“Let’s Break That Cycle”: Poor People’s Hearing Hosted By New Covenant Church of Philadelphia

On Saturday, September 7, The Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign organized a second Poor People’s Hearing, this time in Philadelphia. Poor People’s Hearings are occasions to hear directly from poor and dispossessed people engaged in interconnected struggles against systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the distorted moral narrative. In a country where almost half the population is living in poverty, poor and dispossessed people have been erased in the corporate media and in the Democratic presidential debates.

Poor People’s Hearings change the narrative by changing the narrator.

Seven directly impacted people gave testimony at the hearing
Seven directly impacted people gave testimony at the hearing. Photo: Jen Cox

The hearing featured seven speakers addressing environmental racism; mass incarceration; living with disabilities; student and medical debt; gentrification and homelessness; the fight for General Assistance, food stamps (SNAP), and welfare; the effects of closing Hahnemann and other hospitals; the brutality of the healthcare system, and much more. A lively discussion followed, with many interested in getting involved with the campaign.

“As a thirteen-year old kid, person of color, I would like to say from even a kid’s standpoint, we are affected by poverty levels. I live in Southwest Philadelphia and the schools are completely underfunded… As a kid, I am appreciative of this movement. And I will stay with this movement.” — Noble Henderson

Mrs. Dee Dee from Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) speaking from the floor
Mrs. Dee Dee from Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) speaking from the floor
Ms. Dee Dee from Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) spoke from the floor. Photo: Gary Reed

Urgent action to stop cuts to SNAP

After the discussion, participants were provided with postcards to write statements to the USDA opposing the proposed cuts to SNAP that would eliminate food security for an estimated 3 million people nationwide including by cutting back on free school meals.

(See handsoffsnap.org for more information and to submit a statement before September 23.)

Changing the moral narrative

Left to Right: Nate Allen, Nijmie Dzurinko, Brother Aziz
Left to Right: Nate Allen from New Covenant Church gave the blessing. Nijmie Zakkiyyah Dzurinko, co-chair of the PA Poor People’s Campaign, introduced and moderated the hearing. Brother Aziz Nathoo, interfaith preacher and peace activist from Phoenixville, closed with parables of justice. Photos: PA-PPC:NCMR

The Philadelphia hearing was graciously hosted at the New Covenant Church in Mt. Airy. About 100 people came from across Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley, and even one visitor from London, who had organized a presentation on the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival to the UK Parliament.

Candidates, elected officials, and their staff came to listen, including City Council candidates Jamie Gauthier, Isaiah Thomas, and Greg Paulmier; State Reps Chris Rabb and Art Haywood, and representatives from Councilwoman Helen Gym’s office.

Coming together

There were copies on hand of the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign demands and a Data Briefing looking at the dimensions of poverty in Philadelphia.

Sara Calloway, Women of Color in the Global Women’s Strike; and Jacob Butterly, PA PPC Theomusicologist
Left: Sara Calloway, Women of Color in the Global Women’s Strike from London, said “We feel this Campaign is absolutely crucial internationally, because we urgently have to get together across every border and every division, so we can win back everything we need.” Right: Jacob Butterly, PA-PPC:NCMR theomusicologist, leads the crowd in song. Photos: PA-PPC:NCMR

Two ASL interpreters from the Deaf Hearing Communication Center donated their time to provide interpretation for the event. Campaign theomusicologist Jacob Butterly led us in Somebody’s Been Hurting My Brother to open the hearing, and closed with Which Side Are You On?, in honor of coal miners in Harlan County Kentucky who have been blocking a coal train since July after the company, Blackjewel, declared bankruptcy and refused to pay them. (The train is estimated to be carrying around a million dollars in coal, mined by workers who were unknowingly off the clock.)

The livestream of the event can be viewed on the PA Poor People’s Campaign Facebook page here. Full written testimonies can be found here.

Looking Ahead

Nationally, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has organized dozens of hearings across the country since 2018, including most recently before a budget hearing in US Congress in June, during the Poor People’s Congress, a national gathering of the campaign (video). This coincided with the release of the Poor People’s Moral Budget co-authored with the Institute of Policy Studies, which details the policies and investments necessary to fund the Poor People’s Moral Agenda, the comprehensive response needed to eliminate the systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism, and war economy plaguing the country today.

Stay tuned for news an upcoming Poor People’s Hearing in the Harrisburg area and events elsewhere around the state, including the We Must Do M.O.R.E. Tour which is coming to Pennsylvania this coming Spring. On June 20, 2020, the Campaign is organizing a Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, where thousands of poor people and moral agents will gather at the nation’s capital to demonstrate our power.

To get involved in the work of building the PA Poor People’s Campaign, please contact us at pennsylvania@poorpeoplescampaign.org or contact us through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Read segments of the speakers' statements below:

Richard McCants from Philly Thrive

Richard McCants from Philly Thrive
Richard McCants from Philly Thrive
Photo: PA PPC

“I am here today to speak out against the oil refinery and racism. Profit over lives is racism. Pitting residents and workers against one another is racism…The area in South Philly where the oil refinery had the fire is populated by black people. The pollution coming from the refinery is poison. There are lots of children that live on my mother’s block. I fight for them and the rest of the voiceless.”

In a survey of PES refinery neighbors last May conducted by Philly Thrive, among 314 respondents, more than half of them either had heart disease, cancer or a respiratory condition.

Almost 34 percent of them had asthma. In the city, the rate is 19 percent of the population; nationally it’s 8.

