The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) was formally established is 1998, but it stands on heroic shoulders. The PPEHRC is not just the organizations that comprise it; it is the culmination of centuries of struggle in the United States against all forms of oppression.
We span back through the National Union of the Homeless organizing efforts of the 80’s, through the National Welfare Rights Organization of the 1960’s and 70’s (which later gave birth to the NWRU of today), back through the civil rights movement against race-based discrimination in the 1950’s and 60’s, back through the labor struggles of the late 1800’s, back through the struggles against the landowning Southern elite of the 1860’s. Our history marches back through the Freedom rides of the civil rights movement, through the massive unemployment strikes of the 1930’s, through the lynching of labor activists in the 1870’s, back to the suppression of the rights of slaves and indentured servants, white and black, of the 1700’s. Our history as poor and working class people and people of conscience is the history of this nation, a nation founded by a refusal to be exploited by the owning class of the British Empire, a founding that promised the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The Pursuit of Happiness has taken on many faces in our history, and today the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign is carrying that torch by demanding economic human rights for all the right to housing, education, healthcare, food, and a living wage. The PPEHRC fights for these rights put forth in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in articles 23, 25, and 26 from its base among poor and working class people and other people of conscience. The PPEHRC is made up of organizations and people from across the country, spanning all ages, all backgrounds, and all races. We have come together for the common purpose of building a broad movement to end poverty, a movement led by the poor as a united force.
The Campaign was spearheaded by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) of Philadelphia and was commissioned by the National Welfare Rights Union as a project called the Economic Human Rights Campaign. Since then it has become the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and currently includes members from Maine to Los Angeles, El Paso to Minneapolis, and unites farm workers and welfare recipients, recovering addicts and low-income high school students, deaf and deaf-blind activists and labor activists, religious leader and doctors and nurses.
KWRU, and organization of poor and homeless families, had been at the forefront of anti-poverty action in America since 1991 and had initiated numerous tactics that gained broad recognition in the struggle for economic human rights. Included in these tactics was the first march for economic human rights, as spelled out in the UDHR, in the history of the country. The March for Our Lives in 1997 included hundreds of poor people who marched from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to the United Nations in order to highlight the United States’ persistent violation of economic human rights.
In June 1998, KWRU organized its first national bus tour to highlight the issues of poverty and economic human rights. During this trip, they made contact with many organizations across the country interested in working to ensure economic human rights for all. In October that same year, many organizations dedicated to economic human rights gathered in Philadelphia for the Poor People’s Summit on Human Rights. Out of this meeting, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign was formed.
The following year, 1999, organizations from Central and South America joined the KWRU and other PPEHRC members for the March of the Americas. This international assembly marched from Washington, D.C. to New York, symbolically turning their back on the nation’s capital and seeking reprieve at the doors of the United Nations in New York. Shortly after this march, it became apparent that overall coordination of the Campaign needed to be shared by groups from across the country. Thus the first step in establishing a Steering Committee was made by calling a meeting of Campaign leaders. While the Steering Committee wasn’t officially set into motion at this convening, the idea was agreed to in principle, and delegates approved a proposal to establish the University of the Poor, the educational arm of the PPEHRC.
In July 2000, the Republican National Convention took place in Philadelphia. KWRU and members of the PPEHRC from across the country marched down Broad Street to protest the Republican welfare and economic agenda. Thousands of people marched, and the protest received media attention around the world as the largest US protest for economic human rights. This successful action has become a model for other marches in the Campaign.
Following on this energy, PPEHRC members held the Poor People’s World Summit to End Poverty in November of that year. This put into place the first plans for nationally coordinated activities. A “Day of Action” campaign would connect local groups to a larger movement by having the local groups stage actions that were coordinated with the national actions. We reaffirmed that our goals are not only to increase “visibility,” or awareness, of poverty in the US, but additionally to protest, document, and educate that poverty is an economic human rights violation and that we are here not merely to manage poverty, but to end it.
