CLAREMONT — More than 20 area residents gathered at Fiske Free Library on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to discuss an issue once championed by the celebrated reverend: systemic poverty.
As a parent of a child with severe disabilities, Deborah Opramolla of Rindge shared how the growing concern around wage stagnation is becoming an socioeconomic crisis as well as a moral one. Even in Opramolla’s case — in which she and her husband are college-educated professionals — the difficulty to retain adequate care for their youngest child during the workday hours poses stress on her family. Opramolla’s son, who is deaf and blind, communicates by sign language and needs the assistance of a direct service provider (DSP) for at least six hours per day. Employed by a service company, these workers typically make less than $13 per hour. Many of the workers that Opramolla speaks with have to work two to three jobs.
“Our newest DSP left because she asked [her company] for a raise,” Opramolla said. “She was making $13.25 an hour. She was asking to go up to $13.50. Her agency said ‘No.’”
Opramolla serves as co-chair for the New Hampshire chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national grassroots initiative to tackle the challenges of systemic poverty and economic injustice.
“I call it an intersectional movement, not an organization,” Opramolla explained. “Because movements are capable of growing.”
The Poor People’s Campaign, led today by national Co-Chairs Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theorharis, traces its roots to 1968, when King and other civil rights leaders sought to build a broad coalition that could unite the poor and economically-struggling communities across the country.
Opramolla stressed to the audience that, while systemic racism is a concern of the campaign, systemic poverty is not race-specific.
“When we segregate people out, the people in power can, one by one, break those [connections],” she said. “The Poor People’s Campaign mobilizes people so that we come together and are walking hand-in-hand, and it’s to break when you’re interlocking.”
The Claremont audience was the first one to view the campaign’s unreleased film, “The Cry of Power,” which provides a history of the movement and its continuation in present day. The film is still in its editing process, but presents the campaign’s underlying mission and agenda, which can be found on its website at www.poorpeoplescampaign.org.
In its literature, the Poor People’s Campaign describes its demands as “a moral agenda” founded upon fundamental human rights. The campaign’s literature on poverty points out that since the 1970s wages for the bottom 80% of American workers has remained largely stagnant, despite living costs — from housing, health care to education — continuing to rise.
But some audience members wondered if the campaign’s agenda contradicted the group’s mission to unite people across political lines of party and ideology. For example, one moment in the film covered a meeting with congressional legislators, capturing a pair of congressmen who suggested that poverty can be overcome through willpower and determination. Several audience members criticized those legislators afterward for their ignorance about systemic poverty and blaming the poor for their predicament, rather than questioning why Americans must deal with issues like hunger and poverty.
Claremont Mayor Charlene Lovett, who attended the film presentation, asked how the campaign expected to build unity and find solutions without building inclusivity with people who have different worldviews.
“If we’re truly going to adhere to listening to everybody, how can we devalue what somebody else is going to say, because they are speaking from their own personal experience, which may be different from those in the movie?” Lovett asked.
Lovett said that she was not expressing an opinion toward the views in the film or literature. Her concern was whether the campaign could achieve its mission of inclusivity if not willing or able to incorporate differing views.
Opramolla said that the campaign’s primary purpose is to “speak to the truth” of poverty in America. The campaign’s mission is to bring those voices of poverty, en masse, to the public forefront.
“At the Poor People’s Campaign, everybody has their own personal story and opinion, but you look for the interception of where we agree,” Opramolla explained. “My story is that of a disability organizer, my focus and lens is through that. Now if someone is homeless, or has a low wage job, we can fuse together a story… and our stories may differ, but we come together to become a powerful voice.”
Opramolla said that her New Hampshire chapter is currently mobilizing New Hampshire
residents to travel to Washington, D.C. for a Moral March on Washington, scheduled to take place on June 20, 2020.
People interested in travelling with the chapter on a chartered bus may learn more about the event at the Campaign’s website under the page June 2020.
The film presentation was hosted by the Racial Healing Working Group, a grassroots group based in Claremont dedicated to racial diversity education and awareness.