I went on the March on Washington in 1963. It changed my life forever. I became a small part of the Civil Rights Movement, marched with Doctor Martin Luther King several times and have spent my life trying to fight hunger and poverty afflicting all people, but especially people of color, by following a dual path: first, supporting positive laws and government policies that reduce hunger and poverty as well as promoting racial justice. Second, being a part of a grassroots movement of community based organizations all over the country that are working diligently and often with few resources to help people to get out of poverty and change the systems that create poverty.
We live now in uncertain times. There is a possibility that federal programs which have helped tens of millions of Americans stay out of hunger and poverty may be cut drastically or eliminated. The plan seems to be to cut taxes for the wealthy and cut benefits for everyone else, especially people of color, but also including millions of middle class folks who depend on Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act to stay out of poverty. Will the new administration support efforts to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour? Will they block grant Food Stamps, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)? Will the Federal Government gradually withdraw resources from the fields of education, housing, healthcare, environmental protection and voting rights? Right now, we do not know but the future does not look good. So, how should we concerned citizens organize and move forward for economic and racial justice for all?
There are two parallel tracks of equal importance, both of which involve political and social action. First, we need to ally ourselves with and support Congress members, governors and attorney generals, as well as mayors and other city officials who believe in government of and for all people, not just the super-rich. The campaign to preserve and improve our government programs means developing a list of priorities and identifying champions in the House of Representatives and the Senate who will fight the worst outrageous budget and service cuts and promote compromise on issues where reasonable legislators can agree such as investment in our Infrastructure. It also means encouraging governors and mayors to make their voices heard in protest of bad legislation and in promoting some of their best state and city programs that could be models for other cities, states or the country. National and state nonprofit organizations as well as businesses and labor unions need to overcome their differences and join in a movement to protect our rights and the functioning of our governments.
None of this will be successful by itself. The national effort needs to partner with grassroots organizations that are on the ground, working with and listening to the needs and creativity of poor and middle class Americans who are hurting financially and emotionally and who feel isolated and unheard. It also must encourage and support leadership from the Black, Latino, Native American and Asian communities.
An important example of this kind of grassroots action, which I've spent my life working to help build, can be found in the Hunger Movement. It started out some forty years ago as an unorganized group of emergency food providers who saw the problem of hunger in their communities and decided to do something that seemed obvious- feed hungry people. Over the years a growing number of these community based organizations realized that feeding people was only the first step to fighting hunger. They needed to help people access a better quality of food to prevent obesity and diabetes so they partnered with small farmers, community gardeners, farmers markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and local food stores that were willing to donate healthy food. They needed to go beyond feeding to building social justice. They needed to prioritize the leadership of those most affected by hunger, especially communities of color, women and youth.
They also partnered with organizations that would help folks to connect with other resources to help them get jobs, housing, healthcare and childcare. Many also joined the Fight for $15 campaign and connected with efforts to provide benefits to low wage workers. Their work has borne fruit in dozens of states and cities.
To truly "Reinvest in America" we must have both of these parallel tracks to grow in health and power: legislative action on all levels and community organizing driven by those most affected by hunger and poverty to help grow resources locally AND amplify their voices on a local, state and national level. WhyHunger, the organization that the late Harry Chapin and I co-founded in 1975, is a grassroots support organization that works with hundreds of community based organizations all across the country and partners with many other national and state organizations to support community organizing, build the capacity of local organizations, promote positive legislation and prevent severe budget cuts to the very programs that keep people out of poverty.
This is a time when we all must stand together for the values that we believe in and the resources we need to help eradicate hunger and dramatically reduce poverty. It is indeed a time of challenge but also a time of opportunity for all who care.