Essential to this was the development of a plan to unite the poor while building a broad movement to end poverty. Our goals also included distributing resources “equitably” among US citizens and guaranteeing economic human rights to all US residents. We want to end the practice of having the poor fight over the crumbs. The aim of our planning is to fight for what is just and to get what each person needs and requires as a human being in this country in order to live with dignity.
In the fall of 2000, the Women’s Economic Agenda Project (WEAP) of Oakland, California, held a California Statewide Freedom Bus Tour that covered 3,000 miles in 16 days to protest, document, and educate about poverty is an economic human rights violation. Since the bus tour, WEAP has established two dozen Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Committees across the state. In 2001, WEAP held an eight-day March for Compassion and Spiritual Renewal from San Jose to San Francisco and in 2003 sponsored the Save the Soul of America Caravan and March. Both of those marches were organized in coordination with the Community Homeless Alliance Ministry of San Jose (CHAM).
In February 2002, the PPEHRC organized a March for Our Lives at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Mormons for Equality and Social Justice (MESJ) and Justice, Economic Dignity and Independence (JEDI) for Women lead the drive to gain international attention for economic human rights violations in the richest country in the world.
Shortly after that, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) of Florida set out on a national bus tour to highlight the economic human rights violations perpetrated by Taco Bell tomato contractors against the Immokalee workers. The bus tour ended at the Taco Bell headquarters in Los Angeles, where they returned one year later for a hunger strike that was supported by religious, labor, social and political leaders from around the world.
Meanwhile, the infrastructure of the Campaign and the University of the Poor were growing apace. A second gathering of Campaign leaders convened to discuss a steering Committee and steps were taken among leaders to coordinate energies for the upcoming New Freedom Bus Tour. The School of Theology of the University of the Poor held an interfaith conference in New York and the Media College of the University of the Poor held a Break the Media Blackout Conference, which focused on connecting the growing media democracy movement and the movement for economic human rights.
KWRU united with the National Association of Social Workers’ Pennsylvania chapter, state legislative leaders, and members of the School for Social Workers of the University of the Poor and began statewide work in Pennsylvania aimed at organizing social workers around a platform of economic human rights. This led to the passage of a human rights legislative review in the state legislature, the establishment of Economic Human Rights Committees throughout Pennsylvania, and a series of protests and educational sessions held throughout the state with social workers fighting not only as advocates for the poor but as people experiencing the pangs of poverty as the social welfare system is destroyed.
Each of these actions helped prepare for the New Freedom Bus Tour. The tour crossed the nation from November 10 to December 10, 2002, gathering documentation of violations of economic human rights. Campaign members hosted the bus riders in their communities, holding rallies, protests, public forums, and generally working to raise awareness of poverty issues. The tour ended by the United Nations in New York City on December 10, the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where Freedom Bus riders spoke to a “Truth Commission” to voice complaints against the U.S. government for violating economic human rights.
The Bus Tour was followed by two significant developments: the establishment of the Interim Task Force of the PPEHRC Steering Committee and the Curriculum Development and Staff Meeting of the University of the Poor. The Interim Task Force, composed of anti-poverty leaders from across the country, was charged with igniting and maintaining momentum toward the establishment of a functional Steering Committee of the PPEHRC. Since January 2003, they have been meeting monthly to make decisions on the direction of Campaign development. The University of the Poor’s Curriculum Development and Staff Meeting in Philadelphia was attended by 45 people from across the country dedicated to the importance of education in the fight to end poverty.
The next major activity of the Campaign is in August 2003, where we will hold a Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. to bring attention to the spreading healthcare crisis, the devastation of downsizing, welfare “reform,” and NAFTA, and to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign. The march will begin in Marks, MS and continue to Washington, DC. Once there, we will erect a new Resurrection City and demand once again that the government protect the economic human rights of all citizens.
(By Mormons for Equality and Social Justice, Women’s Economic Agenda Project, and Kensington Welfare Rights Union, June 2003)