I live in New York City where 64,464 people are now living in shelters, including 23,929 homeless children, and thousands more on the streets.  I live just steps away from a public housing complex where nearly 5,000 people live in 2,000 apartments in 17 buildings.  It is one of dozens of public housing sites in this city in which over half a million people have had a chance, for many years, to have stable homes.  But the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has begun selling its buildings, parking lots and playground spaces to private developers who will put up new buildings that the poor cannot afford to live in.  Evictions have already begun, and surely NYCHA’s callous “Next Generation” plan, if carried out, will eventually destroy public housing and will leave many more thousands of men, women and children stranded.

I am really angry about this.  I am a member of the Committee for Independent Political Action, which, under the leadership of Dr. Lenora Fulani, is organizing tenants and others to fight back.  The City doesn’t have to take this route, but, as in Milwaukee and elsewhere, there is little political will among the politicians to support decent housing for the poor.  As Matthew Desmond asserts in this wonderful book, it would be less expensive to provide a housing voucher for every low income family in America than it is to maintain homeless shelters and the apparatus that evicts people from their homes.

I know that most ordinary New Yorkers strongly oppose NYCHA’s plan.  And this is a stark example of what happens when we the people have no opportunity to impact public policy.  That’s why I have also worked for many years with the NYC Independence Clubs and IndependentVoting.org, which are fighting to restore a democratic decision-making process to our country.  At our popular Talkin’ Independence events, which I coordinate, people from every walk of life are talking about why it is so important for the people, not the political parties, to have the power to decide about housing and other critical issues.

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is the coordinator of the popular monthly independent volunteer gathering, Talkin’ Independence, a program of IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs

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Natesha Oliver

Natesha Oliver (r) with Cathy Stewart and Politics for the People member, Cheryl White (l)

Natesha Oliver (l) with Cathy Stewart and Politics for the People member, Cheryl White (r) National Conference of Independents, NYC, March 2015

 

It is a challenge for Me to put in words My thoughts on Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted. I have a lot of things going through My mind, The attitudes of the Landlords and how they lived lavished lives while making money off the desperation of others. They may not have contributed to the onset of their tenants conditions yet they sure as hell didn’t do anything to alleviate their tenants’ condition even when it came to maintaining their property. And how they would knowingly watch the property deteriorate and still allow people to live in their squalor, and this is where I am most conflicted because could the Landlords have prevented the deterioration, I don’t know, this truly bothers Me the most.

What the children have to endure when living like that is nothing short of disturbing and when they act out evictions were cold and swift, another confliction because who wants to pay for damage caused by someone else’s child.

Knowing that these properties were purchased with the intent to house impoverished people for profit is truly disturbing.

For the sake of time and sanity I will end with this quote by Matthew Desmond:

“This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become”.

Natesha Oliver is the founder of MIST, Missouri Independents Stand Together. She lives in Kansas City.

***

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#

 

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.

***

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#

Readers’ Forum – Doug Balder and Harry Kresky

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Harry Kresky (l) and Doug Balder (r)

In his wrenching book, Evicted, Matthew Desmond observes that the first step on the devastating journey from eviction to homelessness is often the loss of an apartment in subsided or “public” housing.  A family that lived in a stable home is forced into dilapidated, private-sector housing, owned and operated by landlords seeking short-term profits from tenants who are likely to face further eviction, impoverishment, and social disintegration.

Here in New York City more than 500,000 people live in public housing operated by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), equal to half the entire population of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the city Desmond writes about.  The “projects” are a critical part of New York City’s infrastructure.  Maintenance could surely be better and capital improvements are badly needed.  But, for generations of poor and working class families, the projects provided stability, security, community and, of course, a roof over their heads.

This year, under the City’s “progressive” Mayor, Democrat Bill DeBlasio, NYCHA has begun to implement its “NextGen” master plan.  Under NextGen’s “infill” program, playgrounds, sitting areas, and other public spaces in NYCHA housing complexes will be sold to private developers, who will be permitted to build high rise apartment buildings containing a combination of market-rate and “affordable” units.  However, the “affordable” units are beyond the means of the average NYCHA tenant.  In addition, the plan allows the sale of existing NYCHA apartments to private landlords, who will receive a subsidy as long as the present tenants remain.  After that, the unit can be rented to families chosen by the developer, and earning up to $142,395 for a family of four.

Dr. Lenora Fulani and her Committee for Independent Community Action is campaigning against NextGen and has widespread support among public housing tenants and other New Yorkers who care about the lives of poor and working people.  CICA views NextGen as the first step in full privatization.  NYCHA claims these drastic steps are needed to meet its $17 billion capital deficit and $98 million annual operating deficit.  However, NYCHA’s own projection is that infill and the sale of apartments will generate a total of $300-600 million, a fraction of the capital deficit.  For real estate developers, NextGen provides an opportunity to build on what is now very valuable land, such as that at Holmes Houses overlooking the East River on Manhattan’s upper east side.

