Un-Summit Thinks Big about Solving Poverty
On September 15, a full house of over 80 attended the Community Shares “un-summit” Poverty? There Is Enough. The event effectively highlighted two main points: that our community has enough money to effectively combat poverty, and that public policy reform must be a key component in any effort to systematically address poverty. One stated purpose of the event was to influence Mayor Cranley’s Child Poverty Collaborative. While the Collaborative has not explicitly denied the role of public policy reform in their efforts, public policy has rarely if ever been mentioned by Collaborative leadership. The un-summit made clear that public policy reform must be addressed, and that event organizers and presenters were the ones with the right answers to these very complex issues.
[Of the attendees, only Sister Sally Duffy was attendance from the Collaborative. Otherwise, the audience was filled primarily with social justice advocates, most of whom were over 50, though some college age people could be seen.
Justin Jeffre opened the session by criticizing the “child” in the name of the Child Poverty Collaborative (“poverty impacts far more than children”, a point the Collaborative itself has repeatedly made). He also attacked 3CDC for 1) “spending a billion with a ‘b’ on OTR gentrification”, and 2) the injustice of a private entity moving the fountain on Fountain Square.
Michelle Dillingham, CEO of Community Shares, got the meeting back on track by providing a quick overview of the event and connecting its public policy focus to the mission of Community Shares, which includes educating the community on social justice issues (a renewed focus under Dillingham, who just celebrated her one-year anniversary at the organization).
Aside from asking the Collaborative to bring its influence to bear on public policy goals, Dillingham further distinguished this event by quoting Senator Robert Kennedy: “[Poverty] is not a political issue, but a moral issue…to be solved through political means.” The lack of a moral framework was one criticism the Collaborative heard at its June poverty summit.
In a fine but important distinction, Dillingham inaccurately stated that the Child Poverty Collaborative has been saying that “we don’t know the causes of poverty”, when in fact the Collaborative has been saying that no one knows the solutions to poverty, which is important when considering that the war on poverty has been waged unsuccessfully for 50 years despite many reform efforts similar to those advocated for at the un-summit.
The un-summits video preview series had a similar inaccuracy: that the Collaborative was promoting a “personal responsibility” agenda devoid of systemic efforts, a claim disputed by the Collaborative and contrary to the information presented and discussed at its June summit. While these statements create red meat for social justice advocates, they also make a partnership between the Collaborative and un-summit organizers much more difficult by reinforcing old, divisive narratives.
The seven speakers had five minutes each to give the audience an overview of their solutions to very complex public policy questions: take money from charter schools to reinvest in public education (among numerous other suggested education reforms); change state tax policy by increasing the progressive income tax rather than regressive sales taxes; provide livable wages and support the union movement; implement fair housing policies to ensure enough affordable housing while neighborhoods like OTR are gentrified; institute campaign finance reform to limit the impact of big money on policy; and reform criminal justice policy and re-entry programs so that fewer minorities are hampered by felony convictions.
Mike Henson, a long-time leader of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, wrote on social media after the event: “I went to the Un-Summit, but was extremely disappointed. The audience was talked at for an hour by seven speakers…the sum of which was yes, there is poverty, and yes it is bad, and yes, we ought to do something about it. But there was no movement, no forum, no direction for actually doing something about it. I went to this forum because I was led to believe by the advance publicity that we were to meet to discuss ways to carry a progressive agenda into the Child Poverty Collaborative process. Instead, we were encouraged to “mingle” after the formal program. I see it as a wasted opportunity.”
Indeed, one wonders what the Child Poverty Collaborative could do with the solutions offered at the un-summit. Several are in and of themselves highly debated issues: there are valid (if not sufficient) reasons for the charter school movement and OTR development, and many shades of gray in between. Other suggested answers might be too far removed from the immediate sphere of influence of a local initiative like the Collaborative: state tax reform, campaign finance reform, and criminal justice reform (all of which would face stiff opposition regardless of any perceived injustice in those policies). Finally, solutions such as paying a livable wage would face stiff resistance from both small business owners who literally couldn’t afford it, or big businesses beholden to shareholder interests.
In the end, the un-summit presented valid and powerful solutions that the Child Poverty Collaborative might have little interest in pursuing; these solutions all beg difficult questions that have been controversial and highly-debated for generations. However, the un-summit was valuable because it 1) expanded the view of “what is necessary” to address poverty over the long haul (public policy reform that will systematically benefit those at the bottom of the income ladder), and 2) organized the social justice community to provide an alternate narrative to the Collaborative (momentum that can build over time).
To close the meeting, Dillingham reminded the Collaborative that “we are here” with ideas and a network of local poverty experts who can help. Given the grand progressive goals suggested at the un-summit, she might consider directly engaging Collaborative leaders in an ongoing dialog that allows the Collaborative and social justice advocates to identify mutually satisfying roles in the fight against poverty.