Sunday, November 19, 2006

Poverty Under the Stars: The Night the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project was Born

"The social compact between citizen and government has been badly torn. As citizens, we have various responsibilities (e.g., vote, pay taxes, sit on juries, and defend our country); at the same time, the government has responsibilities, and one of them is to respond effectively when its citizens are in crisis." Scott Myers-Lipton

It was election night, 2006, and I was sitting with 40 San José State University (SJSU) students watching Spike Lee's "When the Levee's Broke: A Four-Part Requiem."

The occasion was a student protest over the recently released report showing that Santa Clara County (home to Cisco, Adobe, and many other wealthy high-tech corporations) had become the Northern California county with the highest homeless population. The report stated that on any given night, over 7,600 people did not have a place to call home in Silicon Valley.

The setting for the protest was fitting: the Tommie Smith and John Carlos statues in the center of campus. Tommie and John were students at San José State in 1968; they were also gold and bronze medal winners in the 200 meters at the Mexico City Summer Olympics.


However, their athletic feat was not the reason why the student body decided to honor them with 20 foot-statues; it was what they did when they were on the Olympic podium, and that was to raise their fists in protest against racism and poverty in the United States.

Last year, the statues were dedicated, and with Tommie and John present, 4,000 people were there to say "thank you" for taking this courageous stand. So the Smith-Carlos statues served as an appropriate backdrop to our discussion on poverty in America.

The students had put up signs around the statues stating such things as:


  • 18% of all U.S. children live in poverty
  • "37 million Americans live in poverty"

  • "USA is #1 in child poverty in the industrialized world"

  • "727,000 homeless in America on any given night"
The highlight of the evening was Spike Lee's film. A large screen had been setup up directly in front of the statues. Each one-hour Act of the film was shown, followed by a discussion.

The students were composed of America: Black, Latino, White, and Asian students were present. They also represented a variety of groups: for example, Student Homeless Alliance, African American fraternities, Hip Hop Congress, and Students Against Intimate violence, to name just some. But while they were of different ethnicities and groups, they had one thing in common--they were all Americans, and they had come together to discuss poverty in America, and what was happening in the Gulf Coast in particular.

As a college professor, it was a highlight event. Students had come together on their own volition to dialogue and debate one of the most important events that had taken place in recent American history. Many important things were said by the students, and I have asked some of them to comment on this blog about what was expressed that night.

What I took away from the conversation was this:

Students were upset, and even outraged, at what took place in New Orleans. They couldn't understand how it was possible for the richest country on the planet to respond in such an ineffectual manner, both in the first week of the flood and in the year that has followed.
The film started at 7 pm, but with all the dialogue, the film ended around 1:30 am. The students then slept out on campus to be in solidarity with the homeless. The students had asked me to camp out with them, and I felt obligated to stand with my students, so I slept out with them.

When they awoke, the students decided to march over to San Jose City Hall, which recently was completed. Ironically, this 1/2 billion dollar building towers over both SJSU and the First Christian Church; the latter opens their doors each night to over 30 homeless adults and kids. Once at City Hall, the students marched, drummed, and sang about the need to end poverty and homelessness in America.

The Gulf Coast Civic Works Project

After returning from City Hall, I went to teach my morning class, which happened to be on the Civil Works Project (CWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). These three programs were developed as a response to the social suffering that was caused due to the poverty and unemployment during the Great Depression.

In my class, I discussed how the CWA employed 4 million workers immediately in construction work (i.e., school repair, sanitation work, road building, etc.). Within 2 weeks of starting the project, 814,511 were on the payroll; within 2 months, 4.2 million were working.

The Works Project Administration (WPA) replaced the CWA. In its 7-year history, the WPA employed a total of 8 million people and its accomplishments were many: the WPA built or improved 5,900 schools, 2,500 hospitals, and 13,000 playgrounds.

And the CCC provided the opportunity for 500,000 young men (ages 18 to 25) to work on environmental conservation projects at 2,600 camps each year. The goal was to employ restless and discouraged young men, many of who had previously roamed the nation looking for work.

