Locals answer ‘national call for moral revival’ through Poor People’s Campaign tour

  • (From left to right) Massachusetts regional representatives for the Poor People’s Campaign Savina Martin, Kirsten Levitt, Co-Chair Liz Theoharis and singer Ben Grosscup sing “Break Every Chain” at the Poor People’s Campaign mass meeting at the Second Congregational Church on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/MELINA BOURDEAU

  • Poor People’s Campaign Co-Chair Liz Theoharis speaks about the movement at the Second Congregational Church on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/MELINA BOURDEAU

  • Kirsten Levitt speaks to a crowd at the Second Congregational Church on Wednesday about reestablishing a local chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/MELINA BOURDEAU

  • Singing “Break Every Chain,” audience members at the Poor Peoples’ Campaign mass meeting on Wednesday at the Second Congregational Church link their hands together. STAFF PHOTO/MELINA BOURDEAU

  • Kirsten Levitt, a state representative for the Poor People’s Campaign, invites people to join her at meetings of the Greenfield chapter, held regularly at All Souls Church. STAFF PHOTO/MELINA BOURDEAU

  • Ben Grosscup, of Greenfield, sings protest songs at the Poor People’s Campaign mass meeting at the Second Congregational Church in Greenfield on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/MELINA BOURDEAU

Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2020 10:24:44 PM
Modified: 2/6/2020 10:24:33 PM

GREENFIELD — A crowd of more than 300 people gathered at the Second Congregational Church on Wednesday echoed the same words after each of the testimonies from people who have dealt with issues related to poverty: “Somebody has been hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long and we won’t be silent anymore.”

To raise awareness, Poor People’s Campaign national Co-Chair Liz Theoharis spoke as part of the organization’s “We Must Do MORE (Mobilizing, Organizing, Registering and Educating) National Tour” to urge people to join the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, D.C. on June 20. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, was unable to attend.

The Greenfield stop marks the 11th one for the MORE tour, which started in September and ends in May, according to the Poor People’s Campaign website.

Kirsten Levitt, who is the executive chef and executive director of Stone Soup Café, serves as the Massachusetts coordinator for the campaign, which was started by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 to unite poor and impacted communities across the country.

“We are young and strong in Franklin County. We have only been together as a group, reformed, for the last six months,” Levitt said. “In the last six months, we went from 12 members to over 80. We are mobilizing, organizing, registering and educating. We are going to help poor people make informed decisions right here in our municipality, in our counties and in our state.”

The Rev. Kate Stevens, of Charlemont, welcomed the attendees to Western Massachusetts and Greenfield, and asked them to remember King’s words: “We are a new unsettling force.”

“And we are powerful,” she added. “This country of ours, this land we live on, the creatures that inhabit it are so precious — we cannot give up. So let our voices be heard here in Massachusetts and all of New England. Welcome to the Poor People’s Campaign, a national call for moral revival.”

Wednesday’s meeting saw four Massachusetts residents — Joannah Whitney and Sarah Ahern, both of Greenfield, and Maria Colville and James Shearer, from the Boston area — speak about their experiences with low-wage health care, opioid recovery, homelessness and Supplemental Security Income.

Whitney spoke about changes that need to be made to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, a federal program that provides income assistance to seniors, people who are blind and people living with disabilities.

“If you could help improve the lives of 8 million poor people, would you? We can. It would be both simple and difficult,” Whitney said. “What’s needed is for the federal government to allow people who received SSI to save more of their own money.”

She said currently people cannot receive SSI if they have more than $2,000 in their bank account on the day they receive the check, including that month’s payment.

“If you are even a few dollars over, they claw back the entire month’s check. They call this guarding against fraud,” Whitney said. “That $2,000 limit resource limit has not changed since 1989. Think about how much more expensive everything is now.”

Ahern shared her story about being in long-term recovery and seeking treatment for a traumatic brain injury.

“Stigma has manifested itself in my life many times, excluding me from vital resources such as housing because I am not house-able, excluding me from seeking gainful employment because I am unemployable and untrustworthy,” Ahern said. “And because I am a poor person in long-term recovery, stigma doesn’t care if I had two days or 30 years. The most serious impact stigma has had on me personally is excluding me from access to vital life-saving health care.”

After suffering from a traumatic brain injury and spine injury two years ago, Ahern said she faced the challenge of being “passed from provider to provider being labeled a drug seeker, despite having five years of long-term recovery and never asking for an opioid pain medication.” Other challenges she faced included losing insurance, and being denied access to specialists and behavioral care services.

“The time to stand up together is now and in my world we have a saying, ‘Together we can,” Ahern said.

Following the event, Theoharis said having traveled throughout the United States as part of the tour, she sees there is a need for a movement like the Poor People’s Campaign.

“There are Franklin Counties throughout the country, not just by name, but by the problems poor and low-wealth people are facing,” she said. “One important piece of this movement is that it is run and led by poor or impacted people that are often overlooked, like some of these towns are overlooked. ... When you look at history — the abolition movement, the freedom struggle, women’s suffrage — if the people impacted hadn’t been in the lead of that, would the movement have been the same?”

For those who would like to get involved with the Poor People’s Campaign locally, Levitt said Greenfield’s chapter meets on the second and fourth Fridays of each month in the sanctuary at All Souls Church.

Reach Melina Bourdeau at mbourdeau@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263.

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