In the midst of the largest strike wave in the US in a century, corporate media is more focused on amplifying the bigotry and fearmongering of right-wing politicians and their base than on covering working class movements. What is the role of media in upholding the status quo, and how can it be used to service people’s movements instead of profits? This question lies at the heart of a long-ranging discussion between TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is director of the Kairos Center, as well as a founder and coordinator of the Poverty Initiative. She is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival, and author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. She is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a biblical scholar in New Testament and Christian origins.
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Rev. Liz Theoharis:
I’m Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis. I’m the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, and the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, and it’s great to be here.
Well, it is so great to be sitting here chatting with you and to meet you in person, finally. It feels weird to say I’m a big fan of your work because it’s like that work being, I don’t know, changing the world, organizing the poor, and really just fighting like hell for poor and working people. It’s just a real honor and a privilege to be sitting here with you.
Rev. Liz Theoharis:
Well, and the same, and it’s the work that we’re all doing together.
Thank you. Yeah, it’s an honor to be in the struggle with you.
Rev. Liz Theoharis:
We’re obviously here in Philadelphia to be part of this great conference that the Media, Inequality and Change Center, joint venture between the Schools of Communication at Penn University and Rutgers to talk about media, politics, power, everything in between. We just got done recording this great panel with you, me, Wendy Brown, Chenjerai Kumanyika, so I got all my juices flowing. But I feel like the last time we had you on the Real News Network was when you were talking to my good buddy and colleague, Marc Steiner for the Marc Steiner show. We were kind of gearing up for the massive and important March on Washington that you and the Poor People’s Campaign led. So I was wondering if we could sort of start there and just give folks like an update. What have y’all been up to since then?
Rev. Liz Theoharis:
Awesome. Well, yeah, so on June 18th, the Poor People’s Campaign organized one of the largest gatherings of poor and low income people in US history. About a hundred thousand people, maybe more, strong on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a mass poor people and low wage workers assembly, a moral march on Washington and to the polls. The first couple hours of the assembly was poor and low income folks from states all across the country putting out their plight, fight, and insight. Putting out their stories and their solutions, and demanding that this nation and this world hear, see, and do something about the scourge of racism and poverty, ecological devastation, the denial of healthcare, militarism, this war economy, and this false and really evil distorted narrative of religions, especially white Christian nationalism. And the into the polls is a lot of what, immediately following that powerful assembly, we threw ourselves into in the Poor People’s campaign.
We reached out to millions, about 7 million poor and low income, what is considered low propensity voters, in about 16 states. States where there’s a high percentage of poor and low income voters. And also states where if just a small percentage, less than 20% of poor and low income voters were to turn out, they could exceed the margin of victory. They could shift the entire political calculus. In the Georgia runoff, we reached out to every poor and low income registered voter in the state and touched folks, in many cases, multiple times. Talking about the real issues, the real moral issues of our day, and the issues that folks, especially poor and low income people, who make up one-third of the electorate. Not just those that can vote, but those who are voting. And in battleground races in states, it’s often like 40%, 45% of the voters are poor and low income people.
And so it’s a powerful, probably the most powerful, kind of voting block of people who do hold in our hands, in our votes, the power to actually shift the entire political landscape. And so that was really important work. It was important to have folk hear their name and condition by being reached out to, whether it was in a canvas or a text or a phone call. And realize that we indeed have a role to play and a power to bring to enlivening and enlarging this, what is now an impoverished democracy, but which can be a society that works for everybody.
We’ve also just been keeping on doing the long and slow work of organizing, organizing, organizing. The Poor People’s Campaign is organized in more than 35 states across the country, made up of coordinating committees that are led by poor and low income folk and faith leaders and moral leaders and other advocates and activists. And so folk have just been continuing to keep the pressure on legislate, push for legislation that matters and lifts the load of poverty and addresses these interlocking injustices and continues to raise the call that it doesn’t have to be this way. This is not as good as it gets. We have the solutions, we have the resources to do something about all of the injustices that are impacting our communities. And it’s when poor and low income people come together, band together with people from all walks of life that we have the power to really make society be what it could be and should be and needs to be.