When I returned home from class, I was exhausted from the lack of sleep from the previous night. I sat down and read the newspaper about the victory of the Democrats nationally. Interestingly, there was an article about a Green Party candidate who was winning her bid to become mayor of Richmond, California, a predominantly African American city. One of her main platforms had been the development of a public works project for 1,000 youth to combat poverty and crime.

Then, the idea came to me. This is what is needed in the Gulf Coast: living wage jobs and the opportunity to rebuild their community.

I started to think that if the USA could put almost 1 million people to work in 2 weeks in 1935, we could put 100,000 people to work immediately today in the Gulf Coast.

And if the Works Project Administration (WPA) employed 8 million people, and built or improved schools, hospitals, and playgrounds, we could rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast today.

That is how the Gulf Coast (GC) Civic Works Project was born. The project is based on the research I conducted for the book "Social Solutions to Poverty" (Paradigm Publishers, 2006). The GC Civic Works Project would hire 100,000 Gulf Coast residents to rebuild New Orleans and the surrounding region. The residents, who would be given subsidized tickets back to their neighborhoods, would build and repair houses, levees, schools, parks, and other civic buildings and spaces.

After I wrote the proposal, I emailed it out to my friends and colleagues. A day later, I received an email message from a professor who is one of the leading experts in the country on hunger. He was so supportive of the proposal that he provided me with his contacts to key Congressional lawmakers, and promised to phone many of them personally.

The Repairing of the Social Compact and the
Building of the Beloved Community


Clearly, it is my hope that Congress takes up the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project. However, I strongly believe that in order to pass this proposal through Congress, it will be imperative to develop a grass-roots movement to support it.

The social compact between citizen and government has been badly torn. As citizens, we have various responsibilities (e.g., vote, pay taxes, sit on juries, defend our country); at the same time, the government has responsibilities, and one of them is to respond effectively when its citizens are in crisis.

American citizens now actively question whether our government is capable to respond when they are in need. I have heard many Californians say that if a major earthquake hits, they are not confident that the government will be there for them.

By having American citizens throughout the country demand that our government provide the Gulf Coast residents the opportunity to rebuild their own communities, they will have played an active role in repairing the social compact that has been torn. In order to build a grassroots movement, I have put out a Call to Action for citizens to encourage the new Congress to rebuild the Gulf Coast utilizing proven methods that get things done.

Ultimately, we need to end poverty in America. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent the last several years of his life dedicated to this goal. Dr. King worked to build the "Beloved Community", where every citizen has decent housing, a living wage job for all that are able to work, and a social insurance program that guarantees a middle-class income for those who are not able to work.

The Gulf Coast Civic Works Project is a step along the way to ending the social suffering that Dr. King lived, and ultimately, died for.

If you have an interest in working on this historic project, please contact me at smlipton@sjsu.edu or (510) 508-5382.


-------------------------------------------------
Scott Myers-Lipton, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Sociology Department Community Change Concentration
San José State University
"Social Solutions to Poverty" is available at:
http://www.solvingpoverty.com/



5 Comments:

At 4:37 AM , Blogger chelle1036 said...

As I was watching Spike Lee's Movie "When the Levees Broke?" I realized that America's dirty secret of poverty was being revealed for all the world to see. I felt ashamed to live in a nation that is so prosperous in every aspect of society compared to others. Yet, the serious effects of poverty have been stripped of it's covering in the Southern states and exposed to the eyes of waiting nations. The documentary exposed the fact that aiding and rescuing victims from Hurricane Katrina particularly the New Orleans area.

As a student activist I was thoroughly confused as to why it took not only FEMA but other government funded organizations so long to respond to aid our nations most vulnerable citizens that had been reduced to being referred to as "refuges". It was an eye opening experience within itself and then to be given the opportunity to Sleep-Out on campus as a simulation of homelessness, tied the events together.

For me watching the movie was very encouraging to let me know that the poverty and homelessness in America was no where near and end and that the fight for justice for those underprivileged was still going strong.