For those displaced by privatization, the consequences will be as drastic as those described in Eviction.  One need only look around New York to see massive luxury development in what were once working-class neighborhoods in Hell’s Kitchen, Long Island City and Williamsburg, and accelerating gentrification in Harlem and East New York.  We look forward to hearing what Professor Desmond has to say about this unfolding social catastrophe.

Douglas Balder is an architect and on the Board of Directors of the All Stars Project.

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters.

***

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#

 

Frank Fear Reviews Evicted

REVIEW: Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, New York: Crown Publishers, 2016[1]

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By Frank A. Fear, professor emeritus, Michigan State University

 

“Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American values is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”  (p. 313)

Eloquently phrased, so valid and compelling in substance…. Those words gave me great pause for thought.

I thought about America. How did it get this way? I thought about me. How can I make a difference?

The most sobering thought of all was this: nothing Matthew Desmond writes about is new.

At various levels we know severe poverty exists in this country. But most of us live a world apart—apart occupationally, economically, socially, and institutionally. But it’s different geographically. Wander a bit from Main Street or the suburbs. You’ll find it. And it’s closer than you think … often too close for comfort.

Desmond’s book should make us feel uncomfortable. He helps us confront this “other reality” in vivid and sometimes raw terms.

For me, the most discomforting part of the book was Desmond’s treatment of profit. There’s money to be made in the slums. Landlords, lenders, and other actors profit on the backs of vulnerable people—people living hardscrabble lives who don’t always know what tomorrow will bring.

Exploitation, now there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate,” Desmond writes (p. 305). I won’t forget that phrasing.

I didn’t read Evicted from cover to cover. I read Part One (through p. 107) to get grounded. Intrigued by the study design, I then turned to the end of the book and read about Desmond’s methodology (“About This Project,” pp. 315-336). Wondering about Desmond’s overall conclusions and recommendations I next read “Epilogue: Home and Hope” (pp. 293-313).

I used Epilogue as the foundation for reading the rest of the book. I highlighted (literally so, by marker) supporting documentation (the material cited in footnotes) and connected that evidentiary material to vignettes about people and relationships. Connecting those two domains—data about poverty (important to me as social scientist) with stories about poverty (important to me as citizen activist)—made the book come alive.

After finishing the book I spent time thinking about the meaning of Evicted. I concluded that it’s a Call to Arms. We must do more, and do better, as stewards of the commonwealth. Desmond says as much:

“Working on behalf of the common good is the engine of democracy, vital to our communities, cities, and states—and, ultimately, the nation. It is “an outflow of the idealism and moralism of the American people, wrote Gunner Myrdal.” (p. 294)

What might we do to serve the common good? I offer two recommendations. The first has to do with our role as benefactors. The second pertains to our role as political actors.

As Benefactors. A benefactor is a kindly helper. Millions of Americans are benefactors in the fight against poverty. We serve by volunteering time and giving money to America’s nonprofit agencies.

Not all agency work is the same, though. A good share of the work involves providing people relief from poverty and some of it targets the causes of poverty. If you’re like me then you’ve devoted more attention to relief and less to cause-remediation.

When I served as president of a municipal food bank I watched the client roll grow. More people needed food assistance. Many were children. Many were senior citizens. Many were “new kinds of people,” people you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with hunger, such as out-of-work professionals.

How could this be happening in America, I thought? I wasn’t the only person asking that question. And many times I heard this answer: “There will always be poor people in America. Our moral responsibility is to tend to their needs.”

Relief services certainly have a place. But raising more money to provide relief services to more and more people is an endless routine. It capitulates to the forces that cause hunger. And it makes benefactors problem responders, not problem solvers.

I believe America needs to reinvigorate its efforts to address the causes of poverty. One way to do that is by concentrating more time and money on agencies, programs, and services that target the causes of poverty by addressing those causes directly.

But it isn’t easy to identify those initiatives. Why? First, many evaluation systems only use financial indicators to judge nonprofit merit and quality (e.g., % of budget devoted to administration). Fiscal accountability is important, but it only gets at how agencies operate. Second, resources to help Americans make nonprofit choices don’t always do a good job of differentiating among diverse initiatives. Disparate activities are often lumped in a generic category, such as “Fighting Poverty.”

We need to be inquisitive and discriminating, first, then declarative and active, next. Volunteer. Serve on a committee. Become a board member. Make targeted financial contributions to projects with high impact. Endow a program to make a long-term difference.

I’m more convinced than ever—thanks, in part, to reading Evicted—that we must speak openly and passionately about shifting primary emphasis in this country from relief to remediation. Then we must act.

As Political Actors. Nonprofit initiatives are important, but local, state and national-level policies represent the cornerstone of transformation. With that in mind I very much like Desmond’s proposal—to expand the housing voucher program (pp. 308ff).

Sadly, though, poverty isn’t a primary concern politically in this country — and it hasn’t been a primary concern for nearly a half century. That’s why we don’t have the policies we need to attack poverty aggressively.