Preach Sister. I was going to say, you should be a reverend or something. It’s just so important to underscore that, right? Because we reported a bit on this for The Real News when we were talking to union members like Unite Here. I mean, they went balls to the wall both in 2020 and in 2022 in battleground states like Arizona, Georgia. And you guys, the Poor People’s Campaign. It was y’all really doing that painstaking work of reaching out to folks, getting canvasing, getting in conversations with people. And I feel like immediate… I mean, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but immediately after the midterm elections, it was like, oh, the red wave didn’t happen. It was all the horse race stuff and no one was talking about the people who were on the ground producing that result. And I wanted to just sort of hover on that for a second, because we just had this great panel together where we were talking about the role that media plays in all of this in the political mobilization in this country and beyond.
I think you and I had a similar take on this, which is there are certain political problems that exist in the media that become so talked about, and they seem so imposing, and people just start taking them as fact. Like, you can’t get poor working class people to vote or that the politics, this election’s going to be about, I don’t know, critical race theory or why queer and trans people are destroying the world, not about what you just described. And in the same way that I feel at The Real News, I’m constantly trying to prove to people it’s not that hard to get white collar workers and blue collar workers, sex workers and teachers and all manner of working folks to talk to each other and build solidarity with each other. You just got to do it and stop talking about it. I wanted to just ask a little bit about that. What do you think folks out there whose sense of the political challenges in our country are really shaped by the way that pundits and politicians talk about it? What do you think they can really learn from the kinds of conversations and organizing that y’all are doing at the Poor People’s Campaign?
Rev. Liz Theoharis:
Well, I spend much of my time in some of the poorest places across this country. That is poor white communities, that’s poor black communities, that’s poor Latino communities, that’s poor indigenous communities, it’s poor communities that have a mixture of all of those folks and way more heterogeneous communities and homogeneous communities. What I find is, even though times are very hard, life is not good for really a huge percentage of people. Again, before the pandemic, we keep on putting out but it has to be said, there were 140 million people, 43.5% of the US population, that was poor and low income. The pandemic era programs have basically all ended, 15 million people are about to get cut off Medicaid, the moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs are all over. We’re seeing just so much more suffering. With the child tax credit, we had 4 million kids that were risen above the poverty line and then a decision by politicians to not do anything that sent those 4 million kids right back below the poverty line. And just millions more that are hovering precariously right around it.
Again, none of this has to be, but it is the reality of life. And yet, in some of these very poor places, very segregated places where ecological devastation is wreaking havoc places, there is an actual hope. Now, it’s not a happy hope, it’s not a things are okay, kind of hope, but it is that it doesn’t have to be this way. So when I see the kind of organizing and struggle and survival and resistance that people are doing, I think that isn’t being reported on. So both the reality of what people are going through so that other folks could find common cause there isn’t happening. But also just the pockets and places of resistance and organizing and struggle. I think when we do hear about some of it, whether it’s that the nurses in New York get to be in the mainstream media for a couple of days, and I’m out there with nurses, hundreds, thousands of folks multiracial, mostly young, but of all ages, or whether it’s Starbucks workers or Dollar General workers, as some of these strikes, as some of these organizing drives pop off, others follow suit.
This is what happens. People are inspired. If they can do it, we can do it too. And I think there’s a whole lot more of that happening than we ever hear about. I think it’s important for us to hear about the division, but the division is actually a lot more about our politicians who, again, choose to allow for the cutting of all kind of programs, who allow for us to strip our schools of any kind of real education that comes to reckoning with this country’s history. Stuff that we have to know if we’re going to not make the same mistakes that have happened, and if we’re going to build the kind of society where everybody’s in, nobody’s out.
But that isn’t what we hear about. What we hear about is that DeSantis in Florida is doing this and this and this, and not the powerful resistance and organizing that’s happening to counter that. And I think we would benefit as a society, and especially those of us that are in movement and in motion together, to know that we’re not alone and that there’s a whole lot more people that are on the side of justice and love and truth and peace than not. So it’s our job to figure out how do we pull those folk together into the kind of compelling power that, in the words of Dr. King, we’ll make those in power say yes when they maybe desire of saying no.
So Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign, are you telling me that poor and working people are more motivated in the struggle to keep a roof over their heads, food in their children’s mouths, the planet from being destroyed, and their homes from being destroyed with it, than they are with M&M’s and the gender of M&M’s or government taking away your gas stove? This is obviously a facetious question, but we’re also talking here about the role that corporate/independent/social media play in all of this, and it just seems so nuts to me sometimes to see… Because it feels so transparent. When corporate media makes these pseudo-event type hullabaloos out of some culture war issue and it becomes the top, it takes up so much oxygen, and all of this is happening, like you said, all around us. But it’s like, if you just watch the TV, you wouldn’t know it.
