Reflections of a Truth Commissioner in New York State
Suzanne Flierl Krull
Policy is created and established by powerful individuals based upon the opinions they have on a particular issue. Policy makers may have gathered some of this content themselves, or they may surround themselves with people who provide them with the information upon which these important, life-affecting decisions are made. Often, however, these “content experts” have no personal experience with the issue which they are addressing.
That type of information does not provide enough of the story to make truly informed decisions. There is another group of experts who have powerful, important knowledge, but who are often ignored during the policy-making process. These are the true experts, those with lived experience. They are the people who are impacted on a daily basis by the policies that others make without any consideration of their contextual expertise, and with total disregard of the valuable contributions they can make to discussions about the very policies that rule their daily lives.
In May of 1967, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for a movement of the poor and dispossessed to demand dignity, respect, equality, and freedom from oppression. In his vision, Dr. King saw a rising up of impacted people, who had lived experience with systemic racism, poverty, and militarism, who would then organize together to become a powerful force able to change our national moral narrative regarding poverty and to call for broad, systemic change. He called this movement The Poor People’s Campaign.
Despite Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign went forward under the guidance of human rights leaders such as Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Nine caravans travelled to Washington, DC, bringing a diverse group of the poor and marginalized together and culminated in the Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom on 6/19/1968. Fifty thousand people joined an additional 3,000 individuals who had been living for six weeks in an encampment on the National Mall, known as “Resurrection City.” At the Rally, the following proposal was put forth to the federal government:
- A recommitment to the Full Employment Act of 1946, and to the creation of one million socially useful career jobs in public service
- The adoption of the then pending Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968.
- The extension to all farm workers of the right to organize, which was guaranteed to them under the National Labor Relations Act
- The repeal of punitive welfare restrictions in the 1967 Social Security Act, and
- Restoration of budget cuts for bilingual education, Head Start, summer jobs, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Acts.1
Unfortunately, the encampment and rally were the only massive deployments that were to take place during the Poor People’s Campaign. The movement lacked the solidarity and structure that was necessary to complete the various stages of the campaign that Dr. King had envisioned.
Now, fifty years later, people are gathering across the country to continue the work that Dr. King and other civil rights leaders started decades ago. Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous People, and poor white people are joining together to echo questions that were asked by the human rights leaders upon whose shoulders they now stand. The poor, marginalized, and dispossessed are uniting across lines of race, religion, geography, and other things that have previously separated them. This continuation of the work that began back in the 60’s is called The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC:NCMR).
Dr. King articulated a six-step process for movement building. The first step was the gathering of information: research to improve our understanding of the problems that people face. Current leaders of the revitalized campaign called for an information gathering process as one of the first goals of the newly revitalized movement.
Accordingly, a series of Truth Commissions were held across New York State during the summer of 2017, to give voice to individuals impacted by the evils articulated in the 60’s: racism, poverty, & militarism/the war economy. Since the world is also facing the startling and dangerous effects of ecological devastation, a fourth pillar was added to the movement. Hearings were held in the Southern Tier, Schenectady and on Long Island, to hear from folks living in rural, urban, and suburban parts of the state.
At these hearings, brave and heroic people endured great personal pain to raise their voices and share their stories of endurance, courage, and resilience. None of these people are now living in comfort or luxury. They are still poor, they still struggle, and they still endure. Nevertheless, they are experts, and they offer a window into the lives of people facing injustice, inequality, poverty, and the ramifications of ecological degradation.
These amazing warriors struggle day after day to provide for themselves and for their families, against a system that routinely oppresses and traumatizes them. As a regional and state commissioner for New York’s Truth Commissions, I was both 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 hurdles that arose from the trauma and struggle of living each day in poverty. They spoke about impediments 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.
Our first events were a series of Neighborhood Check-Ins in the Southern Tier of NY. 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.
We also learned about rural transportation issues, problems accessing consistent, quality physical and mental health care, and about some of the challenges of those facing accessibility issues. Students shared how their peers often have to go to work to help support their families, thereby limiting their educational and future life choices, and others spoke about the impact of predatory debt and the injustice of the bail and plea-bargaining systems.
The stories were unique, yet similar, across the state. The Truth Commissions in Schenectady and on Long Island yielded additional testimonies that debunked some long-standing myths about poverty, the poor, and those facing injustice. Repeatedly, we heard about widespread patterns of victim-blaming, prejudice against the poor, and unfair stereotyping about life in poverty. Experts testified that, contrary to popular opinion, government benefits truly aren’t enough to help them care for their families. They explained that anti-poverty programming, such as social safety net programs, really are necessary and do help them provide for their loved ones. Their testimony showed us that education and job training are often not enough, even if one can actually access those opportunities in the first place.
For some, the very thought of sharing their testimonies 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. Others were so afraid of the potential for retaliation that they dared not share at all.
So then, the Truth Commissions provided important stories and supplied data which provided a window into the scope and breadth of injustice in our state. For those who testified, the events also provided contextual experts with the energy they needed to speak up and to speak out. The hearings provided impacted people with safe environments where they could share without judgment, condemnation, or criticism. They were respected as the experts they truly are.
The findings of the original three Truth Commissions were published in October 2017, at the Labor-Religion Coalition’s annual Faith for a Fair New York conference in Binghamton. Upon its release, calls came in from other parts of the state, for the NYSPPC:NCMR to hold additional hearings in other areas. A Truth Commission was held in Buffalo in January, and another will be held in Rochester on April 19th. A national gathering of information has also been conducted by the campaign as it works with the Institute for Policy Studies to analyze the four core issues of the movement. The Executive Summary of that report, The Souls of Poor Folk Audit, was released at the launch of the campaign in Washington, DC on December 4, 2017. The full report is scheduled to be released in the coming weeks of spring, and the PPC:NCMR now has chapters in 39 states and Washington, DC.
The campaign is not about right or left, neither is it about conservative, vs. liberal. It isn’t about one political party over another. It is about right vs wrong, about changing the moral narrative of our country in a revolution of moral values. As Dr. William Barber, national co-chair of the campaign alongside Rev. Liz Theoharis, has said “…