What a difference that is from the America of my youth! Poverty was on the national radar screen in the 1960s: we had a “War on Poverty.” Then the focus shifted substantially—from a progressive stance emphasizing commonwealth to a neoliberal ethic accentuating individual achievement.

“Capitalism … /has been celebrated/… not only as a wealth-generating engine,” David Brooks wrote recently, “it also … / became/ … a moral system, a way to arouse hard work, creativity and trust.” The creed? Focus on what you can get for yourself. “Everyone else can take care of themselves.”

The political rhetoric shifted correspondingly, too, from a Kennedy-esque “what I can do for my country” to cries for cutting taxes, shrinking government, and trimming regulations—three pillars of The Reagan Revolution. We hear those same cries today.

For decades, neither major political party made poverty a priority—even though data have shown clearly and consistently that a good share of America is being left behind. It’s the same in this election cycle. Poverty has been an off-and-on topic, mostly off, and sometimes back on, largely as a result of external pressure.

In September The New York Times Editorial Board published an opinion piece entitled, “The Failure to Talk Frankly About Poverty.” Hillary Clinton followed with plan to help America’s poor, but that plan was evaluated as lacking when compared to what other Western countries have done and are doing (e.g., Great Britain).

Part of the challenge is the way political parties go about their business. They use a routine I call “The Three P’s”Philosophy, Policies, and Programs. Party partisans talk about values they hold (Philosophy), the legislation they’ve enacted in the past and are pending today (Policies), and initiatives they’ve funded or intend to fund (Programs). Data and expert opinion are used to support the contention that America is “better off” (or at least improving) because of the party’s work. Then, on the flip side, party partisans use the Three P’s to argue that America has been hurt by what the other party stands for, has done in the past, and proposes to do in the future.

This either-or routine is patently familiar, the stuff of which stump speeches, party platforms, and candidate-authored Op Ed’s are made. That routine is connected intractably to what Desmond writes about poverty on pp. 316-17. For Conservatives the poverty narrative is mostly about individual deficiencies (e.g., having children out of wedlock). For Liberals the focus is largely on structural forces (e.g., loss of manufacturing jobs).

Desmond proposes another way of framing the poverty debate, a way that makes more sense to me as a Progressive—not just substantively, but morally as well. He sees poverty as a relationship involving poor and rich (emphasis added):

To understand poverty…I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.” (p. 317)

Desmond’s approach acknowledges that we (not just “they”) have a problem. It emphasizes our collective responsibility to serve the public good. And it’s a much-needed antidote to neoliberal self-centeredness.

How might we help that type of thinking grow and bear fruit? The first step is creating broader awareness of what’s going on—to become “Desmond’s Disciples,” as it were. But spreading the gospel won’t be easy. Survey data reveal that a majority of Americans (almost 70%) believe that people are responsible for their own welfare. And over 70% of those surveyed are pessimistic that poverty can be eliminated—even if the government made poverty a high priority.

Because change won’t come easily, I believe in approaching change as a political endeavor. What political acts might we take? Here are several examples.

Host a reading circle in your home with Evicted as common reading. Better yet, contact your local library and offer to organize a reading group in your community.

Write an Op Ed about Evicted for your hometown paper. Describe what’s going on in America and discuss its implications. Follow that up by writing a series of pieces about poverty, the plight of people, and what we can do—as everyday Americans and as a country—to address it.

Become knowledgeable about poverty-related legislation that’s before your state legislature and Congress. Identify representatives who support or oppose policies that lift people out of poverty. Endorse those who do. Volunteer to work on their campaigns. Speak out against those who don’t support poverty legislation. A good way to express support and oppose is by writing Letters to the Editor of your hometown newspaper.

Affiliate with local, state, and national-level poverty-focused organizations. Work with others to advance a political agenda that addresses poverty directly.

The bottom line: Do what you can and as much as you can. Lives hang in the balance.

If you think that interpretation is an exaggeration, consider what Jennifer Senior wrote in her review of Evicted:

“How can you hang on to a job, send your child to school, or build roots in a community if you are constantly changing homes, each one more dilapidated and dangerously located than the next?”

Repeat those words to anybody who questions your activism.

Would they want to live their lives that way? Certainly not. If they did, would they want others to care about them? Probably yes.

We should care about those who live this way—today, right here, in America. And we should do something about it.

So let us.

[1] SYNOPSIS (from Amazon.com): “Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a sociological study of evictions, housing, and homelessness in Milwaukee. The book follows the lives of a number of tenants and landlords in order to examine how access to housing affects the poor. Desmond also includes historical background, statistics, and research findings to provide context for his narratives…. /The study shows that/…eviction is hugely disruptive, and those who are evicted face loss of property, intensified poverty, and an erosion in quality of housing. Evictions also disrupt jobs, and may increase depression and addiction. It’s not only that poverty contributes to housing precarity; housing precarity contributes to poverty. Moreover, a home can spell the difference between stable poverty, in which saving and advancement are possible, and grinding poverty, in which one staggers from crisis to crisis.”

 

***

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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