One online dictionary defines the word “brave” as "ready to face and endure danger or pain.” At the Neighborhood Check-In: Southern Tier, New York State’s first contribution to the Truth Commission project of the New Poor Peoples’ Campaign, truly brave and heroic people endured great personal pain to raise their voices and share their stories of endurance, courage, and resilience. None of these amazing people are now living in comfort or luxury. They are still poor, they still struggle, and they still endure.
Yet they are warriors, fighting day after day to provide for themselves and for their families. As a regional and state commissioner for New York’s Truth Commissions, I was honored and humbled to be part of the group who listened to their voices and heard what they had to say. Each person who shared spoke emotionally and passionately about the barriers they, and many of their neighbors, face on a regular basis. They spoke about personal barriers that arose from the trauma and struggle of living each day in poverty. They spoke about barriers that arose from unwise decisions which will now follow them forever and which are worsened by rejection, discrimination, and injustice. They spoke about the systems and policies which oppress them and keep them poor.
We listened as a single mom shared her daily challenges to feed her children because of food access issues. We heard a dedicated and decorated veteran talk about the difficulty his peers face as they try to access quality health care in a rural area. We listened as the formerly incarcerated spoke, sometimes through tears, about life after jail. We heard about the abhorrent treatment experienced by the incarcerated in regional penal institutions, and learned about the immense wall to employment and housing that is built by misuse of “the box” question on applications. We heard from a widow struggling to stay afloat while she simultaneously works through her personal grief at the loss of her loving spouse.
For some, the very thought of sharing their testimony was more than they could bear. Previous rejection and condemnation were overwhelming, and they were not yet ready to speak in a public forum. Service providers and policy experts spoke on their behalf, providing a voice which they cannot yet provide for themselves. We hope that they will be able to share their own stories in written or recorded form during the open comment period that runs through the end of July.
It is my hope, and the hope of the other commissioners who are serving on Truth Commissions across the country, that these events will give others the energy they need to speak up and to speak out. We hope that discussions of poverty will no longer be dominated by content experts who have never personally experienced the trauma which poverty itself forces upon people (no matter how compassionate their advocacy might be). We hope that these conversations will be empowered and energized by those individuals who have truly contextual, lived experience with being poor. They, too, are poverty experts, and our communities need their expertise.
Since our regional commission is still receiving testimony, it would be premature to render a formal decision based on what we heard. I think it is safe to say, however, that the New Poor Peoples’ Campaign is a much-needed movement, right now, right here in Northern Appalachia and across the US.
We must thank those brave men and women who are coming forward to share their stories. We welcome you, and look forward to listening to the important things you have to tell us.
Suzanne Flierl Krull is the co-founder and executive director of the Cuba Cultural Center, which hosted the Neighborhood Check-In: Southern Tier on June 1.