The whole event was encouraging and I am excited to partake in the GC Civic Works Project, so that I too can help rebuild a vital part of America.

 
At 6:21 AM , Blogger LVT Fan said...

You might find Mason Gaffney's article "Repopulating New Orleans," at http://www.masongaffney.org/ of interest.

 
At 12:25 PM , Anonymous Seychelle M. said...

Despite the biblical proportions of the Katrina disaster, despite the hundreds of thousands of homeless and displaced men women and CHILDREN, despite the thousands of dead and dying literally abandoned in their suffering, after the countries initial reaction of shock and concern, coverage from the news media and concern from the general public has receded into the recesses if the U.S' collective conscious. Perhaps it’s because, in this case, the government has not taken the initiative to drill into the minds and hearts of U.S citizens the dire need to fight this disaster, as it did so vehemently after 911. In fact, aside from passing the blame like a hot potato, the government has been very quiet regarding the discussion of the reconstruction of New Orleans. After watching Spike Lee’s “When The Levee’s Broke” and hearing the testimony and seeing that the state of devastation hasn’t changed, that, in fact, the citizens that have already lost almost everything are continuing to lose more, a picture begins to gain clarity. We live in a country so rich in culture, New Orleans and its radiant energy being a product of that. We live in a country so full of compassion and the ability to speak that compassion, Spike Lee’s FOUR HOUR gut-wrenching documentary being a product of that. Yet, we also live in a country where the government ELECT is not prioritizing its own citizens, where the resources are directed away from the care, betterment and equalization of all people living in this country. Because we are under an umbrella of neglect from the government it is imperative that we, as ACTIVE residents and citizens, fight to retain what makes us great. Myers-Lipton’s proposal is a viable solution that HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE. If we continue to sit on the sidelines, we will lose everything that has defined this country as great. We must as a collective community gather our strength and potential energy to implement the change that we know we need. The strength IS IN THE PEOPLE and we must use it. LET US REBUILD NEW ORLEANS!

 
At 12:28 PM , Anonymous Seychelle M. said...

Despite the biblical proportions of the Katrina disaster, despite the hundreds of thousands of homeless and displaced men women and CHILDREN, despite the thousands of dead and dying literally abandoned in their suffering, after the countries initial reaction of shock and concern, coverage from the news media and concern from the general public has receded into the recesses if the U.S' collective conscious. Perhaps it’s because, in this case, the government has not taken the initiative to drill into the minds and hearts of U.S citizens the dire need to fight this disaster, as it did so vehemently after 911. In fact, aside from passing the blame like a hot potato, the government has been very quiet regarding the discussion of the reconstruction of New Orleans. After watching Spike Lee’s “When The Levee’s Broke” and hearing the testimony and seeing that the state of devastation hasn’t changed, that, in fact, the citizens that have already lost almost everything they have and are continuing to lose more, a picture begins to gain clarity. We live in a country so rich in culture, New Orleans and its radiant energy being a product of that. We live in a country so full of compassion and the ability to speak that compassion, Spike Lee’s FOUR HOUR gut-wrenching documentary being a product of that. Yet, we also live in a country where the government ELECT is not prioritizing its own citizens, where the resources are directed away from the care, betterment and equalization of all people living in this country. Because we are under an umbrella of neglect from the government it is imperative that we, as ACTIVE residents and citizens, fight to retain what makes us great. Myers-Lipton’s proposal is a viable solution that HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE. If we continue to sit on the sidelines, we will lose everything that has defined this country as great. We must as a collective community gather our strength and potential energy to implement the change that we know we need. The strength IS IN THE PEOPLE and we must use it. LET US REBUILD NEW ORLEANS!

 
At 9:30 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trouble the Water (troublethewaterfilm.com) is now in theaters across the country. It shows Katrina in a way that has not been done before. A ninth ward resident documents her own experience of being stranded in New Orleans before and during the storm. She then meets a team of documentary makers who travel back to New Orleans togetherr after the storm to see the destruction and how the government continued to fail its people.

 

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