Rev. Liz Theoharis:
And if you watch the TV, you think that the poor people and that low wage workers are lazy, crazy, bigoted, and stupid. You think that people are apathetic when they’re actually engaged. You think that people can’t get over division when they’re actually figuring out ways all the time to come together with people that are like them and not anything like them to survive and to try to make life okay for them and their families. And I think if we listen to just the politicians and the corporate media, we actually completely overlook the kind of brilliance and creativity and also the kind of love of justice that the vast majority of people have. I think about a bunch of the work we were doing before the midterms in West Virginia, and you keep on having Senator Joe Manchin, who has lost some of his power now because of the midterms, but talking about all of these culture of poverty issues, all of this stuff that plays into this division.
And yet the vast majority of people in West Virginia, Republican, independent, and Democrat, support expanding our democracy. The majority of people, Republican, independent, and Democrat, in West Virginia support healthcare, support things like a child tax credit. But you’d never hear that. You hear that he’s not going to give up his coal stove, you hear that people are going to buy drugs if they get their child tax credit. Just stuff that, for one, is not what’s happening to the majority of people, but also just it is about driving a wedge. It’s about dividing people, it’s about distracting people when, really, folks are not divided, they’re not distracted, and they’re mad as hell about how things are going and trying to make things better.
Well, and just to quickly follow up on that, because I know I got to let you go and I could talk to you for days, but it’s been a long day, so I promise I won’t keep you much longer. But I think the other side of that too, the way this works in tandem is… Because I guess when I talk to workers on The Real news or for my podcast, Working People, folks who actually have to work together in a workplace where maybe they’re not working remotely or they have to be on the same shop floor with folks, basically just folks who have a sense of themselves and their community as being the ones that are supposedly being talked about on the corporate media. When I talk to them, they’re like, “Oh yeah, we all know that’s bullshit,” or, “That doesn’t resonate with us, so we don’t even really think about it.”
But I feel like the more that we become alienated from each other and the more that we connect with each other through these mediated forms, we ask corporate media to play the world back to us instead of talking to our neighbors or just getting in conversations with the folks that we’re being told to hate at our workplace, at our church, at our school board meetings, stuff like that. It’s the more isolated and alienated we are, the easier it is to foment that sort of hate and distrust and loneliness. And so I just wanted to end on that and that the media side of it, the organizing side of it, I think the antidote at the most base level is to make people feel less alone and to really, I guess, try to reestablish those seemingly lost connections that we have. I just wanted to thank you guys for doing that work on the organizing side because it’s really what we, at The Real News, we take that as the model for how we should do media.
Rev. Liz Theoharis:
No, I really appreciate that. And I do think there are multiple crises happening on a global level and those all manifest in everybody’s lives. But if we even take what the pandemic did and has done and continues to do in so many people’s lives, it’s a little microcosm of both the exposing and deepening the fissures and injustices that existed pre-pandemic, but also really did a job in terms of further isolating and further trying to divide and separate people. And I think when we’re out in communities all across the country, in big cities and rural areas and suburbs and exurbs and small towns, people are feeling these crises and are feeling either that we are alone, or we can’t find enough common cause to do something about that. And that is where movement comes in. That is where organizing comes in.
Where folks start to see that you’re not alone, and you might speak a different language and look different and live somewhere different, but when you start to hear the stories of poor and low wage workers talking about both what folk have to do to survive, but also the kind of vision and hope people have of making life better for them and everyone around, I think that inspires in others like, oh wait, we shouldn’t feel alone. We shouldn’t feel ashamed. We should come together, rise together and shame a system that has ripped kids from families homes because they don’t have running water or that will not do the right thing when it comes to police brutality or when it comes to guns. How is it possible that we have shooting after shooting, violence after violence, and our politicians just hold up their hands and say there’s nothing to be done. Well, that’s not happening in communities. Communities know that there is something to be done. There are solutions to all of these problems at hand, but you can realize those by organizing, organizing, organizing. And so that’s what we got to keep on doing.
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