Sandra “Nan” Hill from Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration

Sandra “Nan” Hill from Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration
Sandra “Nan” Hill from Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration
Photo: PA PPC

“I am a mother of 5, a grandmother of 10, and a great-grandmother of 16… In CABDI we fight for the right to take up the plight of those labeled as incorrigible, we believe in rehabilitating those that the system have counted as worthless… A mistake can change anybody’s life, but you will soon find out that laws do differ for those who have and those who have not. Sad but true, but let’s break that cycle.”

In Philadelphia alone over 22,000 people are jailed or imprisoned.

The rate of incarceration is 2,046 per 100,000.

Black and brown Philadelphians are disproportionately impacted by the mass incarceration system.

Rachel Murphy from March on Harrisburg

Rachel Murphy from March on Harrisburg
Rachel Murphy from March on Harrisburg
Photo: PA PPC

“The hardest part of MS should have just been the symptoms. Not the bills. Not the insurance company. Not having to make the hard decision to end my college education because I had to reprioritize my debts… This is why I began to organize with March on Harrisburg: I believe we must end corruption to be properly represented in our government… I then began to organize with Poor People’s Campaign because it’s obvious these systems are inseparable.”

The pharmaceutical industry spends millions of dollars lobbying our representatives to make sure they can keep drug prices high.

The student loan industry funnels contributions to state lawmakers that are in charge of higher-education policy, with contribution amounts rising dramatically in the last 25 years.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success 2017 report, Pennsylvania has the second highest in the nation of average student debt. A debt hovering at nearly $37,000.

PA ranks 5th in the nation with 67% of its residents having student debt.

Jamaal Henderson from ACT UP

Jamaal Henderson from ACT UP
Jamaal Henderson from ACT UP
Photo: PA PPC

“I am a single father who lives in Southwest Philadelphia. I am currently disabled and awaiting disability. Gentrification is destroying my community and pushing out poor people and people of color… I have watched city council pass bill after bill that is just helping that to happen even faster… We must dispel the distorted moral narrative that says that poor people are in the situation that they are in because they are lazy or did something wrong.”

In research from 2000–2013, data shows that over 57 census tracts in Philadelphia were gentrified, that is 4th among all major cities. Gentrification in Philadelphia was at a rate of 17%. Nearly 12,000 Black residents were displaced by gentrification between 2000–2013.

According to Project Home, 84% of Philadelphians making less than $20,000 in 2013 paid 30 percent or more of their household income on housing costs and most of these spend more than 50% of income on housing. And 2016, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve found that 51% of all Philadelphians households pay more than 30% of income on housing.

Pat Albright from Every Mother is a Working Mother Network

Pat Albright from Every Mother is a Working Mother Network
Pat Albright from Every Mother is a Working Mother Network
Photo: PA PPC

“I myself was a GA (General Assistance) recipient before becoming a mother, while waiting to be found eligible for disability benefits. At Governor Wolf’s house, on the Senate balcony, and on the streets, together we said we need both housing and cash, we refuse to be divided… I am also a food stamps — now called SNAP — recipient. A new Trump proposal would hugely increase hunger across the country…We are here to demand fully-funded welfare programs…”

Mothers with children are over two thirds of the poor. Thirty-six percent of youth under the age of 18 are in poverty (122,308 Philadelphian youth). Similarly, 36% of all kids under 5 are in poverty (38,729).

Of the largest US cities, Philadelphia has the highest rate of child removal. And it is rampant in counties across the state.

More than half of the 11,095 Pennsylvanians who received General Assistance in May were from Philadelphia (5,635).

One in 3 Philadelphians rely on SNAP to feed themselves and their families, or 35,687 souls. DHS estimates that more than 120,000 households in Pennsylvania will lose SNAP under Trump’s proposed rule, that is more than 200,580 Pennsylvanians

Clarissa O’Conor and Karim Nathan from Put People First! PA

Clarissa O’Conor and Karim Nathan from Put People First! PA
Photos: PA PPC

“People in power, like the Drexel medical school administration, want us medical students to ‘feel bad for the people affected most by the closure.’ It’s not hard to see this rhetoric as an attempt to cool our righteous anger and keep us from organizing. I am here to say that I am directly affected by the healthcare crisis, and I refuse to see my interests as separate from those of the patients and employees of Hahnemann Hospital. My membership in Put People First! PA has allowed me to see the closing of Hahnemann Hospital for what it is — a symptom of the ongoing crisis and war on the poor and dispossessed and an opportunity to organize our community, including medical students and healthcare workers, into our organization and vision of healthcare for all, no exceptions, and a united poor and working class across Pennsylvania.” — Clarissa O’Conor

Over 2,500 people are losing their jobs in the closing of Hahnemann Hospital. 570 residents and interns, or doctors in training, had to scramble to relocate.

In the City of Philadelphia the total number of primary care providers accepting Medicaid has declined in recent years. There are 520,457 people on Medicaid in Philadelphia (33.2% of the population).

Hospitals are also closing across the country, especially in rural areas. In Lancaster, PA, UPMC closed St. Joe’s Hospital, leaving the city with one emergency room.

“As a doctor in training, I’ve undergone a brutal process of socialization which has made me extremely cynical yet has also opened my eyes to the reality that as a doctor I am just another cog in the machine run by healthcare executives, pharmaceutical companies and vulture capitalists like Joel Freedman, the owner of Hahnemann. I’ve realized that I am a worker like any other in this system. I’ve realized that we have to stick together.”

— Karim Nathan

Flyer design by Rachel Murphy

PA-PPC: A National Call for Moral Revival is a movement led by the poor, demanding an end to poverty, racism, militarism & ecological devastation.

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